Listen to the cry of the baby Jesus

Here is this year’s piece from The Catholic Herald Christmas supplement.

Merry Christmas.

 

This Christmas will be the third consecutive occasion that we have celebrated in the company of a young baby. As the mother of young children it is all too easy to get drawn into the physical narrative of the Nativity, with discussions about the shepherds, wise men and angels while neglecting the theological truth of the Incarnation and our true reason for celebration.

Contemporary culture celebrates the Christmas story in a vague, general sense, with as much emphasis upon the peripheral characters in the tale, as opposed to the infant Christ. When we are invited to consider the birth of Christ, it is purely in the sense of the “cute little baby Jesus in the manger” as opposed to Christ humbling himself by taking the form of a helpless and feeble baby: mankind in its weakest and most vulnerable form. One of the many blessings and privileges of parenthood at Christmas is that it brings the joy of the Incarnation into a much sharper focus. I cannot be the only parent who metaphorically rolls their eyes heavenwards whilst forcing a rictus grin upon hearing or singing about the immaculately behaved infant who never uttered a single cry. The idealised, cloying, mawkish stained glass image of a mute infant Christ is not reflective of the real truth of the Incarnation. A real baby will cry as it has no other way to communicate its needs and so we can be assured that, even if he did not go through the terrible twos, throwing constant temper tantrums out of anger and frustration, Jesus most certainly would have cried to indicate to his mother that he required feeding. Tending to a baby who is totally reliant upon you to meet all of its basic needs is a constant reminder of both the self-emptying – or, to use the correct theological term, kenosis – manifested in the Incarnation as well as the way in which God takes into Himself humanity’s weaknesses without losing any of his divine grandeur.

So much of the Christmas pageantry revolves around a sentimentalised image of the baby Jesus, the plastic dolly or porcelain figure in the manger. A living, breathing baby with all of its bodily functions is a welcome counterpoint. Rooting the Incarnation in the realties of life with a newborn baby is a reminder that Jesus was not some abstract figure but a real human being with inherent physical frailties and bodily needs, and yet at the same time not simply another baby, but the Redeemer of the world. Every year a priest friend of ours, affixes a cross to the cradle on Christmas Eve, in time for the arrival of the baby in the manger, as a reminder of just that.

We are not just celebrating the birth of a sweet baby in inauspicious and unusual circumstances, but the Word of God made flesh. Without Christ’s Passion and victory over death, his birth is meaningless. We cannot celebrate the cradle without celebrating the cross.

As any parent with young children will testify they are constantly changing and growing, often looking entirely different from one day to the next. Inevitably at Christmas we cast our minds back to previous years, and as I look at my toddler chasing about the house, demolishing Christmas decorations and attempting to dissect the undecorated Christmas cake it seems like only yesterday that she was a two-week-old baby fast asleep in her Santa babygro on Christmas Day. It seems incredible when I contemplate that the almost eight-month-old who has recently had a growth spurt and sprouted some teeth, this time last year had just hit the point where she could be considered viable and a person in her own right.

Very often when cradling my baby sleeping peacefully in my arms there is an awareness that this is a brief and fleeting moment in time, which only serves to make the moment more precious: it won’t be long before the baby decides that there are exciting things to discover and explore beyond the confines of my breast. A line from Shadowlands seems particularly fitting: “The happiness now is part of the pain then.” As parents, we witness and guide our children on their journey to adulthood knowing that the way will be littered with moments of great sadness as well as joy. The beautiful innocence and childhood wonderment cannot last forever and we wonder what will become of our children. As we reflect on the image of the infant Christ it is important to remember that this a snapshot in time, like a mosquito caught in amber, not the whole story or the whole person of Christ. We already know the end of the story and part of the pain of the Crucifixion is present in the happiness we feel in the lowly birth of our Saviour. We can unite our fears as parents to those of Mary, who while unaware of the terrible price that her son would need to pay for the salvation of the world, must nonetheless have been filled with trepidation as to the future,having been informed that her son was the Messiah with whatever that might entail. Simeon will shortly prophesy that “a sword will pierce your soul” and Mary’s joy must have been all the more poignant as she contemplated what must have seemed an uncertain and turbulent future for her tiny baby.

