Once a month, I volunteer at our local food pantry. For about two hours, 80 or more people stream through seven tables of foodstuffs to help feed their families for a month. In summer, we offer fresh vegetables. Before the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, local supermarkets and national food distribution systems offer seasonal food including turkeys, hams, and occasional outliers, most recently 5 pound bags of white flour from Kansas. A volunteer accompanies each client through the room, pointing out options, packing seasonal offerings and their other selections in large heavy boxes, and helping them to their transportation. Everyone assisting is a volunteer, and the system is streamlined to make the best use of everyone’s time while giving recipients what choice is possible.
Last week, in the last distribution before Christmas, I tried to help a newcomer select food items. This person bent over each table, perhaps to see better, picked up and examined every single package, can, or food item carefully before deciding about it. All the volunteers tried one way and another to move the person along faster with no success. Seemingly oblivious to our increasing frustration, this person proceeded along at their own pace, causing other clients behind to stop and wait.
Was this deliberation mere pickiness? Genuine food sensitivities? Prudence and concern not to clutter life with unneeded items? Care that others not be deprived? Or was it simply one place, in a severely limited living situation that must offer very few options, where the act of choice could be exercised?
In our local well-stocked supermarket, no-one would bat an eyelid if we spent several hours scrutinizing every single item by proceeding slowly up and down each aisle. Indeed, staff are there to facilitate our choices, and they regularly inquire at the checkout if we have found everything we sought. Freedom of choice is held out as a virtue of our commerce and our lives. Freedom of choice is a bedrock this country was founded on. In every society, punishment is imposed by circumscribing personal freedom, with capital punishment being the complete loss of freedom.
Yet giving up freedom is exactly what we celebrate at Christmas. it is precisely divine freedom that God relinquishes in the incarnation by voluntarily taking on the constraints of human life in all its restrictions and finitude. And God’s omnipotence is shown here willingly and in humility, knowing what we do not: what the loss of divine freedom entails and exactly how fragile and vulnerable human life is.