I recently saw a photo on social media of my high school youth pastor holding his 1-year-old daughter, whose face was lit up with the colorful glow of Christmas lights, captioned “Wonder at the parade of lights.” Aside from how adorable the photo was, it also made me recall the importance of wonder, especially during the season of Advent. Advent offers us time not only to sit in delighted wonder at Christmas lights, trees, and decorations, but also time to sit in wonder as we anticipate the mystery of the Incarnation.
Last month, one of the daily readings that stayed in my mind was Luke 18:17 which says “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” What does it mean to have childlike faith? When I later saw the picture of the toddler gazing at Christmas lights, it led me to think about why it is that little children naturally have such a strong sense of wonder. I think it’s because their world is full of firsts. While college kids have seen twenty years of Christmas lights, this toddler was seeing this beautiful show of holiday cheer for the first time. This wonder of experiencing Christmas for the first time reminded me of the reactions of the earliest witnesses to Jesus’ birth.
Like children, they were attracted to the light. The magi pursued with pure hearts the beautiful and mysterious star that they saw rising in the sky. The Christmas carol honoring them calls it a “star of wonder”—an apt description for the source of light that moved the wise men search for the Christ child, the light of the world. Mary too was filled with wonder, as she heard the shepherds’ account of the angelic visit that led them to her son. Luke’s gospel says, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (2:19). Even as the mother of Jesus, she gazed at her child with childlike wonder of her own. In this way, Mary is a perfect example of faith and delight in the Christmas miracle, which she experienced for the first time.
It can be easy for me to grow jaded to the birth of Jesus. I confess it in the creed in Mass, discuss Christology in classes, and pray to Christ. However, in doing all of that, sometimes it starts to seem regular that God is also human, and the radical nature of the Incarnation is lost. In reality, the Incarnation is equally as powerful of a truth today as it was when Mary and the magi experienced it. On that first Christmas and today, it is true that God took on human flesh and in doing so affirmed the positive nature of his creation. As Paul writes in Philippians, “though he was in the form of God, [Christ Jesus] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (2:7-8).
Perhaps now more than ever, we need to be reminded of this reality. This year, Advent falls amongst turmoil in the Holy Land, countless allegations of sexual harassment by powerful men, widespread damage from natural disasters, and so many other tragedies. And yet, we stop to recall the story of how God became a human being and willingly entered into this mess. In the birth of Jesus the Christ child, God expresses complete solidarity with the human race. All those who encounter the infant Jesus recognize and rejoice in this—for God has come to redeem their broken world. They know that He will be the great reverser, as “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low” (Is. 40:4). This was glorious news to the magi and to Mary, and is glorious news today.
Perhaps, to have childlike faith in Advent means to be more like a toddler experiencing Christmas lights for the first time. We are called to anticipate the Incarnation with wonder. We look to the faith of Mary and the magi, who experienced the birth of Jesus for the first time, and try to allow the Incarnation to cause the same wonder in us.