It is as vivid today as it was nearly 13 years ago. My wife and I were bleary-eyed and spent. We’d awoken from a second night of fitful interrupted sleep at the hospital, and were readying ourselves to return home. We should not have been operating heavy machinery, yet would soon be driving home in our car. Not only that, but we would be carrying delicate and priceless cargo during this short trip; our minuscule firstborn child nestled in her carseat like a pea in the palm of a hand.
Our furtive looks betrayed self-doubt: Are we allowed to do this?
We cinched her into her 5-point seat, then cinched it into our Subaru and puttered our way home, hearts thumping with holy apprehension. This is a right of passage. A vulnerable human life comes under the novice care of young parents. Of course millions of parents are in the midst of this around the world each day, but, to us, it seemed like we’d been entrusted with the most delicate and valuable thing to ever exist. Maybe we had.
The God of Advent is a God of magnificent vulnerability.
If you read my posts, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I love language and the subtle splendor of semantics. The word vulnerable stems from the latin vulnus or “wound”. To be vulnerable is to make one’s self wound-able, and it is a gift of love and hope—if not trust.The God of Advent was birthed into a dark world; delivered into an unsanitary and unexceptional livery; delivered into a world of germs and wickedness. We’re told that within months of his birth a jealous despot was plotting his destruction. The king was disturbed and all Jerusalem with him at the arrival of this unbidden toddler.
In John’s Apocalypse, the child is depicted as being born into the awaiting mouth of a dragon. (You’ll not find that Nativity Set!)
But the vulnerability—the wound-ability—was of a richer sort still. It was the emotional nakedness of saying, “I love you.” The Advent of God was an impassioned cosmic overture; verging on reckless and risking the unrequitedness of affection for humankind. In our shame we covered up and hid. The God of Advent stormed shamelessly after us.
For our part, we loathe our vulnerability. We experience it as pain and discomfort and insecurity. We live self-protective lives in this world of exposure. Fight or flight? Pick your poison. Like Achilles, we would be drenched in invulnerability and, like Achilles, we exist in mortal dread, desperately concealing our softer spots.
But this way of living exposes us to an insidious calamity. CS Lewis laid it bare for us,
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable…
The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
Advent teaches us a better way. But it takes courage; a willingness to be woundable—wounded!
When I graduated from college I took an internship with the organization for which I still work. It was modeled after government programs like Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, and I lived in a host home for 2 years with my partner in a small town in Nebraska. And we hated one another. We were water and oil, nail and chalkboard, toothpaste and OJ. We were both Christians, so we pretended this not to be the case. But we could barely stand each other. (One morning we awoke to walk around the campus and pray for the students, but instead walked fuming prayerlessly for an hour—teeth clenched. So pious! Who was it needed prayer?)
We each suspected this to be, shall we say, not great! I don’t remember which of us hatched the following, but we decided to try something unorthodox. Each week we would go to lunch, and the topic would simply be, “How have I hurt you this week?”
At first it was brutal. (You know we’d been keeping receipts!) I learned it was far harder to admit to being hurt than to own up to the ways I’d done the hurting. Week after week we persisted, and something mystical took place. Soon our barrels were no longer trained on one another, but we entered a sort of solidarity. Our lives had difficulty and disappointments, sure, and we came at these in very different ways, but we began, to borrow St Paul’s phrase, “fighting the good fight” together. The Christian narrative is emphatic that there are nefarious and unseen forces aligned against humankind, but we must chose to whom we will offer our unguarded side—our vulnerability. Having gifted vulnerability to each other, we made ourselves far less susceptible to these unseen hostilities. We ceased being foes and became close friends. We remain so.
The God of the bible is unfathomably vulnerable; risking life and limb, reputation and rejection for restored relationship. To advent is to come, arms out, hands open. The God of Advent risked it all and lost it all. He overcame his enemies not with power, but powerlessness.
The God of Advent was delivered, of his own volition, as a newborn into duress. His vulnerable delivery was for our delivery from vulnerability but also for it. Those thus assured of the unassailable love of God can themselves offer gifts of vulnerability to the world: the vulnerability of crossing enemy lines, of moving into the darkness and mess, of stating aloud, “I love you.”
Vulnerability, by definition, welcomes and anticipates wounding—the wounds themselves undergo a redemptive transmutation from offense to offering. We must, after all, come to terms with what we’re told in John’s gospel: the Savior’s glorified body still bore the nail and spear marks.
May the God of Advent so deliver us in these days from and for wounding. May he teach us Advent vulnerability. And may we learn it.