What was it like for God to learn to be human? How did God in the baby Jesus adjust to being finite, limited, and dependent? The great mystery of the Incarnation is that Jesus was 100% God AND 100% human. Since God in Jesus was 100% human, it stands to reason that he had to learn how to do all the things that babies learn to do: He had to learn to nurse to get the food he needed. He had to learn how to tolerate the discomfort of being wet or cold or lonely. He had to learn to cry until his parents could figure out what he needed at just this moment. He had to learn to trust the gaze of his mother as she looked at him with deep love in her eyes. He had to learn to trust his earthly father would protect and care for him.
We brought a baby home on Christmas Eve once—my oldest grandchild. The meaning of the Incarnation was forever changed for me as I looked at my grandson’s tiny fingers and toes, held him, watched him sleep. Somehow experiencing the delicacy of the newness of life at Christmas affected me in a profound way.
Today’s readings move us to think of the other perspective of the Incarnation: that Jesus was 100% divine. God chose to become human so that we might know how to become divine.
The Gospel today tells us of the Presentation—the fourth mystery of the rosary. How often I have pictured the Holy Family going into the temple, proud to present their child to the priest. They were poor, so they purchased turtledoves to be sacrificed. Nonetheless, I see them absolutely filled with joy.
Yet, at this moment of human joy, God the Father reminded them that their child was not just 100% human. They were not quite an ordinary poor family, fulfilling the obligations of their faith. Simeon comes on the scene, drawn by the Holy Spirit. He sees Jesus and KNOWS that this is the Holy Child, the Christ. He takes Jesus in his arms and exults the prayer the Church all over the world says at the end of Night Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours:
“Lord, now let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which you prepared in the sight of every people, a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.”
I imagine the great joy and consolation Mary and Joseph felt as Simeon said that.
But their exultation was quickly pierced by what Simeon said next to Mary: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
I imagine their concern as Simeon added those words.
It strikes me that Mary and Joseph had to not only learn to be parents; they had to learn to be parents of Jesus—who was as much God as he was human. As I imagine myself in their place, it would have been one thing to have shepherds visit who had seen a star and heard angels sing and another to hear a prophet say, “and you yourself a sword will pierce.” It would have been another matter, too, to be told in a dream to flee to Egypt (which must have happened after the 8th day).
Yet it was Mary and Joseph who taught Jesus how to be part of the human family. They taught him about uncles and cousins. They taught him about sticking together in hard times and in good ones. They taught him how to smile and laugh when he was happy and how to cry and be sad when things were bad.
It was so very important that Jesus learn all that. Our first reading today reminds us why: God became 100% human while he remained 100% God for a reason: so he could show us how, as Christians, to learn how to become like God.
How do we do that? John tells us: “The way we may be sure that we know Jesus is to keep his commandments.” And what is the key commandment? “Love your brother.”
John, apostle of Christ’s divinity, is also the apostle who says it again and again: “Love one another.”
Neither John nor subsequent teaching of the Church and the saints through the ages says that “Love your brother” is EVERYTHING. There is Faithfulness to God who is faithful to us. There is Truth.
But it is the way for us to grow to a fullness of faith and life. These are the words that ring and sing and search in me today: “This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked.”
“Walk just as he walked?” What exactly does that mean?
That is not so easy to determine. I am inclined to focus on the Jesus who was compassionate. I have friends who note Jesus’ compassion, but they see the way he walked as the way of absolute fidelity to the Father and to his mission. Still others see the way Jesus walked as the way of speaking the Truth of God.
Even the four gospels give us different angles on the person of Jesus.
How do we walk the way that Jesus walked?
A couple of years ago I started out through the Gospels with pen and paper to list exactly what Jesus did so that I could walk as he walked. I soon discovered that it was easy to list the things Jesus did: He prayed. He ate and visited with sinners and outcasts. He taught the multitudes. He healed the sick and disabled. He raised the dead. He argued with the Pharisees. He lived in community. He respected each person and met each person where he or she was. He spoke truth—sometimes very bluntly.
But is doing what Jesus did walking as he walked?
I have come to not think so.
It isn’t so much WHAT Jesus did as the WAY Jesus did it. He said himself, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
He described a way of being.
As John points out today, the WAY Jesus walked was a way of light, not darkness, of truth, not lie. It was a way of love of others and keeping the commandments.
But it was in his very being. So, as I think of it today, walking as Jesus walked is learning to so integrate love and truth and fidelity into ourselves that it becomes who we are. Because we are all 100% human, that takes us a lifetime.
I think that is why John uses some of the language he uses today—it is language of becoming:
“But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him.”
“For the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.
“Whoever loves his brother remains in the light, and there is nothing in him to cause a fall. Whoever hates his brother is in darkness; he walks in darkness and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”
John uses the present tense.
God BECAME like us in the Incarnation. He BECAME 100% human, even while he remained 100% God.
Because he BECAME like us, we ARE BECOMING like him. We will never be even 1% divine. But we can grow to become as God is. We can be formed more fully in the image of God.
That is what it means to walk in the light, to walk as Jesus walked.
Lord, whether I look at a tiny child, a fragile woman in a nursing home, or a rough client in my office, let me see enough of your likeness to recognize you in that person. Help me to recognize you in myself, especially when I stretch to love. Help me stretch to love today. Help me stretch to become a bit more like you.