“What, then, will this child be? For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.
Luke 1: 66
This question is asked by those who have witnessed and heard about the miraculous naming of John the Baptist. They realized in that moment that “the hand of the Lord” was with this child. It is the prelude to another miraculous birth to follow, which we celebrate in just two days’ time.
Many years ago, a former confrere, who had left the Community when we were scholastics and who had since married, wrote to me after the birth of his first child. Although I have forgotten his precise words, the heart of his message is unforgettable. He wrote of his experience being present at his child’s birth and said: “If there is such a thing as a spiritual experience, certainly seeing the birth of your child is it.” Even from a perspective that was not religious in the traditional sense, my friend echoed the experience of those who witnessed the naming of John.
In truth, the hand of the Lord, recognized or not, is with each and every child who comes into the world. Because of this, perhaps the truest question we can then ask is: “What, then, will this child be?” As each human origin is in the heart and from the hand of God, the life of each of us is, in the words of Adrian van Kaam, “a task, an assignment, a mysterious call.” The question posed in today’s gospel springs from the same experience of awe that my friend described. Every human birth is a cause for wonder and for the questions: “What, then, will this child be?” What is God’s will for this new life that has come into the world?
There is, perhaps, no other Church feast that summons us to awe in the way in which Christmas does. As we sing in the traditional carol: “What child is this, who, laid to rest,/ On Mary’s lap is sleeping?” The key disposition for a distinctively human life is awe. It is awe that brings hope into hopeless situations and possibility where cynicism and negativity have taken hold. From our knees, we have a different perspective on life and are posed to receive grace and mercy from God and to sense, even if faintly, that trust and hope are possible.
Such talk can seem to us as naive at best and delusional at worst. We have come so far from realizing that not only our own child but every child “comes from the hand of God” that we tend to think our only hope of survival is protection from and power over others. We have come to believe that our hope lies in our ideas and our technological knowledge. Christmas invites us to stop, be still, and recognize and realize a knowledge we possess of a very different order. It is our soul’s capacity to live with and respond to mystery. It is a dimming down of our own thoughts and ideas that a truth beyond our truths can “speak” to us of who we, individually and collectively, are called to be. As the Child who was given to us through God’s merciful love and Mary’s humble obedience was God’s salvation for a fallen world, so each human life is likewise a unique gift of God to the world with a unique task to fulfill for the world’s good.
Christmas is a reminder that life is to begin with a question. “What, then, will this child be?” Who is each of us as a gift “from the hand of God?” What are we for? How are we living out our task, assignment, and call? And how are we serving the living out of their call on the part of those around us?
We have formed our present life, including our economic and intellectual life upon specialization, professionalism, and competition. Certified smart people expect to solve all problems by analysis, dividing wholes into ever smaller parts. Science and industry do give room to synthesis, but by that they do not mean putting back together the things once together that they have taken apart; they mean making something “synthetic.” They mean engineering the disassembled parts, by some manner of violence, into profitable new commodities. In such a state of things we don’t see or, apparently, suspect the complexity of connections among ecology, agriculture, food, health, and medicine (if by “medicine” we mean healing). Nor can we see how this complexity is necessarily contained within, and at the mercy of, human culture, which in turn is necessarily contained within the not very expandable limits of human knowledge and human intelligence.
Wendell Berry, Our Only World: Ten Essays, “Paragraphs from a Notebook” p. 11