My daughter loves baby Jesus.
I don’t mean that in an evangelical, soteriological, personal-relationship-saved-and-going-to-heaven kind of way. I mean she loves to play with baby Jesus. She has a small, sturdy children’s nativity scene in her room that has not only been visited by an unconventional flock but that she has also taken to bed to sleep with her. I have several times had to rescue the porcelain baby Jesus in our nice family nativity from imminent destruction because our daughter is so enthusiastic about playing with it. And the other night – I am not making this up – she broke a cookie she was eating into three pieces, christening them Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. (She ate baby Jesus last.) I know that her grandparents are giving her a new baby doll for Christmas, and I will not be at all surprised if she names it Jesus.
She seems oblivious to other pieces of the nativity story. She can recognize the angels and shepherds when asked, but she never voluntarily points them out. She doesn’t know who the wise men are at all, and she can’t tell me the name of the town in which baby Jesus was born. She does tell me that baby Jesus was born in a stable and that this was because the inn was full. I think this detail sticks in her mind because it explains all the cute animals around baby Jesus, which she will happily name one by one.
Sometimes I wonder if God is just one hell of a marketing genius in this respect. The Christmas story is an instant hit with the children. It’s got a cuddly baby whose bed is in a stable with an assortment of farm animals. There are a lot of branding image opportunities: a beautiful star, exotic gifts, angels. It’s a brilliant way to hook children early into the Jesus story.
You’ll have to forgive me for my cynical take in the previous paragraph. I’ve struggled with the cuddliness of Christmas, of the sweet and beautiful beginning to the story of this man named Jesus. Because I know how the story ends, and it’s not nearly as cuddly. Sometimes it feels as if the Jesus story is laid out like Star Wars if it began with the Ewoks and then ended with Han Solo being frozen in carbonite. It goes from a sweet baby surrounded by farm animals to a man being brutally executed by a tyrannical regime, and the happy ending of the resurrection is a puzzling and challenging coda beyond the intellectual grasp of children. Many adults too, for that matter.
Of course the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are much more complex than the fuzzy animals around the manger. There’s the longing expectation of Israel and all of the political ramifications of messianic birth. There’s the scandal and humiliation of an unwed mother in an oppressive patriarchal culture. There’s the horrifically violent response of King Herod’s paranoia. Christmas is easily packaged for the consumption of children, but it’s just as adult a narrative as the passion. So I’ve resisted the cheery themes of Advent because it has so often felt to me like a glossy oversimplification of a much more complex, transformative, and ultimately confrontational narrative.
I see it a little differently this year. Having a toddler who is in love with the baby Jesus helps me to appreciate how wonderful it is to have a faith narrative simple, accessible, and interesting enough to draw little children. It will be many years before my daughter understands the rich complexity of the historical contexts of these stories. Hey, even I don’t fully understand it all. But you can leave out the dense political and socio-cultural drama, the foreshadowing of death and crucifixion, the knotty historical caveats and references, and still have a compelling and appealing kernel that holds up on its own. The heart of this story is the same to a three-year-old as it is to a wise and learned scholar: a baby.
A baby can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To my child, a baby is a cute and cuddly thing to carry around and snuggle. To many of us adults, a baby means, generally, hope and new life. But to some adults, a baby means added responsibility, less money, sleepless nights. There are some parents who are grieving the death of their child or pregnancy, for whom a baby means loss and crushed expectations. For some parents who watch their children grow with chronic illnesses or behavioral difficulties or who just make really poor decisions, a baby might be a reminder of good things lost, hopes unfulfilled, the distant taste of a long-ago joy.
God is all of these things.
That’s the beauty of this story. God, like a baby, is adorable and beautiful and messy and demanding. God produces joy and wonder and frustration and sadness in people. Like any baby, God is as likely to coo and smile at you as God is to scream and cry and flail. God will make a mess of your life and exhaust you and create within you a hot coal of longing that burns unextinguished with the hope of something better, something we might see in this life. God will fill you with wonder in one moment and make you crazy with irritation the next. God, like a newborn, is a creature that everyone in a room will suddenly reorient themselves around to admire, to hold, to gaze upon, to feed, to silence, to soothe, to promise, to tickle, to dream with and for. To remind us why we live.
For my daughter, for whom this is only the fourth trip through the Christmas story, a baby is a cuddly toy. A transitional object between the love she feels from others and her own nascent desire to be a creature who loves. Right now, for her, God is a cute little baby surrounded by furry farm animals, as fun and awe-inspiring as dinosaurs or superheroes. God is something to carry and play with. God will become more for her as she grows, but this is right for her. I’m thankful that our faith tradition provides easy entry and expands and grows with us. That no matter how old you are, there is something for you in that manger. Great big things come from small tiny hopes, and this story never stops being true. I’ve always loved baby Jesus for my own varying reasons. This Advent season, I love baby Jesus for giving my own baby a new way to see love.