Morning Prayers address by Anya Bassett Ph. D. ’97, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Senior Lecturer on Social Studies, Harvard University, Dec. 3, 2018 in the Memorial Church. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
Our scripture this morning is from the Book of Luke, Chapter 2, Verses 10-12. “But the angel said to them, do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
Good morning, and Happy Advent.
A baby! A baby? Of all the ways God could have come to us, to be with us, he chose to come as a baby. A tiny, fragile baby, who needs to be held, and fed, and cared for. A baby who we instinctively love and want to protect.
Christian commentators describe a baby Jesus as being approachable, or representing a new beginning, a seed of possibility. But I suggest an additional interpretation: that God came to us as a baby because babies are fragile and vulnerable: so incredibly human. In coming to us this way, God reminded us of how fragile and vulnerable we all are and he taught us to act with compassion and love not only for babies but also for adults.
As anyone who has cared for a baby knows, they can be difficult and demanding. They are just telling us how they feel and what they need, but that can be hard to remember when you are doing the third feeding of the night and it’s only two in the morning. I remember my husband grumbling to our infant son, “It’s a good thing you’re so cute.”
But we know that being difficult and demanding is only one part of who babies are, and we love them. And so, we hold them, we rock them, and we sing to them. And we weep for babies who are not held and rocked and sung to.
But then babies grow up, and we forget how loveable they are. Sometimes forgetting protects us, as it keeps us from feeling the pain that others are experiencing. We label people “the migrants” instead of “a mom with two children fleeing tear gas” or “the homeless” instead of “a man with schizophrenia who also likes the Red Sox.” We are busy and distracted by the minutiae of our own lives, and it is easier to walk by someone on the street than to stop and remember, in the words of the folksinger Christine Lavin, “She was once somebody’s baby, someone bounced her on his knee.”
Other times, we forget because we are responding to the least loveable parts of adults, the parts that we disagree with, the parts that make us angry and are hard to forgive. We label people according to what we find most reprehensible about them.
In the past two years, for reasons both personal and political, I have forgotten to act compassionately towards people I disagree with and people who I find hard to forgive. I have forgotten because I have been caught up in the terrible moment we are living in, a moment of greed and hatred and violence. I am sad and angry, and I am scared.
This time is driven by rapid social change, when the impossible has become possible, but when the speed of change has upended lives, and when the divide between those who are able to take advantage of the possible and those who are not seems to grow daily. This has caused people to lash out against each other. And, as the sociologist Arlie Hochschild writes, many of us have developed an empathy gap that makes it harder to see others as complex people, people who are more than the beliefs we disagree with.
But if we are to heal the chasm that has widened in this country, if we are to move beyond the greed and hatred and violence, we must not only speak and act out against injustice; we must also find ways to close the empathy gap and come together as fellow humans, with full knowledge and understanding of our common frailties. If, as Martin Luther King wrote, our path away from darkness and hatred can only start with light and love, we must somehow develop the compassion that I believe God was trying to teach us when he came to us as a baby.
The Christian commentators are right: Advent is a time of new beginnings and new possibilities. For adults, is a time of renewal. And so, this Advent, I am going to try to renew my relationship with God by trying to remember that those I find hard to see and those I find hard to forgive are vulnerable humans, just as I am. I am going to try to act with more compassion, and with more love. I invite you to do the same, because when we do, we see each other as God sees us, and as we first saw God.