Christmas is God's answer to human longing, God's response to the centuries of prayer that lay hidden in our groaning, our sighs, our frustrations and our religious efforts : each of them a plea, mostly silent, for a divine intervention, all of them asking God to come and rid the world of injustice and our hearts of loneliness and heartache.
But God's answer didn't exactly meet our expectations, even as it surpassed them. What was born with Jesus' birth and what still lies seemingly helpless in mangers all around the world wasn't exactly what the world expected. What the world expected was a superstar, someone with the talent, sharpness and raw muscle power to outgun everything that's bad on this planet, someone charismatic enough to make everyone who opposes him slink away in defeat. God's answer to that: A baby lying helpless in the straw!
Why would God choose to be born into the world this way? Because you can't argue with a baby! Babies don't try to compete, don't stand up to you, don't try to best you in an argument, and don't try to impress you with their answers. Indeed, they can't speak at all. You on your part have to coax everything out of them, be it a smile or a word, which demands great patience and usually draws out what's best in you. Moreover, you can't push at a baby too hard or it will begin to cry and the session is over.
That is the Savior who was born in Bethlehem. That is how God is still basically in the world. Like a baby, God does not outgun anyone, out-muscle anyone, threaten anyone or overpower anyone. The power of God revealed in Christmas is the power of a baby, nothing more, nothing less: innocence, gentleness, helplessness, a vulnerability that can soften hearts, invite , have us hush our voices, teach us patience, and call forth what is best in us. We watch our language around a baby in the same way we watch our language in a church, with good reason.
The power of Christmas is like the power of a baby. It underwhelms in such a way as to eventually overwhelm. There is a greater power than muscle, than speed, than unstoppable force. If you were to place a baby in a room with the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, which of the two ultimately would be the stronger? The boxer could kill the baby, but wouldn't, precisely because something inside the baby's powerlessness would overwhelm the boxer. Such is the way of God : such is the message of Christmas.
We have always been slow to understand this. We want our messiahs to possess more immediate power. We are in good company. The messiah for whom people longed during all these centuries leading up to Jesus and Bethlehem was precisely conceived of as a human superhero, someone with the earthly muscle to bang heads and purge the world if evil by morally superior muscles. Even John the Baptist expected the messiah to come with that kind of power. His concern was justice and repentance. He warned people of an approaching time of reckoning and expected the longed-for messiah to come precisely as a violent fire, a winnowing fan that separates the bad from the good, burning up the former with a righteousness coming straight from God.
When John heard reports of Jesus gently inviting sinners rather than casting them off, he was scandalized. That kind of messiah didn't fit his expectations or his preaching. That's why Jesus, in sending him a response, invites John not to be scandalized. John hadn't wanted a gentle, vulnerable, peace-preaching messiah. He wanted bad people punished, not converted. But to his credit, once he saw how Jesus' power worked, he understood, accepted a deeper truth, stepped back in self-effacement and pointed people in Jesus' direction with these words: "He must increase and I must decrease. I am not even worthy to untie his sandal strap!"
We too are slow to understand, Like John the Baptist, our impatience for truth and justice makes us want and expect a messiah who comes in earthly terms: all talent and muscle, banging heads so as to rid the planet of falsehood and evil. We want the kind of messiah we see at the end of every Hollywood thriller. Mother Teresa turns into Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis beating up the bad guys with a violence they can only envy.
That is not the Christmas story, nor the power revealed in it. An infant lying in the straw in Bethlehem doesn't outgun anyone. He just lies there, waiting for people : good or bad : to come to him, to see his helplessness, to feel a tug at their heartstrings, and then gently try to coax a smile or word out of them. That's still how God meets us.