Christmas Eve: Holding a Baby, Luke 2:1-8
Holding a Baby
Rev. Scott Dickison
Ashley-Anne Masters, a Presbyterian chaplain in Chicago, tells the story of being in the checkout line at a grocery store one December when the person in front of her asked the cashier if they had any Christmas stamps. The cashier looked under the counter and said, No, I don’t think so. All we have are these with the liberty bell and these others of some lady holding a baby.
The person in front of her looked at her and said, You know that’s Mary holding baby Jesus?
A bit sad, but then it seems this clerk may have stumbled onto an important bit of wisdom. After all, as Masters put it in reflecting on these things, “The night the Word became Flesh was indeed as miraculously ordinary as some lady holding a baby.”
Christmas is so big. This is true in our culture—the world outside the church—with all the hoopla of the “holiday season,” which, all told, takes up about a quarter of the calendar year. The music and the decorations and presents and colors and lights and parties and days off work and family gatherings and travel and all the rest of it—so much of it good! Complicated, but good. I love this season—even, and maybe especially, the kitschy parts. And of course Christmas is big in the church too, though in a different way. We, too, celebrate and decorate and have parties and lights of a sort. But it’s also the time when we remember the miracle and mystery of the Incarnation: the laughable story of how God Almighty, the creator of the universe, came to dwell among us. And the really offensive part of it, of course, is not just that God came to dwell among us, but how God came to dwell among us. God was born. God came to us as an infant. Carried in Mary’s womb. Born into the world not so differently from any other baby. Naked and purple and screaming—soft spot on his head. Cradled in his mother’s arms, Mary’s milk on his breath, as I’ve heard it said.
Miraculously ordinary. All of it. And the challenge, it seems, not just in approaching this mystery, but in finding our way through the Christian life in general, is to remember that this miraculous ordinariness cuts both ways. Yes, we should see the ordinary within the miraculous scene in Bethlehem that night we remember this evening. But we should also see the miraculous to be found within the ordinary scenes that fill our lives and the life of the world. After all, there’s something miraculously ordinary in any lady—or man for that matter—holding a baby. In fact, it may be that image of the holy couple cradling their newborn child that closes the distance between then and now.
When I imagine that first Christmas, I think of what those new parents would have done, which was probably not so different from what every new parent from the beginning of time has done, which is that they huddled around this little bundle of new life and took turns holding him, swaddling him, finding just the right sway, the right rhythm, the right lullaby so he would sleep.
This is a jarring thing for new parents, when you’re sitting in the hospital room, and even more when you bring the baby home, and realize that there’s nothing more pressing in the world for you to do than to hold this baby. Now, there are other things to be done: changing diapers, doing laundry, feeding the baby, feeding yourself, taking a shower—God bless us all. And those are all important things, and must be tended to, but the most important thing, especially for those precious first days, is seeing to it that this baby is held. That it’s comforted. That it’s loved.
And so among the first things you learn is how to hold this thing that at first seems so unfamiliar, so delicate. And so you learn how to position yourself. How to hold your arms just so. How to receive this new life. And of all the countless new parents in the world, or even more, all the people who have ever held a baby for the first time, there’s really only one way that is can be done. Which is that your arms must be out. Your hands must be open. And your heart, your heart must be exposed. Only then are prepared to receive this child.
Which makes me think this was what God was up to all along in the Christmas story. Because it so happens that the only way to receive a new baby, this work of new life, is the only way to receive any part of life. Any part of creation. All creation. It’s the only way to receive the world, and God’s coming into it: which is with our arms out, our hands open, and our heart exposed.
I heard the story of Cori Salchert this past week, on the Today show of all places. She’s the mother of eight children herself, most of them grown. But for the past several years she’s also been a foster mother to children, babies, actually, who are in her words “medically needy.” Most of them terminally so. She and her family have taken in seven of these children over the last few years.
In the interview I saw she was currently caring for a little boy named Charlie, who has an irreversible brain condition due to a lack of oxygen at birth that’s left him more or less brain dead. She took Charlie in when he was an infant and they didn’t think then he would live long enough to be adopted, but he’s lived with them now for two years.
Of this precious little boy, Cori said “When he actually is dying, we’ll roll with what’s necessary. But in the meantime, we’re living like Charlie is living.” So they pick him up and they hold him and they sing to him, and the dance with him and they massage his body with lotion and feed him and nurture him and love him. “It’s not all bad,” she said, “It’s not all good, it’s not all scary, it’s not all fearful, it’s not all joyful. It’s everything all together.”
And at one point in the interview she’s sitting there, holding little Charlie, and she looks at him says to him, “I’m just celebrating the fact that you even were able to live. And we’re gonna be very sad when you go. But we’re just gonna be more glad that you came.”
The mystery of Incarnation.
The Word of God coming down to live among us, even if only for a short time. Teaching us what it means to love. Just some lady holding a baby.
Merry Christmas. Amen.
 SALT project always has fantastic images: http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/advent-week-four-lectionary-commentary