One of the best Christmas sermons I have ever read appeared some years ago in the pages of Rolling Stone magazine. In the course of a wide-ranging interview, the Irish rocker Bono, leader of the group U2, spoke of his religious faith. Prompted to articulate why he embraces Christianity, Bono said, “I believe that there is a logic that stands behind all things, and as a poet, I see the wonderful appropriateness that this awesome power would express itself as a baby born in straw poverty.”
Any number of religious and philosophical systems would hold to the first part of Bono’s statement. They would teach that an intelligent power is responsible for the order and intelligibility of the universe. What makes Christianity distinct is the puzzling and subversive assertion that this creative mind, this high metaphysical principle and first cause, looks like “a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
Mary and Joseph, two nobodies in a dusty corner of the Roman Empire, made their way from the tiny hamlet of Nazareth to the little town of Bethlehem. They were too poor and unimportant to secure lodging, even in the pathetic travelers’ hostel, and thus were compelled to take shelter in a cave, surrounded by animals. In that dirty and forgotten place, the baby who is God came into the world.
Stated as bluntly and directly as that, the claim seems weird, doesn’t it? It is meant to. For it expresses the poetic reversal that Bono invoked. The creator of the universe is not a cold and impersonal force. It is a love that makes itself vulnerable for the sake of the other. The logic that lies behind all things is an infant too weak to raise his own head.
This poetic and theological illumination compels us to think differently about many things, but especially about the nature of power. The maker of the cosmos in its entirety is undoubtedly a supreme power, but now we know that authentic power is not a matter of domination and manipulation, but of nonviolence. Willing the good of the other (the classical definition of love) is moving with the deepest rhythms of creation and with the very nature of God. And this is precisely why it can transform society. If you doubt me, look at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s remaking of American culture or Mahatma Gandhi’s Indian revolution — both prompted and sustained by love, not violence.
St. Augustine offered, in the 4th century, a pithy definition of sin: libido dominandi (the lust to dominate). Although it applies to any and all types of sin, Augustine’s characterization is particularly compelling in regard to the sins that have been on public display these last months and years. What we see in the abuse of children, in the exploitation of the weak, in human trafficking, in cruelty to the families of immigrants, and in the sexual harassment of women is, fundamentally, the libido dominandi, the twisted exercise of power.
There is an extraordinary passage in the book of the prophet Isaiah in which the seer envisions the coming of God’s reign, which will put an end to suffering and injustice: “The Lord bares his holy arm for all the nations to see; to the furthest corners of the earth, he makes known his saving power” (Is. 52:10). The image is bold, even aggressive — God pulling up his sleeve and revealing his mighty arm. As the Anglican theologian N.T. Wright pointed out, the supreme irony of Christmas is that the holy arm of the Lord God is revealed as the tiny arm of a baby emerging from the crib of Bethlehem.
The power that made the universe is not the assertion of personal prerogatives; it is not pushing people around; it is not manipulating others for the aggrandizement of one’s ego; it is not preening self-display; it is not the lust to dominate. The logic that lies behind all things is a baby born in straw poverty. When we get that in our bones, we will understand the meaning of Christmas.
Robert Barron is auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.