24th December 2015, Midnight Mass
by Revd Chris Palmer
‘The word was made flesh’.
Christmas is about the independent God, the creator of the universe, uncreated himself, choosing to be dependent, a baby needing everything doing, weak and helpless in his mother’s arms.
Our culture has a thing about dependence and independence. They are words that are thrown around liberally – and with slippery meanings and unstated judgements attached to them. Dependence describes the relationship of children to parents, or the relationship of an alcoholic to booze, or the relationship of my Christmas lunch to Sainsbury’s online delivery service, or those who live in refugee camps to UN aid operations. Independence is what we strive to achieve as adults in our living, what we look for in proactive employees, what we expect from a financial adviser, how we would like to think so that we don’t just go with the crowd.
And the situation is further muddled by words like codependence or interdependence. They sound as if they should mean the same thing, but they’re really the opposite of each other. Codependency means unhealthy relationships in which compulsive habits can imprison a whole family or friendship group; or it’s when the need to be needed becomes all-consuming. Interdependence means healthy relationships, in which equal partners are drawn to love each other and trust each other to share tasks and lives, not because they need to, but because they choose to.
Lots of relationship counselling, psychotherapy, recovery groups exist to help people step their way through this minefield. And rightly so, because relationships are the stuff of life, of living, of being. It’s not simply that we are human and we also happen to have relationships. It is our relationships that make us who we are.
And for Christians that is true of God also. God is Trinity, is Father, Son, and Spirit. Living in love-filled, grace-embracing, relationship with one another. We define God by his relationships: Father, Son – though we could equally say Mother, daughter... God is the relationships that he has. So, in terms of those words we starting with, we would have to say it is of the very being and nature of God to be interdependent. God is not independent in the sense of solely self reliant; he is three in relation, before we ever existed.
So maybe we need to revise our opening statement to say the interdependent God became dependent, as a baby.
But I wonder whether dependent is the right phrase for a baby, even. It implies one way traffic from parent to child, from provider to provided for, from giver to receiver. But just as God the father is father because of the Son; so parents are who they are because of their children; my children make me a father. Any parent will testify that from the first moment of being knowing a child they receive the gift of love, of tenderness, of joy from children. Of course parents provide security and food and guidance in return – in this narrow sense the baby is dependent. But in a deeper, more profound sense, there is interdependence even between baby and parents.And as time goes by the relationship develops until hopefully when children become adults parents and children live as friend. It often goes wrong, I know – and there’s hope there too. We’ll come to that in a moment.
So I think it is much truer to say of Jesus that he and Mary and Joseph were interdependent from the start. It was a changing relationship of course, but reliance never simply flowed one way.
So perhaps we could revise our opening statement again. The interdependent God chose to be interdependent with human beings. Of course, really he chose that from the moment he chose to create. But in being human, in the life of Jesus, God offers us the possibility of a friendship of equals, which was impossible in any other way.
The nature of human relationships is that they are all distorted in some ways. They are haunted by suspicion, greed, fear, resentment, guilt, the need to control, comparing ourselves with others, pride, lack of self esteem, envy, and more. It wasn’t meant to be like this. But true love always sets others free. And so for God to relate well to us, meant allowing the possibility that we’d act badly in turn. God will not become our codependent, addicted to manipulating us to doing his will.
Instead he seeks to win us: models generous, self-giving living, dying even – a martyr, but with nothing of a ‘martyr complex’ – and waiting for us to respond, with no guarantee that we will.
What will be clear from my description is that growing into relationship with the God revealed in Jesus means learning to relate well. Growing in healthy love of God and growing in healthy love of others almost always go hand in hand. If our human relationships are self-seeking, manipulative, or haunted by the fear of being abandoned, we will find it difficult to know God who will not mirror this kind of relating. If we define love in terms of need – ‘I need you, baby’ or ‘needing to be needed’ – we will not know how to love God who will not relate in that way. If our primary relationships are with things or actions – like drugs, or work, or sex – and we simply use people to further our relationships with these things, then we will find it difficult to relate to God, who will not be the prop for our addictions.
But such problems also offer us hope. Because when we admit the dysfunction of our ways of relating, and seek sincerely and profoundly to change ourselves, when we seek a healthy relationship with ourselves, with others, and with the things of life – then we also become open to relationship with God. I have seen many times how people’s relationship with God blossoms when they address other areas of difficulty in their lives and humbly seek help. I have seen how people’s relationship with God blossoms when they accept the reality of breakdown or pain in human relationships, and stop seeking compulsively to fix other people.
Sometimes this can mean a growing away from religion – especially if your only experience of religion is of the dependent, controlling, guilt-creating, infantilising kind. Such religion is too common, and is a distortion of Jesus.
But Jesus, the baby, the human, the friend: the one who is vulnerable and reliant on others, but doesn’t act entitled; who is good, but doesn’t condemn others wrong; who is the victim, but remains forgiving; who wants our friendship, but will not force us. This Jesus invites us into grown up and mature relating – with him, with his people, with the world. My prayer is that the world will see this Jesus in us. My prayer is that we will discover this Jesus in God’s church.
Praise be to God in Jesus, who shows us true loving and makes it possible for us to love also.