This week marks the beginning of the liturgical year as we await the birth of Christ. As I ponder this remarkable event, I look at the different ways the four Evangelists introduce us to the origins of Jesus Christ. Luke gives us the most appealing version of Christ’s birth which we lovingly perpetuate in carols and story. Son of God, son of Mary. The Holy Child is born into poverty and dependence, yet he is adored by shepherds and sages; by the poor and by kings.
I’m also given to understand how our own spiritual journey can resemble the very life of Christ, leading from the helpless dependency of a newborn to the power of the resurrected Lord.
The infant stage, bodily and spiritually, is totally egoistic. We have many wants and we cry until we get them. We don’t even know, much less care about what others might need from us, or what we might be able to give them. Spiritually, our most frequent approach to God is to ask him for what we want. If we’re given what we want, we’re happy. Fortunately, we usually have the goodness to say thank you. But if our request is denied, we can be less than gracious!
When we’re baptized, i.e. become newborns in the faith, we are totally dependent on others to teach us the basics of Christianity and to show us the way. We unconsciously drink in the milk we’re offered. It’s fairly easy to digest, and it will be a while before we can handle a richer diet. St. Paul uses this analogy in his first letter to the Corinthians:
Brothers, I could not talk to you as spiritual people, but as fleshly people, as infants in Christ. I fed you milk, not solid food, because you were unable to take it. Indeed, you are still not able, even now, for you are still of the flesh. While there is jealousy and rivalry among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving in an ordinary human way?
Why does St. Paul scold the Corinthians for behaving in “an ordinary human way”? The same thing happened to Peter when he rejected Jesus’ prediction of his passion. Jesus rebuked him: “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” How many times do I hear myself or others say, “Well after all, I’m only human.”
We know we are forgiven for acting “in a human way,” – that is, imperfectly. But didn’t God make us human? So why this impatience with us for being human? And what is this “solid food” St. Paul speaks of?
Even in our “ordinary” human life we’re not expected to remain infants, and parents are deeply distressed if their infant fails to thrive. In fact, we’re encouraged to grow, to “act our age,” that is, responsibly, as an adult. Jesus and Paul are both talking about the same thing: We need to grow.
We have been “infants in Christ” long enough. In this Sunday’s Letter to the Romans, Paul urges us: “Now is the hour for you to awake from sleep.” Now we need to grow out of our spiritual infancy. Now we have the example of Christ to follow. Now we’ve been given truly solid food to eat: Christ’s own Body and Blood.
St. Athanasius (ca 298–373) made this outrageously bold statement: “God became man so that man might become God.” This doctrine is referred to as our “deification” or “divinisation.” Of course this doesn’t mean that we literally become God by nature, as Christ is, but that we are called to participate in God’s holiness by accepting and practicing the teachings of his Son.
To those who accepted him he gave power to become children of God. (John 1:12)
This, then, is our solid food: prayer, pondering the Scriptures, love of God’s will, love of others, and rugged introspection. This is what enables us to transcend our “ordinary” human-ness, and to be transformed into the likeness of God himself, just as he made us.
Now, Advent, is the time to feed our inner infant more solid food. Now is the time for us to grow.