There is a line from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem about the Virgin Mary that describes the baby Jesus as “God’s infinity, dwindled to infancy.” The line captures perfectly the beautiful but also shocking idea, central to Christianity, that the infinite God who created the universe also chose to descend, dwindle, become small, become helpless, become dependent on human beings. Hopkins is right: the baby Jesus is not merely a sentimental or cute idea but is potentially radical, transformative, and controversial.
The Will Farrell movie, Talladega Nights isn’t a great movie, really, but there is one really great scene in it and it’s the one everyone remembers. The scene , of course, is where Ricky Bobby, Will Farrell’s character, says grace before the family meal. In this prayer, Ricky specifically addresses the “8 lb 6 oz baby Jesus, in his Golden Fleece diapers. . .with his little books about shapes and colors,” etc., etc. His father-in-law objects to Ricky’s preference for the “baby God” and shouts “He was a man, he had a beard!” Ricky replies “But I like the baby Jesus best!” It’s funny, but theologically it’s actually pretty serious. Both Ricky and his father-in-law make valid theological points. Jesus was the adult man who died on the cross, but he was also a baby. And since the very earliest years of Christianity, the insistence on the unlikely formulation that Jesus was both fully God and fully human, has meant that Christians have had to face the shocking idea that Jesus was, for a time, really and truly a baby.
During the Christmas season in America we often hear about the baby Jesus in the context of a controversy of some kind. Sometimes it is an argument over whether a Christmas song about the nativity can be sung in a secular setting, or more often whether a plastic replica of the baby Jesus and his mother and father in a stable can be displayed in front of City Hall. I sometimes think however, that those somewhat ritualized and predictable yearly controversies mask what is truly controversial about the baby Jesus: that he is God made weak, helpless, and dependent on us.
What a lot of trust that implies! Newborn babies are fragile, and they are completely helpless. My daughter was born two days before Christmas on a cold night in Chicago, and I can still remember how it felt to drive her home from the hospital on Christmas Eve in an ice storm. The world suddenly seemed a much more dangerous place because I was responsible for someone so fragile and so precious. And yet the Christian theological tradition insists that a baby just this fragile, who was also God, was entrusted to us.
Some Christian thinkers haven’t particularly liked the idea of the infant Christ. John Calvin, the great Protestant reformer, was more than a little reticent about celebrating Christmas. He thought it was a mistake, theologically, to focus on Jesus as a baby. For him, infancy was a rather embarrassing phase of weakness and incontinence that Jesus had to pass through only out of necessity in order to get to adulthood, where his power and glory could be evident. This grown up Jesus — the man with the beard — is the “real” Christ for Calvin, not the helpless one in the manger. In other words Calvin would agree with Ricky Bobby’s father-in-law.
But it is a mistake to ignore or pass over Jesus’ infancy because his infancy is essential to a full understanding of the radical potential of Christian theology.
One reason for this is because If Jesus was really a baby — then God must love human beings very much. A baby or young child does not judge or condemn. A baby just loves. Babies don’t care about status or class or wealth. They just want to be safe and warm and comforted. The idea of God reaching out to us to be picked up and carried or bounced on our knees, and falling asleep on our laps, can, if we think about it, provide us with a deeper sense of what it means to say that God loves us.
We tend to rely heavily on the metaphor of God as father or parent, but what happens when we think about God as a baby? One of my children, the same one who came home from the hospital on an icy Christmas Eve, when she was very young was asked by her teacher to draw a picture of God’s love and she drew a picture of a baby. Her teacher asked “Do you mean God loves us like a parent loves a baby?” And my daughter told her no, her picture meant that “God loves us like a baby loves her parents.” And if Jesus was a baby, that must be true.
If God became a helpless and vulnerable baby, then God must also trust us very much. God must know something about us — maybe that we are all, in our deepest selves, capable of caring and nurturing. God must have known that we could be trusted not to drop, or forget to feed, or leave God alone to cry and feel abandoned. In other words, we must be good, we must be trustworthy, we must be lovable, if God became a baby and was born to us.
Karen Park, Ph.D is an assistant professor of religious studies at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin.
Photo: Depiction of a baby Jesus, ©