When Jesus opened his mortal eyes for the first time, what does he see? What do the eyes of God see from this new perspective? Certainly he sees straw, and strips of linen, and the interior of a candlelit cave, for tradition has it that the Bethlehem municipal stable was situated in a cave. And he sees barn animals, perhaps birds in the rafters, and the relieved face of his father, and the exhausted, gleaming, smiling face of his mother.
He would have heard and smelled the muffled sounds and musty scents of a barn. He would have felt for the first time the sensation of cold air on wet skin. He would have instinctively gasped for his first breath, which must be a bracing and weird feeling for all of us who were used to getting oxygen in liquid form for nine months.
These must have been his first experiences of life in this world. They were not all that different from what every one of us experienced, even if we can’t remember. For most of us it was the interior of a hospital room and masked doctors and nurses. But the experience of this big world must come as a complete shock to all of us. So the first thing we do is cry.
And why should we not cry? We have just been flushed out of paradise through no fault of our own, a place where all our needs were automatically met, a climate-controlled place of extreme comfort, where our whole life swum to the steady rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat.
Suddenly everything is an effort, starting with the breathing. And nothing happens automatically anymore, now everything must be cried for. So we cry.
One of our favorite Christmas hymns says of Jesus’ birth, “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” I think these words represent the wishful thinking of a parent who has vivid memories of a baby screaming his lungs out at 3 am, and can’t imagine that of Jesus. Or perhaps of a theologian who intends to make Jesus more perfect and spiritual than real. But I find it hard to believe that Jesus did not cry when he was born. Indeed, a doctor would probably be very concerned that something might be terribly wrong with a non-crying infant.
I think Jesus did cry... but not just for the reasons we cry when we are born. Not out of anger, or discomfort, or fear, or shock, or reflex, any of the reasons we imagine a baby begins her or his interaction with the world by screaming bloody-murder.
Jesus is God. And, though it is impossible for us to even imagine the thoughts of God, perhaps we may reflect on what it meant for God to suddenly start seeing the world through our eyes. I think Jesus cried just out of sheer love and pity for us, that we could live and be conscious and see so little. That we could be so lonely and fragile. What must it be like to go from being able to see and perceive everything in the universe at once — galaxies, supernovae, molecules, subatomic particles, planets, gamma rays, ecosystems, elephants, amoebas, thoughts, feelings, angels and archangels, seraphs and cherubs, and everything — to being limited to this impossibly tiny space inside a barn?
What must it be like to go from being, as one classic Presbyterian prayer has it, “infinite, eternal and unchangeable, glorious in holiness, full of love and compassion, abundant in grace and truth,” to being a little bundle of meat wrapped in a blanket? One minute he is omnipotent, the next he needs someone to carry him around, keep him warm, feed him, burp him, change him, and rock him to sleep. He who spoke the whole universe into being now can’t even communicate to his parents well enough so they can figure out whether he is cold or hungry or in pain.
I think he did cry. But not out of grief for his own loss of stature, not because he missed the glories of heaven. But because he now knows the kind of life we humans have to live every moment of every day. Now he experiences first-hand the consequences of the sin that we have been enduring for generation after miserable generation. Now he understands why it has been so hard for God to get through to people — he sends the Law, he sends the prophets, he sends the Scriptures, and people still don’t get it.
Now he understands that the humans are just trying to stay alive from moment to moment. Our life is incredibly delicate and we enter existence in a desperate fight for breath and sustenance and security. We only live for a few decades at best, which is the briefest of fleeting instants. And we can’t see beyond a few hundred yards and even that is only a tiny fraction of the light spectrum, and on and on and on. And it must have broken his heart immediately.
We know how our hearts break when our child experiences failure or loss, or illness or pain, or, God forbid, abuse or neglect. When they come up against their limitations and realize their own weaknesses, we love them all the more because that is the human condition and we’re all stuck in it. Or even more when they make mistakes and out of their own willfulness get themselves into pain and misery. We warn them and they don’t listen. And they make it worse for themselves and there’s nothing we can do about it. Except watch with breaking hearts and be there if they come back to us.
In Jesus God experiences all this from the inside. Like the good king who dons a disguise and goes to live with the peasants, or like the beneficent boss who surreptitiously works for a while on the assembly line or on the shipping dock, or like the general who mucks around in the trenches on the front-line with the troops. In Jesus, God suddenly experiences the life of these others whom he loves, and loves them all the more.
Jesus does cry. He cries for us. He cries the tears we don’t even know enough to cry because we don’t know any different. This is just the human condition, we think. You gotta play the hand you’re dealt, we think.
But Jesus knows different. He knows what the Father’s original intention was, for he is the Father’s original intention. He knows the true nature of the life we are given, because he’s the One who gave it to us. He knows the true expanse of the universe and our place in it. He knows what we are still capable of, and what potential God has placed within us, and what our true destiny is. And he sees how we throw it away in our blindness, trading in our destiny for trivialities and trinkets and ephemeral comforts and perishable securities.
And perhaps this infant’s tears of pity and sadness changed into tears of hope and even joy when he looked into the face of his mother. Because in spite of all this weakness he now knows, all this fragility, limitedness, smallness, and mortality; in spite of how much work and effort it took just to keep a body alive; in spite of the fact that these people couldn’t even normally see angels, much less the abiding Presence of God all around them, in the face of all that, some still trusted in God. All they had was an old book and some arcane rituals, but some still believed. Some still heard God’s call and said “yes” to it, even when it was very costly to do so.
“I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your Word.” That’s what his mother had said to the angel who announced his conception. And the mere fact that she could be a mortal human, as he now was, and not be God, as he was, and still have the depth of faith to say this... well, it must have meant that this baby’s life would not be in vain. There was at least this something to work with. There were still people who trusted in God and put their lives into God’s hands. There were still people who would pay attention.
“God became human,” confessed the early Church, “So that human beings might become God.” Just as God, in Christ Jesus, becomes one of us, so also we, in Christ Jesus, become restored to God. Just as God sees our world through our eyes in Jesus, so also in Jesus we see things from God’s perspective. And the Incarnation, which is the theological term for what we celebrate at Christmas, is precisely where this all comes together. And it is all about love.
God becomes one of us out of love, choosing and affirming and taking on our whole mortal existence. And out of the same love we now choose and affirm and take on the very life of God, revealed to us in Jesus Christ, as did Mary. This life is a life of love and joy, salvation and peace, goodness and truth, faithfulness and hope.
God sees us through Jesus’ eyes. Through Jesus’ eyes we see who God really is. And in the process we come to see ourselves, who we really are in the sight of God, which is the only sight that matters. In God’s eyes we are not the mortal, broken, limited, doomed creatures we think we are. No. To God we are children of light, destined for glory. Christ comes to reveal that to us. Just as he opened his eyes that holy night in Bethlehem, so now he opens our eyes.
And we behold that our world is not as we perceive it with our eyes of flesh, but with our eyes of the Spirit we now see, as Paul proclaims ecstatically in Ephesians: that “Before the foundation of the world [God] chose us in Christ to be his people, to be without blemish in his sight, to be full of love; and he predestined us to be adopted as his children through Jesus Christ.... In Christ our release is secured and all our sins forgiven through the shedding of his blood. In the richness of his grace God has lavished on us all wisdom and insight. He has made known to us his secret purpose... namely that the universe, everything in heaven and on earth might be brought into a unity in Christ.”
Because Christ comes to be with us, through him we come to be with God. That’s what’s going on here. That’s the message of Christmas. That is the good news.