Even in the newly brisk temperatures, I have made a habit of taking long walks during this COVID time. It’s one of several new habits I’ve acquired. Making time to walk every day is a way to reach for calm and routine in a year of unsettling uncertainty. When I’m out I see squirrels and birds. Yesterday I heard an owl. One day I startled a hawk as it captured a chipmunk and flew off with its prey. If I’m out around dusk I’ll see deer, who awkwardly crash into the woods as I approach.
The trees and the animals and the weather are all oblivious to our COVID worries. The natural calendar unfolds as it always does—summer into fall into winter. It is both a relief and a disappointment that the world does not revolve around me or around my human wants and demands of the moment.
The story of Christ being born into the world is a strange one. The idea that a god would be born as a human being scandalized the ancients and continues to seem ridiculous to us today. It seems much more logical to think that, if there were a god, that god would be distant and unknowable and likely uninterested in our doings and concerns.
But the absurd story of Jesus, of God taking on human flesh, continues to be told. It’s the story of a God who willingly retracts, shrinks, limits His being in order to make contact with us. God’s impulse to retract began at Creation, Jewish mystics tell us. Before the Creation, there was nothing but God. So God had to pull back, to make room within himself for Creation. The Old Testament tells stories of God’s encounters with Moses and Elijah, and how God held himself back to protect them from His full presence.
There is doubtless a huge divide between human beings and the Holy One we call God. But God is always trying to reach us across that divide. As people of faith we are asked to do the same—not just to seek contact with God, but to reach across the various cultural and experiential chasms that separate us from one another. I am no god, but even as a human being I must actively work to understand my fellow human beings. Every act of listening and care is an act of humility, a restraint of my own ego. Though I share a common language, a common culture, a shared time with those I encounter, I can find it profoundly difficult to genuinely understand another person’s way of experiencing the world. Whether I am encountering a stranger or a member of my own household, there is always a gap between my own heart and soul and theirs.
The most powerful part of the Christmas story, for me, is the example it sets for human life. It tells me– it shows me– that humbling and reducing myself in order to connect with and understand another is holy work.