This is the baby who was found, with his umbilical cord still attached, in the manger of a church nativity scene in New York City.
I read the news last Sunday morning before church and was haunted by it all the way through worship. It’s not a thought that’s easily dismissed – the vulnerability of a newborn, uncared for and unswaddled, lying in a rough wooden trough (in what is probably quite a chilly building). Maybe you have to be a parent to be really troubled by this, to have had sole charge of a tiny person who wholly depends on you for its survival… or maybe you just have to be a human being. But when the sermon turned out to be on how we’ve grown so familiar with the story of a newborn baby being laid in an animal feeding trough that it’s lost its ability to shock us, I realised it was, suddenly, no longer true for me.
And those disturbed feelings coalesced into this: that God, the kindest and best parent who has ever lived, had to watch his own helpless newborn delivered into our world and laid in a feeding trough. How much more disturbed would he have felt about the vulnerability of his son? Knowing how his vulnerability – and human cruelty – would play out to reach their deadly conclusion?
I’d have felt sick to my stomach if I were God. But he seems to feel differently. He sends angels to sing on a hillside, going on about good news. He sends messengers and gifts, and apart from the slightly jarring note of giving a newborn baby an embalming product, there’s a happy vibe to them. God is giving his only son into the world, frail, defenceless and doomed – and he’s happy about it.
I’m grateful to be shocked this year by Christmas. It helps. I see that there can only be one motive behind a gift of such shocking vulnerability, given with such joy: this can only be love. God gave his only son because he so loved the world.
I’m shocked and I’m grateful. Thank you for Christmas, and may it never feel cosy or comfortable ever again.