Just Hold the Baby
Christmas Eve Homily
Luke 2: 1 -20
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop December 24, 2017 Grace Presbyterian Church
She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom. (CEB)
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (KJV)
The briefest birth narrative ever shared. About this birth, this birth that defines time…we know so little. How long did Mary labor? Who held her hand? Who brought water to wash the baby? This birth, which became the pinpoint for our days and months and years, is so simply described. “She brought forth her firstborn.” From this mysterious moment, time would begin again, moving forever forward: “in the year of our Lord,” “anno Domini nostri Jesu Christi.”
There are some of us who can never know our own birth stories. There are some birth stories that we wish could be rewritten: that the circumstances could have been different, that the child could have entered this world healthy, that fear had not accompanied birth. Every delivery is not a joyful occasion. Sometimes families have to search for happiness in the midst of great complexity. On this night, when we remember how the God of love and compassion chose to enter the world, we would be amiss not to name this reality.
Fortunately, though, for most of us, our birth stories are filled with tender memories of that first cry or funny stories about words exchanged between parents during the labor, or what our names might have been. Our stories are about how much we weighed – “what a chunk!” or the often repeated, “look at those long fingers – going to be a piano player!” (Does anyone ever say – what long feet – going to be an organist!”) And of course there is always the argument over which parent the infant resembles… “When she gets mad, she looks just like her grandfather!” “No, no. That dimple, those cheeks, those are his auntie’s.”
Which must have led to some awkward moments around the manger. Imagine the conversation between the midwife and one of the shepherds…
Midwife (holding the babe) “Well, he doesn’t look like Joseph…”
Shepherd (waiting for a turn to hold the baby, and gazing back and forth between the resting parents and the small, serious face) “Very true…doesn’t look anything like…what’s his name? Joseph, did you say? (pause) Look at that, he has his mother’s nose!”
It would have made sense that these strangers, now friends gathered at the manger, could not discern who this baby resembled. Naturally, they would have been looking for “Joseph’s eyes” or “Mary’s nose.” Instead, they saw something mesmerizing: they saw something of every face that had ever been or ever would be. An impoverished shepherd could gaze into those eyes and see his own eyes looking back at him. The inn keeper could do the same. Mary. Joseph. Anyone who held that baby, and gazed into his little face, could find something of themselves gazing back. Although they couldn’t name it, they were experiencing the miracle that we are, each of us, created in the image of God.
The hymn writer Shirley Erena Murray, penned these lyrics:
O God, we bear the imprint of your face: the colors of our skin are your design,
and what we have of beauty in our race as [human creatures], you alone define,
who stretched a living fabric on our frame and gave to each a language and a name.
The beautiful diversity of God, contained in one tiny face. If we could but sit and hold this baby in our arms. If we could do this, we would experience the miracle of our worthiness reflected back to us. For some of us, grasping this truth – that we are worthy – takes a life time, it is beyond belief for any number of reasons. Narratives of abuse or neglect; hardships of all kinds. If we could but hold this tiny baby, and allow that infant gaze to penetrate our souls, what healing we would find. If worthiness is what you desire, imagine that infant face, and allow God’s peace to meet you there.
The blessing of worthiness is not the only thing that awaits us in Christ’s countenance; there is also something unsettling. It is the recognition or our common humanity. If we linger over this visage, our eyes will be opened as we discover the faces of those we have done wrong, or been wronged by. We will encounter those we find hard to love. Those, who through their words and actions appear to have no love in them. And yet, they too were created in the image of God. So there is another blessing: the blessing of commonality, a recognition which humbles us all.
It can be quite frightening to hold a baby. Some people won’t hold a newborn. Afraid of hurting it, or dropping it or afraid of what might come out of it while they are cradling it…babies are so mysterious. Add to the basic complexity of holding a newborn, the idea of holding the Son of God. Of holding all that is good, and pure and loving in your arms. Does it make you want to step up…or step back?
Maybe this is part of the reason we are in such a rush for Jesus to grow up. We need him, not to just learn to walk, but to walk on water! We need him not simply to talk, but to say, “let the one who is without sin throw the first stone.” (Even though we love to throw stones…) We need him to grow up and get to work!! We need him to topple the powerful. We need him to humble the proud.
But what about Jesus, what does this infant child need from us? Tonight, he is just a baby. He needs to be held in protective arms. He needs someone to change his cold, wet diaper. He needs to be fed. He needs someone to sing him a lullaby, even if it is slightly off key. He needs someone to rock him in their arms, to let the motion lull him to sleep. He needs someone to listen to his cries and learn to discern what each one means: “I’m cold,” “I’m lonely,” “I’m hungry,” “I’m hurting,” “I’m wet.”
He needs someone to care.
I don’t believe that the real miracle is that God chose to enter this world through Mary. I believe the true miracle is that God chooses to be born, and reborn in each of us, every single morning, trusting that we will care and respond to God’s cries.
God chooses to be born in us even though we mistreat our planet. God chooses to be reborn in us even though we make threats of war against one another. God chooses to be born in us even though we rage at one another as we drive down the road, or call our brother or sister a fool or worse. God chooses to be born in us…that is a miracle. And frankly, I find it much harder to believe than the story we read in scripture. And yet it is true. God comes to be reborn in rich and poor, wise and foolish, weak and strong. God chooses to make a home in us and with us. What a miracle.
Master Eckhart, German philosopher and theologian, said it this way: “We are all meant to be mothers of God for God is always needing to be born.” You would think God would grow weary from all that labor, but I haven’t met a mother yet who wouldn’t go through it all over again for the sheer joy of holding new life in her arms.
It is not only a miracle, but it is God’s delight to be born anew in us.
God is born, and we gather around the manger and take turns passing that swaddled bundle around the circle. Old and young. Doubters and believers. Givers and takers. And we gaze on the face of God, the infant in our arms. And in those eyes we see reflections of everyone who has ever been, and everyone who will ever be, and for one brief moment we are united with the divine.
Imagine if we could live that way. Just as God imagined it from the beginning. And so Christmas comes around again and asks us to gaze into the infant’s eyes and then transfer that gaze to one another.
Oh, friends, if we could but gaze and imagine with God.
Our hearts will sing of the day you bring, let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears for the dawn draws near and the world is about to turn!
Thanks be to God, who turns the world through a baby’s birth. Amen and amen.