After eight months and three weeks of waiting, my wife and I have been blessed with the arrival of a beautiful baby boy. It was an 18-hour labour and, after all that I saw and experienced over that time, I can confirm that the birth of a baby is painful and tiring. To be fair, it was also quite difficult for my wife! After my friend’s child was born, he tells me he had an Only Fools and Horses moment. He almost fainted at the screams and the blood he witnessed, then the midwife looked over and asked “how are you bearing up?” My friend answered, “I’m fine, thank you”. To which the midwife replied, “I was actually talking to your wife”. My own faux pas at the delivery was not quite that bad, although I now know that the answer to “would the father like to cut the umbilical cord?” can certainly be “no thank you”, but it definitely should not be “no way”… I think my wife has just about forgiven me by now!
For all my squeamishness at the blood and pain of the birth, though, it was a truly magical event that will stay with me for the rest of my life. But, of course, the magic continues now as we welcome our newborn into the family. The constant care that a small baby needs has really struck me – to be fed, to be winded, to be changed, to be kept warm (but not too warm), to be rocked when crying, to be clothed, to be washed, to be kept safe. In fact, the reality is, of course, that a newborn can do nothing at all themselves. They are utterly and completely reliant on others. If we were to leave our baby in a room by himself, he would not last more than a day or two. His beautiful and valuable little life is wholly in our hands.
As I was rocking our new bundle of joy to sleep a few days go, with the lullaby tones of my “Babies go U2” CD playing in the background, I was thinking about the complete reliance of children on their parents. This utter dependence is even more marked in comparison to other species. My own dad was brought up on a farm and I remember him telling me that most animals (horses, cows, sheep) are able to walk a matter of hours after birth. Yet, by the time our new little boy takes his first steps it will almost be Christmas again. Likewise, most birds start flying and hunting for their own food after two months. I’m not expecting our son to be preparing breakfast in bed for mum and dad for a good few years yet! In so many ways, our new child’s reliance on us will certainly continue for years to come – I know my own mum would say that it finished with me when I was around 35!
Over the next few weeks, of course, another baby will take the limelight in most of our lives. Welcoming a newborn into his new home has got me thinking about our Christmas celebrations in a new light. In his letter to the Philippians, St Paul writes about God humbling himself through the suffering and crucifixion. At Christmas time, though, we remember a different kind of humbling. This isn’t the humiliation of death, but the humiliation of birth. The almighty, omnipotent, all-powerful God, who created everything and sustains all that exists, became a helpless, weak, and vulnerable baby.
And let’s not kid ourselves, this was no “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”. The wonderful and awesome God became someone who couldn’t turn himself over, who couldn’t control his bowels or bladder, who coughed and spluttered as he fed on his mother’s milk, who screamed and shrieked to get his parents’ attention, and who had to be taught to walk, to talk, and to say his “please’s” and “thank you’s”. Our strong, immortal God became completely reliant on us weak, mortal humans. He put His life into our hands.
That very fact is at the heart of the incarnation – of why God became human. By humbling himself, first as a baby in a dirty wooden manger and then as an adult on a dirty wooden cross, this awesome and infallible God shows us that he knows what it’s like to be small and very fallible. He knows what it’s like to be cold and hungry, he knows what it’s like to be hated and bullied, he knows what it’s like to be depressed and anxious, and he knows what it’s like to cry and grieve. But he also knows what it’s like to feel love and longing, he knows what it’s like to laugh until tears appear, he knows what it’s like to enjoy the company of friends, and he knows what it’s like to appreciate the beauty of nature. In a nutshell, he knows what it’s like to be us.
I went to the nativity of our church’s nursery on Friday. It was a wonderful event, full of cute shepherds and angels, visiting a saintly little baby Jesus, who was placed lovingly and carefully in a manger full of clean straw. At one point, the children filed past baby Jesus and each gave the beautiful baby doll a sweet kiss on the forehead. Christians should certainly not completely abandon the sanitized, sentimental, and fluffy picture of the birth of Jesus. It has its place in the tinsel-tinged celebrations of this wonderful season.
But neither should we forget the raw reality of what being born into this often-cruel world meant for Jesus. Without the dirt, the tears, the pain, the laughter, the joy, the hunger, the illness, the grief, the thirst, the friendship, and the death, we are left with a distant and remote God, and Christmas teaches us that our God is neither distant nor remote.
And so, last night, as I was watching our baby’s beautiful little body gently rising and falling as he slept, I prayed that he grows to know that, whatever happens to me or my wife, he has another Father who understands him completely, who loves him infinitely, and who accepts him unconditionally; a Father who cries when he cries and laughs when he laughs; a Father who understands exactly what it’s like to be him.