God as a Baby
Fifteen years ago when I was in Maine, a colleague from Vermont told
me a story and said it was true. But I've heard similar tales in other
places, and maybe you have too.
The story begins when a couple brings home their second child after
birth and receives a surprising request from their first child. This
couple has a three year old already, a girl, and shortly after their
newborn arrives home she asks if she can have some private time
with her new sibling. The parents think that maybe the three year old
isn't quite ready to be alone with baby boy, and maybe she has some
"terrible threes" pecking order to impose, so they try to put
off the event, but she asks again and again, and so they set up a place
where the two can be together. There were limits to their trust, so
they decided to have daddy hide in the closet, and then mommy took a
blanket into the room and laid the baby there on its back, inviting the
three year old to sit on the blanket for some time together. Mommy left
the room, but daddy was nearby.
As the father peeked through the closet door he saw his daughter
bend down low next to her brother, as if to whisper in his ear. He
still wondered what was up. But as he watched his daughter lean in
close he heard her say this to the baby: "Tell me about God; I'm
starting to forget."
I wonder if any of us think that there is much that we could learn
about God from a newborn? Is there something that newborns know that
we've forgotten that we could yet re-claim? Is there something that
adults lose? Are newborns blank slates, or do they come with a divine
spark that will grow and flourish?
Developmental psychologists can debate these issues, parents can
pursue them, but Christians get an answer from the heart of our Gospel.
The doctrine is called incarnation. Its assertion comes chronologically
first from Paul, who said God was in Jesus and Jesus was born of woman,
and then later Bible writers quote angels and apostles who say, yes,
this child, this baby, is a child of the Holy Spirit, and when baptism
time rolls around someone hears God saying this is my child, and since our
faith began God-in-a-baby has been at the heart of our Good News.
Some of us may not find this so reassuring. At least sometimes, most
of us want God to be powerful and wise, omnipresent and just. Few of us
would join an alternative group that offered vulnerable and amateur,
limited and colicky. Paul said that the cross, the fact that God could
be crucified, was a scandal and foolishness for those who did not have
eyes to see. The manger has to be a scandal and a bit foolish, too,
except that we're slightly sentimental about infants and expect them to
grow up. But before God grows up, God is a baby, celebrated by one of
the central festivals of our faith. But when we really think of that,
isn't it absurd?
Boston-based theologian Elizabeth Bettenhausen writes, "At
Christmas God is newborn, less like Michelangelo's muscular men and
more like an infant in wet diapers sucking milk from its mother's
breast. God is less like an equation in theoretical physics and more
like a hungry three-year-old in a refugee camp. At Christmas God is
less like a come-of-age, postmodern adult and more like the toddler
laughing at being able to walk."
She notes that Christian theology is done by adults for adults, and
it usually neglects children. If you think about it Lord, liberator,
love-teacher, healer, speaker of truth to power, and anything that has
to do with suffering or triumph are all very adult ideas. But the often
Greek idea of an adult god who comes to earth on a whirlwind or wave or
lightning bolt isn't the model for the Word that became flesh and dwelt
among us Christians. We say that God was born the way we were
born, vulnerable, beginners, hopeful, developing. Christmas scripture
reminds us that while we value complex theology, there is far more to
our God than stands eye-level to every adult.
One of my favorite theologians, Fred Craddock, writes about the
passage we read today where Mary learned that she would have this baby,
and she was "greatly troubled" but ended up open and
accepting, expressing her perspective by saying, "Let it be."
Craddock writes that Mary is quite a complex figure here, not just a
vessel but even in a few verses displays five amazing characteristics.
She is deeply thoughtful, believing, obedient, worshipful, and devoted
to Jewish law and piety. Some of us trip a little over that
"obedient" word, but it is an act of choice and volition
here, certainly not taken by every character in scripture's history.
And amazingly amidst these five complex characteristics Mary
finds the way to do one simple thing: to be open to finding God
in a baby, as unlikely as that ever must have seemed.
This must always have been a bit of a scandal. Yet Christmas reveals
God as newborn and wholly dependent. Christmas doesn't claim that Jesus
at birth is just a preview of the real thing but sees His infancy as
part of the fullness of all that we might learn about God.
One day about nine months ago, my family was down in the North End
of Boston, leaving Pizzeria Regina for a walk back to our car. We
sauntered up to Hanover Street where there is a peace garden at the St.
Leonard parish, and in this garden there are about six or eight statues
of various saints. In the back corner of the garden is a little statue
about three feet tall, of a toddler saint, who might be Francis of
Assisi. My four year old was drawn to this statue, went right up to it,
and embraced it with a big hug. She looked right at it and said,
"I love Jesus," and rested her head on its shoulder. She
stayed there over ten minutes, and at one point she had tears in her
eyes. She didn't want to leave when it was time to go.
It's a curious thing to believe that at one point God was the size
of our children. It's a wonderful thing for them to learn and to know
that God is with them. The challenge to Mary was whether she
could be open to this amazing truth. The challenge to us is to
be open ourselves, to see God in a new way this season, and to learn
from vulnerability, need, trust, hunger, and hope some of the essential
characteristics of the divine and some of the essential components of
the human. For even complex adult theology asks us to open a beginners
mind and heart. And never forget.
If you are traveling in the days ahead, Merry Christmas. The newborn
is coming to revolutionize our way.
Copyright © 2005
Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.