My friend Julie LaBarr asked me to write something Christmas-y and I had been hoping to write an upbeat piece for awhile, without leaving the world of troubling race issues permanently, but as I explained to her, “stuff keeps happening”. It’s been a difficult second half of 2014, with all of the death and mayhem in the streets this summer, followed by the quiet “death and mayhem” of the courts, and the resulting “death and mayhem” which followed. All of these things keep happening, and they are big things.
It’s easy to lose perspective, but the little things keep happening, too. The sun comes up, the sun goes down — every day. Kids go to football games and later proms, and graduate. People move and meet new friends. People adopt dogs or cats. People fall in love and get married. In nature, the food supply still supplies. In New England, we have Autumn and the colors of the seasons. All of these give us hope, or comfort in the midst of a mad world — both mad as in “angry” and mad as in “insane”. For the brief minutes or hours that we do these things, we lose perspective on the big things and regain our perspective on the small things — the things which really matter…
And then, there’s babies. Babies seem to rebuke the death and mayhem of the Big World simply by their existence. A child is born into the world and the world of its parents stops. Facebook now lights up with pictures of Billy or Sue while the mother is pregnant, just after birth, when the child says their first word or walks or even potty trains. Nuclear war? Yeah, but my kid just said “Da-Da” or “Ma-Ma”!
In the old days, though, it was the same way. We took pictures or passed out cigars or had baby showers or had the relatives fly out all, all because a child was born. My children witnessed the birth of a calf this year and were in awe. There is something about the promise of new life — any new life — that makes us feel good. When it is our own children, it is incredible. Even my female clients, with their drug-addled lives and trauma histories are changed by the birth of a child. Maybe for an hour or maybe for a day, they are hopeful and strong for the baby. Sometimes, that hope and protectiveness — love in two of its forms — lasts forever and they get their lives together, for the sake of that child. Marriages often stay together “for the sake of the children” and — while this isn’t always a good thing — people also work on their troubled marriages and things get better for the sake of their children. Besides, it’s really hard to see your child and not believe that you were at least once in love with your partner.
Deny it all you want, this is — for a period of time — our reality. It’s a lot to put on a kid, but it is where we find hope, and innocence, and warmth– at first, within the placenta, then amidst the poop and pee and snot. A woman in my wife’s parish gave birth recently and my girls (who hadn’t even seen the baby yet) were screaming with joy, alternating with “awwwwww” and “what’s it’s name and how big is it?!”. The kid hasn’t even done anything yet, and they have changed our lives.
Christians take this reality seriously — really seriously — at Christmas. This child, in a stable, surrounded by animals and the stinky shepherds who watched them is an archetype of all that is good and possible in the world. In our mind, the baby doesn’t cry or poop, it just radiates goodness. It is, in a word, innocent. And if we say this about our own kids whom we know, then we really say it about Jesus whom we dream about, put our hopes on, and worship on Christmas.
When we are at our own children’s birth, if there’s sin (and that’s a big “if”) in the child, nobody sees it. There is only joy, and love, and excitement. Multiply that exponentially and you have Jesus’ innocence. People also respond with joy, and love, and excitement, because they remember, in the core of their being, innocence and they respond. The archetype of “innocence” is hard-wired into our brain and we know its reality deep in our souls. But, we as adults know all too well the reality of our world. Who in the world would want to bring a child into this?
With all the options out there to prevent pregnancy, why would anyone choose to raise a child in this going-to-heck-in-a-handbasket world? And yet we do.
The general consensus around here is that the world is getting worse in its depravity, indifference, and cruelty to each other. Childbirth and the possible re-birth of innocence in our lives is the greatest rebellion against the world that is imaginable. Hope, love, and innocence are genuine defiance to our depression, our fear, our violence.
The baby Jesus was born in the politically oppressed community of Israel, occupied by the Romans, and yet he didn’t hate any of the people around him. Our own children may grow up in poverty, surrounded by hatred, racism, and all sorts of political oppression. But at the moment of birth, they don’t hate anyone either. In Jesus’ case, he didn’t learn hate either and he didn’t teach hate either. The rest of us human beings somehow do.
Still, at the moment of birth, no one I know imagines that they’re raising another soldier for hate. The future is not written yet, and the promise that this child — despite all odds — will be the one to fix the world, will at least make it a better place — opens up all sorts of possibilities in the child, but also in us. The child’s innocence draws out the innocence, the hope, the possibilities in us.
We are reminded that that innocence, that hope, that possibility lives in us in the present tense. We could be cynical, but at that moment, we forget all of that. We remember that there are other choices of how to live, because we experience other choices. In that moment, we embody the hope of the world as much as the baby does. Our perspective changes for the better. That is what Christmas is about.
Amidst the family dysfunction, the political dysfunction, the chaos and so on of the holidays — including loss of loved ones for some of us — we become more than functional inside ourselves and it shows outside of us. That’s why the day of Christmas is generally so peaceful.
We Christians like to speak of Jesus’ saving us on the cross of Good Friday and Easter, but here on Christmas we are changed in a real, palpable way. Besides that, any day a child is born to anyone, they are changed in a palpable way. This is why non-Christians, on-again-off-again Christians, even people with no faith at all, can celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday.
May we each find, remember, treasure and nurture the innocence, hope, possibilities remembered at the birth of this particular baby, and may we practice it all with the birth of our children.