“While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, and wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.” Luke 2.6-7
Nothing grips our hearts like a story about a child. And sadly, nothing breaks our hearts like a story about a child. One of the phrases we often use to talk about children is “limitless potential” – a child has her whole life in front of her. She can choose to make of herself what she wants, and maybe, just maybe, if she pushes hard enough, she can go higher, longer, faster and stronger than we’ll ever be able to. She has the commodity of a future, she has choice and just a little bit more freedom than it seems we do.
And just there – did you notice what happened? An idol snuck in. It was that easy. In fact, most idols have learned to disguise themselves as something good and noble – nobody in their right mind would bow down in front of a golden calf. But when idols present themselves as glimmering bodies of self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and the promise of isolated success over-and-against-and-if-need-be-in-spite-of others, we fall all over ourselves to offer our praise and adoration.
Sometimes we love children because children are blank slates we can use to affirm our own ideals of what a successful person should be. A child can still become what we’ve never managed to be – successful, powerful, happy, self-actualized. It’s narcissism of the worst kind, masked by a sweet nostalgia of childhood innocence and dirty diapers.
Isn’t that why we love the image of the manger scene so much? Is the notion of a baby God something that’s easier to manage, easier to fit into our own experience of how the world works? Maybe this baby God with all of his purity and potential can grow into something that will benefit me, something that will affirm my sense of self, something that I can conscript into my own self-absorbed story.
I think we get sentimental about the baby Jesus because I doubt most of us would like the adult Jesus very much – that is, Jesus the homeless radical who meddles in my privacy and tells me to hate my father and mother and give all I have to the poor. If grown-up Jesus showed up at church, he’d probably be referred to an agency rather than invited to join a committee.
To put it bluntly, baby Jesus needs us, and that makes us feel good. Grown-up Jesus doesn’t give a flip about how we feel, and it scares us to death that we might need something from him.
The baby Jesus grew up and fulfilled his potential, or rather became what he was called to be – and he showed us that the self is ultimately not the center. He showed us that the only way to peace is self-lessness, a radical hope in the power of God to restore us through the power of resurrection. And love that flows out of this hope is the only love that can heal and restore. So the gospel message at Christmas is not that our dear lord baby Jesus shows us how to be all we can be. Rather, in a real way, the vulnerable baby holds up a mirror to show us our deepest needs and then calls us to repent from all the strategies we rely on for disguising those needs.