Long ago, the young woman Mary felt what you did, as she ran her hands over her belly while her restless baby, like yours, decided to wake up when Mama would most like to sleep.
Have you ever seen a newborn baby, fresh from the womb, blinking in the light of the outside world? After the trauma of the journey has passed and loving hands have gently rubbed him clean, the baby lay quiet. His skin is like velvet, his head misshapen, and he moves unconsciously, flexing his limbs and opening and closing his tiny mouth.
This is what Jesus’ parents saw exactly. No mythic pagan deity sprung full-grown to life, no woodenly smiling icon, but a baby like any other. They stroked his head and gently touched perfect ears and toes in the same wonder you felt when you first beheld your son or daughter, niece or grandchild.
Jesus, they murmured, repeating the name they knew he must have. And we look, too, at this real baby who is no different than those you see carried up in the Communion line, walked in the mall or nursed on a park bench. Can you believe it?
This is how God came to us.
Sometimes Christians gets God backwards. We’ve been taught the “divine attributes” of this omniscient, omnipresent and immutable God. Then we get this baby and we twist ourselves into knots, spending centuries, pages, and gallons of ink fiddling with the attributes and trying to figure out how to squeeze them into this baby.
It really should be the other way around, shouldn’t it? After all, when our babies are born, we don’t impose an identity on them. We let them tell us who they are as their lives gradually unfold and their personalities, dreams and goals take shape.
John refers to Jesus as God’s Word the One through whom God communicates who He is. In order to know the Word, we must still ourselves and listen. Rather than trying to tell the baby who he is, shouldn’t we just watch and listen to him as his life unfolds and learn who God is from that?
After all, when I held my oldest son in my arms 16 years ago, could I have known that he would grow into a sports nut who can’t remember that he has a science test tomorrow but can recite the statistics of every player on the Tennessee Volunteer football team for the past five years? Would I have known that his younger brother, born wriggly and pink, would become a voracious reader, artist, and aching, romantic soul? Could I have ever imagined that their young sister, both resented and adored by her siblings, would exhaust us, from day one, it seems, with the expectations of one born ready for her close-up, Mr. DeMille?
No, I couldn’t have known, and maybe when they were tiny babies, seemingly a tabula rasa on which I could write my own set of dreams, I might have even wished something different for them.
Our stance towards the child Mary holds in her arms should be the same. Rather than imposing our presuppositions about who he should be, let our faith be a living relationship, a dialogue, in which the Child tells us the story of who he is.
And what does he have to say? Listening to that Word as he has spoken through history and then through this child, we see that God, creator of the universe, savior of Israel, whom our ancestors had beheld in a burning bush, roaring winds, and mighty deeds that brought kings to their knees, was born one night as helpless as any child, able only to turn his head hungrily toward his mother’s breast.
We may not learn much about philosophy here, and at the stable, our curious questions about the nature of God may be shown for the trivia they are. For if we’ve ever held a newborn child, we know what message that child speaks. It is a simple, powerful miraculous Word of love. Here, for those who can listen, the Word speaks loud and clear through a helpless child, brought into our world and at our mercy: “For God so loved the world…”
Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributer to the Living Faith quarterly devotional.