Though we must not forget that the baby is not the Jesus who will challenge us on the Day of Judgement, there is still much to be said about the contemplative gaze of love when we look upon the manger, a gaze that is echoed every time I look at my children, whether they are feeding at the breast, marauding through the house or peacefully reading or sleeping. They are yet to acquire any personal sin, and I see reflections of the perfect nature of Christ in them and experience a renewed gratefulness, not only for the gift of my children and the special blessing of a newborn baby, but also for the child of God, fully human and yet fully divine. John’s Gospel tells us of how the Word speaks creation into being, and yet here is the Word made flesh and unable to speak. Here is Emmanuel physically come to be with us in the second person of the Trinity. Here is a physical representation of how God is with us all the time, gazing upon us with reciprocal eyes of love, perhaps best summarised by the French peasant’s conversation with the Curé d’Ars: “I look at Him, and he looks at me, and we are happy together.”

The simple act of a mother fondly gazing at her child with love while reflecting on the nature of God is in itself an act of contemplative prayer. Throughout the rest of the liturgical year we are invited to listen, to engage with and to act upon the words of Christ. The Christmas celebration of the Incarnation is the perfect opportunity to take a step back to watch and to wonder, just to be with God as we contemplate His son in the form of a tiny baby. No matter how we look upon the image of the Incarnation, we remember that to gaze is to love. Our whole soul is in our gaze.

Déjà vu

I was re-reading the piece I wrote for the Catholic Herald last Christmas and reflecting that it seems as relevant now as it did then!

For those who didn’t see it – here’s the subbed text. We did have a memorable and special Christmas, watching this year’s Rev Christmas special was a timely reminder that this short break from ministry has its advantages!

A peaceful & blessed Christmas to all – clergy families in particular. Only a few more days til it’s all over!

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Every year I am reminded that all families, perhaps unwittingly, enter into the spirit of the Advent Season, regardless of whether or not they profess a Christian faith. For most households December is a time of preparation, often of uncertainty and stress in these difficult economic times, as well as a looking forward with hope, either to the festivities of the day itself, or perhaps to a more optimistic New Year.  Regardless of whether or not most families are anticipating the Second Coming itself, the aspects of frantic preparation and anticipation certainly seem to be a feature of the twenty-first century Christmas; every year, the pressure for the ‘perfect Christmas experience’ ratchets up a notch in terms of the early appearance of festive goods in the shops and the non-stop bombardment of advertising and Christmas-themed programmes.

For my family, this Advent and Christmas will be unique in that it is the first time, that we will be truly united both in our spiritual and physical preparations and in celebrating the joy of the coming of Our Lord. Having been the Catholic wife of a Church of England priest, Christmas has previously had something of a bittersweet flavour. The compromise available to most couples of differing Christian denominations usually involves both parties attending two different Christmas services together, perhaps midnight Mass and then a service on Christmas morning itself. This option was never logistically available to us, for the last few years I have cut something of a conspicuous lonely figure, sat on my own, or with my young daughter during Mass on Christmas Morning. Clearly it was important to be able to support my husband, so usually we attended all his services on Christmas Eve, then I would go to the Mass at the Catholic Church just a few yards away from his church on Christmas morning, before joining him at the end of his service.  It was at this time, that despite being linked by the sacrament of marriage, our disunity in faith was most acutely experienced. The incompleteness of our spiritual union was thrown into physical relief, the only time we had previously been able to receive communion together, was the occasion of our nuptial Mass, Bishop Kieran having graciously granted a special dispensation. We experienced the sense of deep pain and sadness at being divided at the most sacred moment of the Eucharist on a weekly basis, but at Christmas, a time traditionally associated with the family, this was felt more sharply than ever, when the family was both physically and spiritually fragmented. However, as the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales reminded us in their 1988 teaching document, One Bread, One Body, this pain did much to highlight our brokenness, our division and acted as a spur to unity and healing, playing a not insubstantial role in my husband’s subsequent conversion to full unity with both the Church of the Apostles and his wife.

