Friday, January 1, 2021

In Defense of Little Baby Jesus

The quote caught my eye, as it arrived in one of my daily devotionals.

It was, as is often the case, a quote from Fr. Richard Rohr, a genial mystic whose writings and reflection I will occasionally enjoy, and who is generally viewed with awed reverence by the progressive Christian left. 

Most of the quotes I encounter are Delphic in tone and language, speaking of a grand Universal Christ who suffuses the Cosmos.  I find these meditations engaging, although my mystic inclinations are less universal and more multiversal.  

This one, though, was different.  It was a polemic of sorts, in which the mystic clucked a bit at Christians who are fool enough to focus on the baby Jesus.  In his meditation, Rohr challenges the idea that the infant Jesus is a helpful image for Christians.  Among the key quotes:

We have often settled instead for the sweet coming of a baby who asked little of us in terms of surrender, encounter, mutuality, or any assent to the actual teachings of Jesus.


We do the Gospel no favor when we make Jesus, the Eternal Christ, into a perpetual baby, who asks little or no adult response from us.

For Rohr, baby Jesus is a a symptom of an overly sentimentalized Christianity.  It is not the Christ of a mature faith, but an emotive projection that requires nothing of us but cooing shallow bathos.  On the one hand, I get where he's coming from.  I mean, we all watched Talledega Nights, right?

On the other, as a mystic who has raised children from infancy, and who has been present at the blood and mess of birth, ahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.  

Oh my, oh, I....ahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

Ok.  Hooo.  Let me catch my breath for a moment.  Ok.  Whew.

Right.  Let's look at the whole "baby" thing for a moment.  First, Richard?  Dear Sweet Brother Richard?  You and I know that the baby Jesus is as integral a part of the Eternal Christ as the man Jesus, and as much as the Infinite Multiversal Christ.  There is not a single part of Jesus' identity we can just set aside.  And that, my friend, includes infant Jesus.  Why?

Let me lay this out for you, with a simple question.  How much time have you spent around babies?  I mean, really spent around them.  Not contemplating the idea of babies, or meditating on the Divine Mystic Transcendent Concept of Babyness, but being with them in their reality?

Nothing, I mean, nothing, demands more from human beings in terms of surrender, encounter, and mutuality than a baby.  Babies require adult response, all day, every day, for as long as they are babies.

Babies require kenosis, my dude.  No one empties self of self like the parent of a newborn.  Babies demand that we set aside our self-interest, our aspirations for glory and power and competence, and our regular sleep schedules.  Babies may seem like soft pastel abstractions, but they ain't.  Babies are incarnate beings.  They are flesh and bone, puke and poop.  Especially poop.  So. Much.  Poop.

They are real, immediate, intense, and powerfully present.  
They require our attention.   They are not our "partners."  They are not our "friends." We do nothing with them as "co-creators."  They are tyrants and empresses, who cry out their wordless orders to us from their car seat thrones.  "Attend to me," they proclaim, "for I am stinky.  Also, I may have spit up a little, just as a special present for you."

Infants demand our obedience, paradoxically, from a position of profound vulnerability.  They command us to turn away from what we are doing, and to do what is required, because they cannot do it for us.  They do so relentlessly, waking us, shaking us from our prior patterns of being and our yearning for control.

If we fail to do all that they require, they cease to be.  All of the promise they represent, of a new person, of an unanticipated relationship, of a life beyond our life?  That cannot be, unless we do as they command.  They cannot become what they must become without our attention, our care, and the discipline of tending to them.  Like the Numinous in microcosm, like the Mysterium Tremens filling our ears, they stir us to trembling, shaken wakeness, reminding our foolish souls of the precious fragility of our being amidst the vastness of what God hath wrought.

Holding on to the image of little baby Jesus does not make us "baby" Christians, nor does it make us shallow sentimentalists.  Quite the opposite.  Understood through the lens of real enfleshed infancy, it reminds us, fiercely and intensely, of the reality of incarnation, and the intense demands of a Jesus who expects us to do what he has asked us to do.