Continuing our reflection series, “The Light of One”, Communications Associate Michael Carlson writes about the spiritual strength of facing the reality of our own limitations.
As a former high school teacher, the students I remember most clearly are the ones I still worry about. I’ll refer to this former student as “Hannah”, after the mother of Samuel in the Old Testament, because Hannah is a figure of suffering. My former student, Hannah, suffered greatly. Her family had been violent and abusive.
The word “abuse” seems so sterile, so hopelessly inadequate to convey the reality of terror that a child experiences when she is raised without love.
A life lived in terror warped Hannah’s ability to receive love, torqued it to the point where being treated with kindness was, in a way, painful for her, as it merely brought to attention the gross absence of affection in her life.
Hannah was a bully, teasing other students mercilessly, even stabbing them with pens and destroying their property. She was blatantly defiant, even throwing a textbook at me once. When I took my students on a tour of the school chapel, she spit in the holy water, ripped a rosary into pieces, and pelted the Tabernacle with the remnants. I confess that at times her behaviors sometimes made it difficult to remember that she was only a child.
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Of course, she was simply repeating the cycle of abuse she herself had experienced. She was a child whose childhood had been stolen from her.
“Hannah, how can I help you?”
“Mr. Carlson, you can’t help me. You’re not God.”
That exchange was my moment seeing Jesus. The Magi weren’t affected by the sweetness of a newborn. The Magi were overwhelmed with the power of God’s powerlessness: to believe that immortal and infinite God became a mortal and finite human is completely humbling.
When I realized that I couldn’t be Hannah’s shield against life’s injustices, it floored me. I couldn’t avoid the truth that I am not all-powerful. I couldn’t completely heal her from the pain she suffered. Being witness to the pain of children is a particularly heavy burden. Because of my time with Hannah, I believe that evil exists. I saw how evil can make an innocent child suffer.
Hannah failed my class and all of her other classes, as well, and was expelled at the end of the school year. I thought of her this Advent, though, to remember the humbleness of the Incarnation. I am as awed by it as I am awed by the humiliation of the Crucifixion.
Advent is indeed a preparation for the celebration of Christmas. For me, it is also a preparation to be overwhelmed. My time with Hannah, in the end, didn’t overwhelm me with hopelessness. It helped me accept my own powerlessness.
God’s decision to became an infant shames our desires for power. I couldn’t save her anymore than the Magi could save Jesus from his own shameful death. I could only be present to Hannah like the Magi before the infant Jesus.
I gave her praise, I showed her kindness, and I continue to pray for her. If God had such pity on us to become a human child, I have hope that God will take pity on Hannah.
In the Old Testament, Hannah prayed for deliverance “…and the Lord remembered her.” (1 Samuel 1:19) This Advent, we prayed for deliverance. It came to us in the form of a helpless child.