If ever there was a time of year when we are called to be limitless, it's Christmas. Attend all the events! Buy all the gifts! Be everything to everyone! There's no room for limits in this winter wonderland.
We must be omnipresent. Ugly Christmas sweater parties, family newsletters, church activities, and—literally—omniPRESENTS. Presents for all! And Heaven help you if you forget about your boss's ex-butler's niece's Chihuahua. Oh, and he's gluten-free, right? Good boy!
We must be omniscient. "What color & model of earbuds did each of my eight grand-kids want, again? No, no don't ask them! I'm just supposed to know." And if you like those, you might also like...
We must be omnipotent, bowling over lesser mall shoppers as we screech into that last empty parking spot like Cruella de Vil. "Leave the weak behind, because those sales are all mine!" It's eat or be eaten, and only the strongest will survive to shop another day.
Christmas is not for the faint of heart, and it's certainly not for those with limits.
Someone pour me another eggnog. In fact, better make that a double. It's gonna be a long one.
Ironically, it's often during the season of Christmas that the good news of the Gospel is heralded most boldly. Yet it's also during this season that we most keenly feel the burden of the law in all of its unattainable glory. Not only must we keep running on the endless treadmill of expectations, but now we have to do it with a smile on our face and joy in our hearts. Get that twinkle back in your eye--or so help me!
The gap between the exhaustion we feel inside and the rosy-cheeked image we project on the outside grows. With decorations in one hand and an armload of shopping bags in the other, we sprint headlong through the season, running ourselves ragged only to find that—no matter how fast we run—the little Pharisee on our shoulder (forget about the elf on the shelf) is still standing there, arms crossed, shaking his head, and telling us we could have done more. We could have done better. We can't meet all of the demands of the season. And we know it.
We don't measure up, and our own hearts recognize the truth that St. Paul knew so well (Romans 3:22-23): "There is no distinction: For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
At Christmas-time, the voice of the Law crescendos from a whisper to a shout, and it thunders the same condemning message that it always has: "Do everything!"
Everything is a lot to do. And to do it, there's no room for human limitations. Only those who are limitless can do everything.
As uncomfortable as it may be to admit, however, to be human is to be limited by nature. A creature is someone with limits imposed upon it by a Creator. There are some things creatures can do, but many things that they can't. We only have so much time, energy, and strength, and at some point we run up against the edge of our capacity as creatures. We simply can't do all that we know we should, and we are forced to exclaim with St. Paul, once again: "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24).
Truth be told, we fear our limits. They are to be shunned rather than embraced; feared rather than acknowledged. To slow down even for a moment to catch our breath is to admit our creature-hood, and that is unthinkable. We'd rather do anything than come into contact with our limits as human beings. The stark truth that the author of Ecclesiastes lays bare is something we'd prefer to keep at arm's length, that "all are from the dust, and to dust all return" (Ecclesiastes 3:20). "I'm not dust!" we defiantly shout heavenward as we pound another gingerbread cookie and start stuffing the stockings.
Maybe all of the busy-ness of the season is simply a smokescreen we use to distract ourselves from the reality that we actually don't get to be here all that long... that we're not invincible... that we are finite creatures limited by beginnings and ends.
Death is the ultimate limit, and there's no overcoming it.
The irony of all of this, though, is that the message of Christmas is of a God who embraced human limitations. Rather than remaining in the limitless glory of the Godhead, the Incarnate Son was conceived in the confines of a human womb, took on the frame of a human body, and was born within the four walls of a stable. God didn't see human limitation as something to be feared, but rather entered into and embraced. He saw us in our low estate and stooped down to bring us the rescue we so desperately needed. Philippians 2:5-8: "Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross."
In the Incarnation, we see God taking human limitations upon himself. He hungered. He thirsted. He sweats. He bled. He ran up against all of the creaturely aspects of our existence. Yet He was also fully divine. And that means the divine blood which coursed through the veins of the Christ-child and was later spilled at Calvary ultimately can't be contained. It can't be limited. It overflows its banks and spills down into the deepest cracks and crevices of human existence—the places even we fear to tread—redeeming the last, the lost, and the least. Which is to say that, in the final analysis, God enfleshed overcomes all of our limitations—including death.
St. Athanasius says it best in his On the Incarnation: "The body of the Word, then, being a real human body, in spite of its having been uniquely formed from a virgin, was of itself mortal and, like other bodies, liable to death. But the indwelling of the Word loosed it from this natural liability, so that corruption could not touch it. Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord's body; yet because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished."
Human limitation is not something to be feared. It's a prerequisite to God's grace. Without weakness, brokenness, and limits, what need is there for a limitless God to show Himself strong?
And that means we can embrace our limitations.
In the Jackson Pollock painting of eggnog and sprinkles and tinsel that is the Christmas season, we don't have to do everything.
Because everything has already been done by a baby in a manger and a God on a Cross, for you and for me.
May that truth bring peace to our souls this holiday season.