She is such a disappointment! They promised me a baby sister to play with. Can she play? I don’t think so! It’s Christmas Day, and she’s seventeen days old now, and completely useless! They barely let me touch her, let alone allow us to play with my new toys together. She is smelly, she cries all the time and wakes me up at night; and when I want a cuddle with mum, she always seems to need feeding or changing. But they seem besotted! They seem to think she is a joy and a delight, with her blue eyes and fair skin and little wisps of blonde hair. Even my grandmother dotes on her. (I should say perhaps that I have warmed to her, since I was five; and now my little baby sister has just turned sixty.)
Or imagine you are, not a five-year-old, but a teenager now, on your own; and though, yes, you want this baby with all your heart, you know that it will be such a struggle. With no help from the family, and no space in this tiny, cold flat, and no-one but the midwife to endure the long hours of pain with you. And there is so much to buy, and so much to get ready, and so little money. Perhaps if things had worked out differently, this child you carry would come more easily into the world.
Or when the previous five have left you exhausted and ill, and another mouth to feed will be impossible, now that the rains have failed again. There is a camp; but it’s three week’s walk away, and the route is Kalashnikov perilous. Weak as you are, you don’t know if you’ll make it.
But despite these stories, and others like them, repeated many times; even though we know that parenthood is the hardest labour we can embark upon; even though the climate is changing and the future is uncertain; even though we know that here in the rich west, having an offspring will dent our bank balance to the tune of £150 000 or more; even though, in so many parts of the world, having a baby may cost a life, or two; we still do it! And time after time, we rejoice over it!
How can it be that even after sometimes more than twenty-four hours of exhaustion and pain, or pacing and anxiety, we still grin like idiots? We spread the news like wildfire: it would take you longer to find out that war had been declared! We telephone, we instagram, we send photographs to everyone. We open the fizz, we raid the shops for baby equipment and soft toys, we even go to see the vicar about a Christening!
And when friends or relatives have a baby, we want to know every detail, we want a cuddle, we buy presents and babygrows. We take up knitting! We eagerly look for family resemblances, in a scrap of humanity who cannot possibly look like anyone other than another new-born baby, or possibly Winston Churchill. How can it be that, though our nights will be disturbed, and our social lives ruined, our clothes stained, and our wallets emptied and our brains turned to mush; how can it be that having a baby is still the most momentous, miraculous, wonderful, delightful, joyous event ever to brighten most peoples’ lives?
Picture Mary and Joseph, gazing down at their infant son. They have a world of troubles to face. They are adults now; never again can they hand back their responsibilities, carefree. He could catch all manner of diseases, especially in here amongst all these animals. They will soon have to travel home, with a new-born infant; and Mary, weak from her labour. Their journey won’t be easy, nor comfortable, nor even safe. And as he grows, any number of disasters could befall him. Their tiny son is born into a hostile, precarious world, where peace is fragile, and death is capricious.
And yet, even from 2000 years away, their joy is infectious, and gathers us in across the centuries, and echoes with angel-song! We cannot help but share their pride and wonder, as they begin to get to know their little charge. As they marvel at tiny fingers, already gripping firmly; and work out how to swaddle him warmly and safely. As they respond to the first unfocussed looks and cries of need.
God surely looks over their shoulders as they do so, and delights with them in the birth of Jesus.
Are you disappointed, when you see a new-born baby? Do you boil with frustration, like my five-year-old self? When you look at a new-born child, do you imagine all the worst that could befall him? As she lies peacefully asleep in the cot or the Moses basket, do you imagine what terrible things she might grow up to do? As you cradle him tenderly in your arms, do you contemplate all the pain and anguish he could suffer, which you are powerless to prevent? Surely not! Surely not. As we rock this scrap of life to sleep, all our hopes, all our longings, all our wonder and excitement for all that could be, all are focussed; incarnate in this tiny child.
The thing is, some of us must have been babies once, just as he was. Could it be that God still keeps in mind his joy, and our birth-time state of innocence? Could he still regard us with the same pride, and hope and awe and delight, that lifts the heart of each new parent?
Might he look, not at our compromises nor our failures; not at our blemishes nor our weakenings; not at the worst to which we’ve been tempted, nor at the meanest we have been; but at the bravest, and the finest and the best that we could still become? Could it be that the way he sees his only begotten Son is the way he sees each one of us, his children? If God’s joy in Jesus is a model and a pattern, then this annual remembrance of birth and rejoicing is a truly wondrous time for each of us.
© Jon Russell 2019