With 4 different Christmas plays in rehearsal– and performance dates looming, that question often rang around school in the run up to Christmas. Each class had their own angels, shepherds, aliens (it’s amazing who gets into the Christmas story these days), but we shared the baby Jesus – a doll from the reception classroom.
Well we could hardly use a real baby…but it was rather ironic that the star of the show was so completely passive that he was frequently mislaid.
If we’re not careful though, it’s not only in school nativities that we reduce God incarnate to a passive object…very precious…but an object never-the-less.
Think of crib sets – often delicate as well as beautiful – unwrapped lovingly, set out on a shelf out of reach of small hands – admired, then wrapped up again just as lovingly and put away for another year.
And the problem is that when we see him as a tightly swaddled, gift-wrapped object…we can use the baby Jesus – we can make him fulfill our needs, fit in with our lives.
‘O come let us adore him’, we sing…and we do…we gaze in awe – as we should. We sense the wonder of the moment. We feel God’s love and it spreads to our families…we let it overflow to those less fortunate. Christmas, we say is a time for giving, a time for peace and love.
Then…‘Sing lullaby’, we sing, ‘hush do not wake the infant king.’ Because if we don’t wake him – perhaps we can creep away – amazed that God came to earth in a cattle shed – glad we did something for others at Christmas – and pack him safely away ‘til next year.
Because a passive baby Jesus is also undemanding, he doesn’t challenge too much.
‘The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes’, we sing, ‘but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.’ Even if you haven’t had children of your own, you’ll know this is unlikely. Our carols and nativities rightly bring us in awed silence to the manger – but they also risk making baby Jesus into a perfect, docile idol…when surely the point of the incarnation is that God came to earth as the real human baby of real human parents.
And real human babies cry…they do a few other things…but above all they cry. It’s what babies do – if they don’t they won’t survive. They cry when they’re hungry, they cry when they’re too hot or too cold, they cry when they’re in pain…and at other times they just cry. And it’s impossible to ignore that crying.
Dolls can be cuddled, dressed up, used in nativity plays – then put away ‘til we are ready to play again…human babies come into our lives and turn them upside down. A new baby in the house dictates almost everything that happens.
Our first was almost entirely nocturnal for a month – so I was too. At night I paced around with a baby who cried if I even sat down – never mind put him down.
During the day he slept – so I did too, or I managed without. Pete and I ate in relay rather than together; the washing machine was rarely empty…
Babies come into lives and change them – why should the baby Jesus be any different?
A crying baby can be very alarming – when you’ve tried food, a clean nappy, more clothes, fewer clothes…and still they cry. Alarming because it takes time to understand the crying – sometimes we never do – but we know we have to respond.
Do we also listen for the crying of the Christ-child? – for the alarming, mysterious, insistent voice that wants to alter our lives forever.
We are called not just to kneel and adore – but to enter the story of God come as a real human baby. To realise that incarnation means defenceless love – love so great it came as a baby whose only language was crying – whose only hope was the response of new parents.
Love that shows us how to be truly human…not by winning arguments or battles but by letting go of our defences – against God and against one another, by becoming vulnerable – as Jesus did, by crying and by listening to the cries of others. Love that asks us not just to gaze in wonder – but to join in.
In the first year of the Great War, in some areas, there was a Christmas truce. Men stopped shooting each other…played football, exchanged greetings and gifts, talked… …High Command on both sides was quick to forbid any repeat of this.
Christmas was fine celebrated as a precious crib scene threatened by a vicious enemy…it could be controlled…used as part of the war effort…but they couldn’t risk the cries of the vulnerable Christ child being heard in the trenches.
If soldiers let go their defences against each other – they would realise how they had more in common than what divided them. They would realise that to be truly human meant recognising each other’s humanity…and it would be much more difficult to get them to kill one another.
For the past few years in the run up to Christmas, social media has been filled with claims that nativity plays have been banned in primary schools; people forced to say ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of Happy Christmas.
It’s so easy isn’t it, to be drawn into fear and anger against ‘them’…those who apparently threaten our perfect, passive baby in the crib scene…to use him as an excuse for division and distrust.
But I reckon God became a helpless, vulnerable baby not to help us justify our prejudices – but to turn our lives upside down by the bewildering depth of his love.
Heavenly Father as we come to the crib to kneel and adore – help us also to let the crying of the Christ-child turn our lives upside down. Help us not just to gaze on his vulnerability – but to imitate it in our own lives. Amen.