“Where’s the baby?”
A pastor friend of mine is asked this question every Advent and Christmas season by a playful older gentleman in his church. It starts the first Sunday in Advent and continues leading up to Christmas Eve. “Fine sermon, Pastor,” he’ll say as he shakes hands. “Wasn’t that music wonderful,” he’ll remark as he leaves. Then inevitably, “But where’s the baby? Show us the baby!”
This man makes a good point. We need to see the baby. Especially on this night, where we remember that of all the ways that Christ could come into this world, Jesus Christ came to us as a baby.
“This will be the sign for you: you will find a baby, wrapped in bands of cloth, and lying in a manger.”
To help us find an image of this baby ourselves, I thought I’d enlist a volunteer to assist me with my Christmas Eve meditation. A baby – my baby, in fact – 5 month old, Elizabeth Bea. I’m going to hold Bea, recognizing that whatever I say tonight, it’s much more powerful – and certainly much more adorable – if I just show you the baby.
Many of you know this has been a year of babies at First Baptist Church. Some 18 babies have been born in our congregation since Shepard Hayes graced the back row last Christmas Eve all the way up to when Margaret – “Maisy” – Donovan was born this past week, with this baby girl somewhere in between. So we’ve heard more cries in the sanctuary. We’ve had to hustle to recruit some more nursery volunteers. We’ve added a few rocking chairs in the back of the room in case a parent or caregiver needs a place to hold their child while remaining in the worship service. It’s been a year of babies around here.
But it’s been a year of much more than that.
Wednesday, two hours before I went to visit newborn Maisy – our newest First Baptist baby – I joined with Dr. Pressley and others in a memorial service for a longtime member of First Baptist – Jim Ellis. Because it’s been a year of loss and grief, too.
It’s been a year of suffering, as people we love and people we pray for – and some of us – have endured crisis or loss.
It’s been a year of loneliness, for those who have been separated from a loved one. A year of disappointment for those who have let go of a dream.
A year of isolation for the dear saint of our church who wants to be here but spends Christmas Eve at home now, looking at the poinsettia someone gave her to remind her of the love of her church family.
A year of crisis – where conflict destroys the lives of the most vulnerable among us.
It’s been a year of division and weariness at a bitter and frightful political season in our nation, and mounting discord abroad.
A year that has many greeting the new year feeling more afraid and worried about their well-being than they ever have before.
Into this world, so desperate for decisive action, and aching for a grand, dramatic gesture from God, God comes in Christ as a baby.
When we see a baby, sometimes the Christmas outfits, monograms, or all those smocked things can mask what swaddling clothes could not conceal: that the salient feature of a baby is not that they are cute, or bouncy, or joyous. The most prominent feature of a baby is that they are extraordinarily vulnerable.
I know this every time I hold my baby. I listen to her soft breathing. I think about how much I want to keep her safe, and what I would do for her happiness, what lengths I would go to or what miles I would drive to just so she can have whatever quirky toy she’s decided she wants two days before Christmas. How I would do anything to ensure that this world will be kind to her, fair to her. How as her father I would put my own body in the way to insulate her from conflict and pain. And then, inevitably, I am overwhelmed in knowing I can never do enough. Can only protect or shield her so much.
I have a reminder of this every time I look down at her. “Don’t touch her head,” we say to her siblings and all the other children that come around to watch her smile. Because babies are born with these soft spots – you know this. Only a thin membrane covers parts of a baby’s head. The soft spots in a baby’s head are located between the plates of the skull, allowing the skull to flex. In fact the soft sports are what enable a child’s head to pass through a birth canal. You can’t be born without them.
I learned recently that the largest of the soft spots is called the Fontanelle – a French word that means spring or fountain. It’s so named because the Fontanelle – the largest soft spot – pulsates like a fountain, seemingly mimicking the heart rate. So when you hold a baby against your chest it’s almost like you can look down at a baby’s head and see their heart beating.
“And Mary gave birth to a son… a baby…”
Which means Jesus had a soft spot. (1) You can’t be born without them. “Don’t touch his head,” Mary would have to say to the kids that reached for him in Nazareth, protecting him, shielding him as much as she could. She was hoping the world would be kind to him, fair to him, and yet stroking his head she could see only a thin separation between him and a world that did not know him. Holding him against her chest, Mary could see he was so vulnerable that she could look right down and see his heart beating.
Her heart is pierced in those early days, because holding her son she could begin to see well beyond the baby with the soft spot in his head.
She could see all his days of touching, traveling, teaching, and moving to those who needed him.
She could see that people would reach for him, and in meeting their needs he would be giving over some of himself, at times even feeling some of the power leave his body.
She could already begin to imagine how he would live his life with only a thin line between the human and divine. He would be able to see things that others could not see and imagine this world as it can yet be, and eventually throw his whole body into this work of redeeming the world God so loves.
And she could already see how the world would retaliate against such disruption. They would humiliate him, take him to a cross.
And Mary could see how he would find his way to all those others broken in this world – all the other hills where the beloved of God suffer unjustly under some tyrant or another or some oppressive system or life-taking conflict, and he would lay down with them so that they would not have to suffer alone.
She could see how he would be entombed and enclosed, as though his life hadn’t meant much or done what so many would appeal for him to do.
And somewhere out beyond it all, she could see how on the third day, he would rise again so that everyone might know that these things are not final.
Mary looked down at the baby at her chest, who had known equality with God but did not try to preserve it. He humbled himself and was found in human form. He looked out at this world, broken and in need, and said let me go to that place and be like them.
Eventually the baby will grow. Beyond the safe embrace. Too big for the manger and swaddling clothes. They all grow. My daughter will grow strong and independent. Beyond my arms. And eventually her soft spots will close. Even this Fontanelle – the big one that pulses now with her life at my chest. It stays open the longest. But all soft spots eventually close.
Tonight we look down again at the baby at Mary’s chest, whose entire life let us see the pulsing heartbeat of God’s own self. The truth of Christmas is that God came to us with a soft spot. And in Christ, it never closed.
- With thanks to Rev. Scott Dickison and The Salt Project for reflections on the Fontanelle, soft spots and incarnation.