On Babies, vulnerability, and the call to intimacy with Jesus.
The Greek god Zeus had a habit of disguising himself as humans and animals. Most of the time, it was for his own pleasure and manipulation of humans. The Gods who appear as humans in Homer’s Iliad are simply spectators, making great sport of the human battle. When Greek gods became human, they were not fully human. They have no blood, but rather if wounded they expel “Ikor”, and they could not die from their wounds. They could not age. This use of human disguise to manipulate and exploit is easier to understand when you look at the difference between the Greek and Roman gods and the God of Abraham and Sarah.
The most distinctive quality of a Greek or Roman god is not goodness, but power. Power defines a god. For example, a Greek god is a power that represents a type of action, a kind of force. Aphrodite is the force of love; Zeus is the power of the thunderbolt and of kingship; Ares is the power of battle run amok, and so on.
This Christmas event we celebrate today, this incarnational moment, is truly unique in the human experience of the divine. Beyond mere disguise, God becomes fully human, crying, needing to be nursed and held. Filling his diaper on a regular basis, and being totally vulnerable in every way, for his life and survival. Humanity, vulnerability, and intimacy are all human characteristics that speak to why this event that we commemorate is so important to our lives and to the life of the world.
I am an ardent follower of the TV show “Call the Midwife.” It’s a British show about the early days of the National Government public health service, and it is based on the true memoires of a nurse midwife working in the shipping and docking areas of London in the 1950s and 60s. The midwives are a combined team of lay nurses and Anglican nuns of the order of St. Raymond Nonatus who work on behalf of the health service to ensure that babies are born healthy into families that are well prepared. Binge-watching “Call the Midwife” might well have made me the good Anglican vicar that I have become!
I watch the show, and I cry. I cry every time a baby is born. A healthy baby, a sick baby, a black baby, a white baby, a brown baby, a girl baby or a boy baby. I cry. I cry when real-life babies are born too. I cried when my nieces and nephews were born. I cry at baptisms because, well, babies. As a psychologist, I decided to get to the bottom of this crying phenomenon. And I figured it out. While there may be any number of emotional or physiological reasons why people cry when babies are born, one reason is that there is a moment of vulnerability in birth that is unique in the life-course. In one study, fathers were asked, “Did you cry when your baby was born?” One father summed it up beautifully. He said,
16 years ago my son was born; he had long hair and his eyes were open and he was quiet. I just looked down at him and he looked up, and I realized that this little life was dependent upon me. And I cried.”
Babies are incredibly dependent and vulnerable. Just about every function of neonatal living depends on the attention and care of a parent or other caregiver. And by design, it is that very vulnerability that enables intimacy. Holding a baby, changing a baby, rocking a baby, nursing and burping a baby, talking to a baby, soothing a baby, bathing a baby. These acts of caring for this tiny vulnerable human foster an intimate bond that is with rare exception unbreakable. I know that until their dying days, every act of my parents toward me spoke of the bond that started when my twin and I were born. I know that not all kids get that – there are abused and neglected kids out there, but that isn’t how it’s supposed to be.
This all brings me to why the commemoration of this scene in the stable is so important to the Christian narrative and to who we are in relation to God. Unlike Zeus or Hera, this one God of ours came, not for a selfish purpose, but purely for our salvation. And the rescue of humanity from sin comes, not in the power of a lightning bolt, but rather in the vulnerable cry of a baby. In this vulnerable moment, when the God who placed the stars in their orbits now sees those stars above from the perspective of a baby lying on a bed of straw, in this vulnerable moment, God in the person of Jesus is calling us to intimacy. An intimate bond is formed and re-formed when we think upon a God who would consider such ridiculous vulnerability in the service of restoring the relationship of humans to the one who created them.
Darkness is vanquished, yokes of slavery broken, a nation is multiplied, and the boots and uniforms of soldiers become fuel for the fire. Because a CHILD has been born for us. The traditional way of looking at power (yokes and soldiers, for example) give way to the true power of intimacy found by holding and nurturing this baby in the manger. It is very important for us to remember this event at this moment in time when we witness a birth and embark on a lifelong journey of intimate knowledge of God through Jesus Christ.
In the world today, Christmas is far from the Hallmark moment that we want it to be. Wars rage on and children go unfed. Sabers are rattling in the dangerous rhetoric of war and armaments. Closer to home and sometimes within homes, the political divide seems a chasm. We are obviously not celebrating Christmas because everything is hunky-dory. But as we celebrate Christmas, we hold a baby, a vulnerable manifestation of God’s mercy and love for us. God is calling us to intimacy. In this baby who is the human personification of God, we move to a closeness with our creator that was never fully possible before the DNA of Jesus mixed with the straw in the manager.
This Christmas, a good reflection for us might simply be, “How does intimacy with Jesus impact my life? When I reflect on this vulnerable baby, am I moved by the vulnerability of others? Just as God became manifest in Jesus, does Jesus in turn become manifest in me?” The nativity isn’t just a story. It is OUR story, OUR chance to embrace this baby, OUR chance to see our salvation and our calling in God’s moment of human vulnerability and the invitation to intimacy with God and one another. .
Isaiah reminds us that from the moment this baby is born, the zeal of the Lord of Hosts does all things to bring light and peace and justice to the world. God has done marvelous deeds in our lives. And as we hold this baby, we can recommit ourselves to giving thanks, by lives lived in true intimacy with the divine and true caring for others.