It was unusually hot that July afternoon. Cara had just asked me for some more water so that the sand would pack better. Sweating, frustrated and with a two-year-old getting the best of me, I said to myself, “What are you doing?” Here I was stuck in the backyard, trapped in a sandbox, and summer was not even halfway over. My days were filled with peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, Sesame Street shows, naps, playground trips and library outings. The highlight of my week was our visit to the neighborhood pet store to see Fagan, the most gentle Rottweiler you could ever imagine. I thought to myself that there had to be something more. I just knew it.
To top it off, that same evening some neighbors passed our house and asked me the question that I and all fellow teachers are somewhat hesitant to answer: “What are you doing this summer?” Without missing a beat, I pointed to my daughter, who was petting their dogs, and said, “I hang out with her.” I got the sense that they were not completely satisfied with my answer.
The following day I began to get nervous, thinking I wasn’t doing anything important, that I was wasting the summer just “hanging out” with my daughter. It scared me to think that I was fading away, that people were starting to forget about me. Emblematic of my status was my daily question to my working wife as to whether or not I received any mail. It shattered the ego to be told that the people who lived here before us received more mail than I was receiving. Didn’t anybody besides Cara notice me anymore?
The Risk of Anonymity
In the midst of this superficial insecurity, I came across a short story by Jean Giono entitled, “The Man Who Planted Trees.” It tells about one Elzeard Bouffier, a great man, a simple shepherd, whom no one ever knew. Having lost his only son and then his wife, Bouffier traveled to the deserted, barren and colorless land of Provence, France. There, on the eve of the Great War, in a forgotten part of the world, he began his life’s work. With only his dog as his companion, Bouffier began to plant trees.
Each day he led his sheep out to pasture and, finding the right spot, left them in the care of the dog. Then he would plant. Simply. Deliberately. In time his acorns, planted 100 a day, grew into thousands of oak trees. When the story returns to him, a burgeoning forest has come into being. People had already noticed it and sought to protect it, all the while marveling at nature’s supposed regeneration. Unfortunately, outside this oasis of peace, war was raging. Bouffier, however, as he had done during the war of 1914, paid no attention to the war of 1939 and continued his labor of love.
As the story closes, one looks back, and the former wasteland of Provence is unrecognizable because of the beautiful trees. Harsh winds had turned to gentle breezes. Along with water, people had also returned to populate the once uninhabitable land. Silence had given way to the laughter of children. How could it all be? It had happened so slowly, so quietly, with no fanfare, that no one knew it was the work of one man, Elzeard Bouffier. Embracing his anonymity, he had planted a garden of hope and a testament to peace.
It took a while, but what eventually got me through that summer of uncertainty in the middle of Cara’s sandbox was the rediscovery of the meaning of the Incarnation. In becoming human, God risked what I will spend the rest of my life alternately resisting and embracing: anonymity. Sounds strange, almost foreign, at first, doesn’t it? My own ears had trouble taking it in. How could God ever risk being unknown? Or that his efforts for relationship might be wasted? This is not the usual picture we have of God. Yet, when I look at it fully, God becoming enfleshed and expressing his love for creation in a particular place, at a particular time and in a particular person entails the very real possibility of being forgotten and overlooked (even though I don’t often picture God to be a gambling man).
If only the culture we lived in supported this idea. In his book, Letters to Marc About Jesus: Living a Spiritual Life in a Material World, Henri Nouwen, one of the 20th century’s great spiritual writers, shares with his 19-year-old nephew, Marc, his thoughts concerning the person of Jesus and his meaning for today. In one letter, Nouwen explores the tension between notoriety and anonymity so present in people’s lives. He writes to Marc:
Whereas the way of the world is to insist on publicity, celebrity, popularity, and getting maximum exposure, God prefers to work in secret.... In God’s sight, the things that really matter seldom take place in public. It’s quite possible that the reasons why God sustains our violent and homicidal world and continues giving us new opportunities for conversion will always remain unknown to us. Maybe while we focus our whole attention on the VIPs and their movements...it’s the totally unknown people, praying and working in silence, who make God save us yet again from destruction.
If the story of Jesus is any indication of this sentiment, it must be true.
Model of Marginality
As any writer knows, books with the right titles sell. When I first saw a copy of A Marginal Jew, my interest was piqued. Despite the hardcover price (I was a first-year Catholic school teacher at the time), I purchased it, drawn by its irreverently reverent title. It appeared that the author, Msgr. John P. Meier, a professor of New Testament at the University of Notre Dame, had discovered not only a “marginal” Jew, but an “anonymous” one as well. Meier writes that
from the viewpoint of the Jewish and pagan literature of the century following Jesus, the Nazarene was at most a “blip” on the radar screen.... [I]t is remarkable that the Jewish historian Josephus mentions Jesus at all, but hardly remarkable that Josephus gives more space and praise to John the Baptist. In his side glance at Christ, the Roman historian Tacitus is briefer still. As hard as it is for the devout Christian to accept, the fact is that Jesus was simply insignificant to national and world history as seen through the eyes of Jewish and pagan historians of the 1st and early 2nd centuries A.D. If he was seen at all, it was at the periphery of their vision.
