“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” Christians sing through Advent. Emmanuel means “God is with us” in Hebrew, and at Christmas, that is the astonishing truth we celebrate. God is not distant; God is with us.
The idea that God chose to come to earth as a baby leads to a lot of cuteness around this season. It comes out especially in nativity plays and in creches at schools and churches, like this one last year:
But as any first-time parent, full-time germophobe, or even amateur historian could tell you, having a baby in a stable in the Judea of two thousand years ago is a little terrifying to contemplate. Infant mortality rates were high; one in four children did not survive infancy. And no matter how first-world the conditions are, or how fully divine the child is, babies are by their very nature in need of others’ care. Sometimes, children need lots of care.
The Messiah, the Savior of the World, arrived as a baby, not as a fully-formed conquering hero, as many expected and as God could have done. Just because this idea has become a habit among Christians doesn’t make it any less wild; Jesus’s infancy is still a radical truth.
By coming as a fully human baby, Jesus—God—experiences all it means to be human, the pain and joy, the comfort and anguish. But Jesus also reveals something about those of us who gaze in wonder at the manger today—something that those of us who work in education have a particular privilege of experiencing every day.
By coming into the world as a child in need of care, Jesus gave every person around him—Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the Wise Men, Herod—an opportunity to summon what is most nurturing, selfless, courageous, and fully human within them. Herod, of course, failed at this, but the others grasped the chance. By caring for the Christ child, they not only honored God; they manifested the fullness of their God-given humanity. God is love, our faith teaches us. God is in the manger in those nativity scenes—and the spirit of God is also present in every adult looking out for the baby in their midst.
To teach, to lead in a school, or to care for children is to be given the chance every day to find deeper wells of love in ourselves than we could have known possible to exist. It is one of the great privileges of working in a Catholic school—that in guiding children to the fullness of their God-given humanity, we can come, with God’s grace, to encounter our own.
Last week, my colleague Nick Endo pointed us to a reflection by Jesuit theologian Bryan Massengale, professor at Fordham University and one of the priests in residence at St. Charles Borromeo parish, a Partnership school community. In relating his own experience of being a hospital patient in need of care this fall, Fr. Massingale reflects: “Joy arises from realizing there are many among us who notice the brokenhearted and afflicted. And then go the proverbial extra mile to alleviate their distress. These are God’s agents of justice and hope. They are Emmanuel, God-with-us.”
When all-powerful God becomes a baby, he exercises power in the most intriguing of ways: by eliciting from us our most loving selves. May we find this Christmas that God is truly with us—and may we find that through caring for others more deeply than we ever imagined ourselves capable of doing, we feel God’s spirit moving within us too.
Beth Blaufuss is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives for Partnership Schools.