The French novelist and essayist Léon Bloy once made this comment about God’s power in our world: “God seems to have condemned himself until the end of time not to exercise any immediate right of a master over a servant or a king over a subject. We can do what we want. He will defend himself only by his patience and his beauty.”
God defends himself only by his patience and his beauty: how true! And how significant for our understanding of power.
The way we understand power is invariably bound up with how we see power exercised in our world. Our world understands it precisely as a force that can lord it over others, a force that can compel others to obey. In our world power is understood to be real only when it can forcibly assert itself to make others obey it. For us, strong people have power. Political rulers have power. Economic systems have power. Billionaires have power. The rich and the famous have power. Muscular bodies have power, and the playground bully has power – power that can make you buckle under, one way or the other.
But such a notion of power is adolescent and superficial. Power that can make you buckle under is only one kind of power and ultimately not the most transformative kind. Real power is moral. Real power is the power of truth, beauty and patience. Paradoxically, real power generally looks helpless.
For example, if you put a powerfully muscled athlete, the CEO of a powerful corporation, a playground bully, an Academy Award-winning movie star and a baby into the same room, who has the most power? Ultimately, it’s the baby. At the end of the day, the baby’s helplessness overpowers physical muscle, economic muscle and charismatic muscle. Babies cleanse a room morally; they do exorcisms. Even the most callous watch their language around a baby.
That’s the kind of power God revealed in the Incarnation. Against almost all human expectation, God was born into this world, not as Superman or a superstar, but as a baby, helpless to care for its own needs. And that’s how God is still essentially present in our lives. The Pulitzer prize-winning writer, Annie Dillard, suggests that this is how we forever find God in our lives – as a helpless infant lying in the straw whom we need to pick up, nurture and provide with human flesh.
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