“It’s a boy!” Not that mum and dad were surprised by the baby’s gender. Better than an ultrasound scan, Mary had had a house-call from paediatric angel. Was Joe present during labour? No, none of that trendy girlie-man stuff in first-century Palestine. No one for Mary to shout and swear at as she sweated and pushed. Joe would have been out buying the cigars, though he would have been there soon after the tiny creature emerged. They’d already named him. Not Noah, Jeremiah, Romeo, or Gareth, for the angel had suggested “Jesus”, and, common though it was, they liked it. It means “God saves”. Nice one, Gabriel.
So there he is, the little mite, with slick black hair, swarthy face, dark brown eyes adjusting to the light in the shock at suddenly being thrown into existence, and – what always gets you the most – those perfectly formed little fingers and toes. He’s crying, of course. Is it the cold? Hunger? Wind? Wet? He will weep a lot in later life. He will be known as the “man of sorrows”. But that’s for the future. For now you cwtch him close, rub his back, wash his bottom, and give him the breast. He is certainly helpless, but he is hardly passive; he demands your attention, shamelessly.
Does this little guy care about who you are? Does he care whether you are a saint or a rogue, famous or anonymous, gay or straight, to the political left or right? Is he concerned about your religion, about whether you believe in God, or what God you believe in? No, he reaches out, unquestioningly, to you in your elemental humanity. He wants only your tenderness, moist like cattle breath, warm like straw. This baby happens to be Jewish, but he is not bothered if you are Roman or Samaritan, would not be bothered if you are Palestinian, Welsh, or even American, and he will soon be visited by three pagan migrants from what is present-day Iraq. Some shepherds will also pop in to see him, but their lowly occupation and status are of no concern to him either. His mother happens to be a teenage peasant whose pregnancy was a local scandal, but it would make no difference if the wedding were in a cathedral and the reception at the Ritz. And all of the neighbours who will soon be paying “Welcome to the world!” visits – they will have their own backgrounds and bring to the stable their own complicated personal histories. They will also, no doubt, have questions on their minds, unresolved issues in their lives, their share of hang-ups, muddles, and demons with whom they wrestle daily. But the baby doesn’t mind. Their cuddles are all that he requires.
Soon he will begin to smile, teethe, maybe have a touch of eczema, double, triple in weight. A king will try to kill him, and he will become an asylum-seeker and refugee on the run. At the age of twelve he will run away from home. He will be a constant worry to his parents. He will have radical and disturbing ideas about his identity, vocation, and destiny. He will quit the family business and hang out with an unusual circle of friends. He will mix with dubious characters, including loose women and terrorists, and he will get into big, big trouble. He will challenge received readings of his own scriptures and traditions. He will confront the powerful with uncompromising purpose, a fierce tongue, and a turn of the cheek. His own family will try to deter him, his best friends will deny and desert him, his scheming foes will finally destroy him. But that, too, is in the future. Today, like all babies, he is a precious gift and a sign of hope.
In the more distant future he will spawn a new religion which will spread and encompass the globe. It will also divide into denominations, sects, interest groups, with pompous leaders and petty followers, and his name will be deployed as a shibboleth to condemn and exclude, and brandished as a weapon to wage wars and crusades, quite out of keeping with the disarming child who bears it. But not today. Today the boy is neither the focus for a faith, the pretext for a cause, or a justification for violence. Today he is just like any other new-born, nothing special and completely unique, seven pounds of miracle. Today he cannot be used for anything, particularly to endorse our own agenda. Today he just lies there, wiggling.
As for me, today I bring you good news about the God disclosed in this child, who happens to be the Word made flesh, the “little Word”, as St. Bernard called him, or as I would say, coarsely but correctly, the God who poops. He has no time for religious fuss, he gives no points for moral rectitude, he is oblivious to all our divisive cultural constructions, and he would not know theological correctness if it pulled down his nappy and smacked him on the bum. All – all – are welcome at the manger. He simply wants you to come as you are and be there with him, sharing the joy of his parents. All very natural, because although there is indeed another world, you will find it nowhere else but here, hidden in this one.
But if you feel moved to worship, and if you really want to bless this child’s, this God’s little heart, let your praise be your deepest longings, your prayer unselfconscious attention, your hymn the simplest of lullabies, and your offering – yes, you yourself, whoever you happen to be.
[New edition of Christmas Eve homily "It's a boy!" first blogged at Faith and Theology, 24/12/08]