Though proclaimed today as the Christ, in his own time Jesus was far from “superstar” material. His birth, whether in a cave or an inn, was met with little fanfare. The better part of his life was spent in the hill country of Galilee, in a small village called Nazareth. Far from the power centers of Jerusalem and Rome, Jesus practiced the trade of his father, Joseph, and worked as a carpenter. His circle of friends and disciples—fishermen, tax collectors, women—gives little proof that Jesus knew the value of networking. Even the majority of his public ministry was spent in the small towns of Capernaum and Bethsaida. In fact, his family was taken aback and not a little embarrassed when it all began. Some even sought to seize him, thinking he was out of his mind (Mk. 3:21). Hardly the portrait of a mover and shaker. Still, the most revealing moment in Jesus’ life is his death. For it is here that God’s anonymity in and through the Incarnation is most vividly revealed. Handed over by Judas, abandoned by his closest disciples and denied by Peter, Jesus suffers the scandalous and disgraceful death of crucifixion, a death reserved for slaves and criminals, people who had no rights or standing.
St. Paul captures it well when he writes to the Philippians: “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”
Modern-Day St. Joseph
As I was struggling to make sense of all of this, one day my wife brought home the movie “The Family Man,” a modern-day “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It opens with Jack Campbell, played by Nicholas Cage, set to make the deal of his life. After it is signed, his name will be synonymous with Wall Street. Capitalism and Jack Campbell will go hand in hand. Later that evening, though, he has an encounter with an angel who allows him to see, with some resistance, mind you, what would have happened if he had not taken that career-enhancing internship in London.
He wakes up the next day on that most incarnational of days, Christmas morning, to find a drooling dog demanding of his time, along with a wife and two young children. He is, to say the least, confused. Having just the other day been a master of the universe, he has great difficulty understanding and adjusting to his newfound routine of family life. He is saved in all of this, though, by his level-headed, easy-going, wise-beyond-her-years wife, Kate, played by Téa Leoni.
One day while walking through Bloomingdales with his “new” family, trying to get lucky on some after-Christmas sales, he catches a glimpse of the life he once led—a custom-tailored, $2,400 dollar suit. He remarks while donning the suit, “I feel like a better person with this on.” When his wife finds out how much it costs, all she can do is laugh.
Jack, however, then erupts into a litany of woes: “Do you have any idea what my life is like?” he says. “I wake up covered with dog saliva. Walk the dog. Get dressed. Drop the kids off. Spend eight hours selling tires retail, retail! Pick the kids up. Play with the kids. Take the garbage out. Get six hours of sleep if I’m lucky. Then it starts all over again.”
On the way home, after apologizing to his wife, he asks her: “How did we end up this way?” They begin looking back at their marriage—the good, the bad, the surprises. He finds out that they had to move out of the city because they had a surprise child. Marriage and suburban New Jersey followed. Next he had to give up his ascending career on Wall Street to work for his father-in-law, slowed by a heart attack, selling tires. This was not the life he had dreamed of. He felt lost, forgotten. Life was passing him by, and it did not look as if he was ever going to be able to catch up.
Summarizing this list of supposed lost opportunities, he laments to his wife, “Our life in a nutshell.”
“If you want to look at it like that,” the wife replies.
“How would you look at it?” he counters.
Without any hesitation she says, “As a great success story.”
By no means fully invested in this great incarnational love story, my dreams of success have gone from the Mercedes convertible variety to the more domesticated, minivan kind. Though hard to stomach, it’s beginning to make sense. Slowly, I am beginning to realize that it is not the accomplishments or reputation that I build that are most important, but the relationships that I enter into and to which I surrender. It comes as a surprise initially to know that being itself is the most important thing, and trusting that where I am now is where I am called to be. The voices urging, “Move, move, move” are never far behind, however. I’ve always liked celebrating Christmas; I just never knew how challenging a day, a life, it really is. Perhaps, as St. Paul says, the struggle to be “empty” is the only way to the incarnation. This offers me a new and unfamiliar title for Jesus: the “empty one.” What I have always said about children’s books, I can say now about Christmas: adults need it more than kids.
I can’t help but smile as my thoughts wander and I look forward to next summer and my return to the sandbox with Cara (and our newborn son!).