Like many others who are caught up in the whirlwind of pre-Christmas preparation, my focus was often predominantly on the practical, the making of the nativity costumes, the food shopping, the gift-buying, the Christmas card-writing, the decorating and so on and so forth. As many a clergy spouse will testify, Christmas is often unbearably hectic, one doesn’t see one’s husband for the vast majority of December and at times the rounds of lunches, Christmas fairs and carol services seem endless. In addition to being the Rector, my husband was also a School Governor and trustee of a local bereavement charity, all of which had additional Christmas services and meetings to factor in on top of the usual day-to-day business, as well as ensuring that the pastoral ministry to the sick, elderly, housebound and bereaved was not neglected. It is something of a family custom, that come Christmas Night, Robin will succumb to his annual bout of illness, following six weeks of relentless activity, including several sessions burning the midnight oil whilst sermon writing. The past two years have been particularly manic; last Christmas I was dealing with a newborn baby born in mid-November, the year preceding that, we were preparing for our forthcoming wedding on the 29th December and though both times I had attended various Advent groups conducted by my husband, it was incredibly difficult to remain spiritually focused. In previous years I had been on light girlfriend duties only! At the time of choosing our wedding date, Christmas had seemed a marvellous idea coinciding with his period of annual leave, with hindsight it was sheer folly.  I came down with a chest infection on Boxing Day, Robin passed out with perhaps the worst case of genuine flu I have ever seen mid-honeymoon. “For better for worse, in sickness and in health” was enacted sooner than we had anticipated!

This year has also been equally manic and for most of the year we have been focussed upon Robin’s conversion and the upheaval that this would entail. At the moment, we as a family are thoroughly enjoying this season of Advent, finally having the luxury to take time and slow down, to pause and reflect, to fully spiritually prepare ourselves, instead of preparing others. We feel acute parallels between ourselves and the Holy Family who have always held particular resonance for us. St Joseph the foster-father of Christ is a constant source of inspiration to Robin in his role as step-father to our eldest daughter. St Joseph unfortunately sometimes seems to be sidelined in the Nativity story, although what is clear is that like Mary, St Joseph was uniquely singled out for his role. Robin felt very much that not only was he called to the vocation of marriage with me, but just as importantly he was also called to become a father to my little girl, with whom he had fallen deeply in love. He often reflects that it was perhaps her, as much as me, that helped him to affirm his calling. The fact that St Joseph is a foster father and that he probably died before Jesus began his ministry, affirms that the often difficult and complicated family circumstances in which people find themselves, do not doom us to failure. To fail to appreciate St Joseph’s role can undermine the importance of the Christian family and thus he continues to play an important role in our Advent reflections.

Another more obvious parallel for us with the Holy Family during this season, is that of Mary’s joyful acceptance of news that could have had fatal implications for her. Since discovering on the Feast of the Assumption, that we would be expecting another child, due on Good Friday, I have looked to Our Virgin Mother several times. Like her, this news has come unexpectedly, not at a time of our choosing and has thrown our lives into disarray. I noted with alarm the words “high risk” written in my pregnancy notes and certainly this pregnancy has had severe consequences in terms of its impact on my health. At a time when we were moving house and I was commencing a three year degree, along with the usual demands of a young baby and child and supporting my husband in his quest for work, the pregnancy meant that I had to put many of my cherished plans on hold. If I am candid the acceptance was more grudging than joyful, with much to learn from the example of Mary, ‘let it be done to me according to thy will’. However, in common with both Mary and the theme of Advent, I am now indeed looking forward with hope.

Of course, I am not the only one who has had to joyfully accept a calling that has entailed great personal upheaval and suffering. Like the Holy Family in exile, we are experiencing a period of great uncertainty. We have been uprooted from our home and though we continue to enjoy the prayers, support and friendship of former parishioners, we are in a period of transition, from one place to the next, unsure of what the future may hold. My husband still discerns a calling to priestly ministry, but this is entirely in the hands of the Lord.

No matter what happens we have answered the call of the Lord in as best a way we can and so we are looking forward with hope, in common with all Christians. Robin’s conversion means, that for the first time, we really can enjoy the perfect family Christmas, united in hope, love and joy in the Eucharist and in our celebrations of the coming of our Saviour.