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Advent Childlikeness

Advent is a time of awe, awaiting the celebration of Christ’s birth. Madeleine L’Engle, famous for her book A Wrinkle in Time, wrote in her poem “The Birth of Wonder”:

But now is the hour
When I remember
An infant’s power
On a cold December.

What is this infant’s wondrous power? Nothing less than to reveal God and redeem the world.
St. Athanasius articulated it in On the Incarnation, composed in the fourth century:

Man, who was created in God’s image . . . and reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing and the work of God was being undone . . . [Christ] alone, being Word of the Father . . . was . . . able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all with the Father. For this purpose . . . the incorporeal and incorruptible and immeasurable and immaterial Word of God entered our world . . . stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us. (Ch. 2)

The truth of this is many-faceted. During Advent, focus is on the facet of the arrival of the Holy Babe—on the revelation that God stooped to our level, becoming not just human but as one of the weakest among us . . . completely naked, utterly helpless, and the poorest of the poor . . . to conquer sin, death, and Hell.

The sixteenth-century theologian Martin Luther wrote about it in one of his many hymns, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”:

Welcome to earth, O noble Guest,
Through whom the sinful world is blest!
You came to share my misery
That You might share Your joy with me.
Ah, Lord, though You created all,
How weak You are, so poor and small,
That You should choose to lay Your head
Where lowly cattle lately fed.

C.S. Lewis captured it in The Great Divorce when he wrote:

Only the Greatest of all can make Himself small enough . . . for the higher a thing is, the lower it can descend. (Final chapter)

The awe and wonder of Advent contains excited, active anticipation: hanging the evergreen garlands to cheer our hearts in the grey chill of winter; singing hymns that tell of the hope-filled majesty of it; illuminating the candles that remind us of the coming of the Light of Light; and savoring the good gifts God provides—especially the gift of Himself—as we too expend ourselves in procuring gifts for others.

This year, however, I’m also contemplating the awareness that we’re specifically called to imitate God’s gift of Himself in the Christ Child. As we’re made in God’s image, we’re also asked to follow Him, to take up His ways and emulate His example. In the fifteenth century, Thomas À Kempis wrote in The Imitation of Christ:

“He who follows Me, walks not in darkness,” says the Lord. By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. (Bk. 1, ch. 1)

In what ways may we emulate Christ? À Kempis laid out an extensive answer. It included, among other things (I paraphrase): love; humility; cleansing of the heart; prudence; self-governance; obedience; serious speech; perseverance; resistance of temptation; works of charity; patience; self-awareness; trust; enlightenment of mind; self-denial; contempt for the praise of men; and the teachability which produces repentance and amendment of life.

As I was revisiting The Imitation this Advent, however, a particular passage struck me. À Kempis wrote:

Father . . . it is right that . . . Your servant should suffer . . . Let him be a little slighted, let him be humbled, let him fail in the sight of men, let him be afflicted with sufferings and pains, so that he may rise again with You in the dawn of new light and be glorified in heaven . . . [B]ecause of humanity’s sin [he] must . . . descend to lower things. (Bk. 3, ch. 50)

Here we find an admonition to imitate Christ by imitating the Child—by stooping low. As best we can under His loving hand and through His grace, and in an albeit flawed manner, we are to image His descent.

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3, ESV).

Christians speak of having faith like a child—innocent, dependent, trusting. Yet this Advent season, I’m encouraged to view this admonition as an exhortation to emulate what Jesus Himself did: He became a naked, helpless, and poor babe; the Greatest in heaven descended, stooped so low, became so small, that He vanquished all evil, even Hell itself. So too are we, when told to become like children, being urged to become small.

Since the first bite of the forbidden fruit in the Garden, becoming small has been a difficult task for us. I suspect it’s been counter-cultural in every age and region. But in our society today, where the individual, the “actualized self,” and the “personally curated identity” reign, it seems a radically revolutionary stance. In a world consistently marked by striving and struggling to ascend—especially in the cacophony of the Darwinian universe of natural selection combined with the dissonances of Nietzsche’s Übermensch ever rising amid pervasive and persistent waves of nihilism—followers of Christ are called to exposure, frailty, and meekness; we are called to descend.

This Advent, as I anticipate and contemplate the wonder of the Child, I ponder how it is that the Lord of all stooped down so far for the love of His creation. I seek ways in which I might, through His grace and equipping, emulate that Child in His transparency and vulnerability, His dependency on the Father and on others, and His lowly state. I wish, if I’m able through Him, to model this for those I teach.

I hope to bend low: to unclothe myself of the façades I construct; to embrace that it’s only in Him, with Him, and through Him that I have capacity for anything at all; to recognize that no matter how much grandness I might seek to surround myself with or sometimes vainly imagine myself to have, all of that is nothing and cannot compare to the richness of Love—of fellowship with Him and with others.

With those alongside whom I walk, I eagerly await the celebration of Christ’s birth when I’ll sing a favorite hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”:

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Immanuel!

It’s only because of Immanuel, God with us—and by Advent childlikeness—that such stooping is possible . . . and through it, glory: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18, ESV).

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