The Baby was God

We have heard the story, and what a wondrous story it is of God and the baby. We have sung the carols, beautiful songs that warm the heart; and we have lit the candles. The sanctuary on Christmas Eve was illumined by a wide circle of little flames, lots of candles held high as a witness to the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not and will not overcome it.

On Christmas Day and on all the days we celebrate the birth of Jesus with family and friends, life is a big dining room table surrounded by people of all ages in a sea of torn wrapping paper—gifts everywhere, smiles and thank-you’s, and an abundance of good food and cheer. All because of that wondrous story of God and the baby. Now what?

“Well,” says the narrator in W. H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio;

“Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,

Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes—

Some have got broken—and carrying them up to the attic.

The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,

And the children got ready for school. There are enough

Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week—

Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,

Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully—

To love all of our relatives, and in general

Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again

As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed

To do more than entertain it as an agreeable

Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,

Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,

The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.” [1]

Do you recognize yourself in some of these words? I do. They are very grown-up words, with little room for wide-eyed wonder and hearts warmed by nostalgia. “Once again,” Auden’s narrator declares with a regretful tone, “once again, as in previous years, we have seen the actual Vision – and failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility; once again we have sent Him away.” We know it’s not just a matter of taking down the tree and all the decorations too soon. We know that we sing about the twelve days of Christmas, and that we can’t imagine how to keep singing for more than one or two of the twelve days.

I think it’s a little early for Auden’s reflective solemnity, though, and you and I wouldn’t be here on the first Sunday after, if the light of that night had not started a little fire in our hearts. So here are, just for contrast, the words of a little girl, her name is Sharon, as told by John Shea:

She was five, sure of the facts, and recited them with slow solemnity, convinced every word was revelation. She said, “They were so poor they had only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to eat and they went a long way from home without getting lost. The lady rode a donkey, the man walked, and the baby was inside the lady. They had to stay in a stable with an ox and an ass (hee-hee), but the Three Rich Men found them because a star lighted the roof. Shepherds came and you could pet the sheep but not feed them. Then the baby was borned. And do you know who he was?” Her quarter eyes inflated to silver dollars. “The baby was God.” And she jumped in the air, whirled around, dove into the sofa and buried her head under the cushion, which is the only proper response to the Good News of the Incarnation.[2]

The good news of the incarnation is the kind of news that takes a lot to process. For five-year-old Sharon it takes some jumping and whirling around, and then some sofa-diving and catching her breath again under the cushion. The little girl knows with every fiber of her being what an awesome thing it is to say, “The baby was God.” Saying, “The baby was God” means that heaven and earth not only touch but come together. Saying, “The baby was God” changes everything we can say about God and ourselves and each other and the world. The Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, and he changes everything. Jesus does not just speak God’s words and do God’s works; rather, he does those things because he is God’s word and work in the world.[3] The baby was God, and all the possibilities we see in the eyes of the infant and the little child’s eagerness to love and learn unfolded into the particular life of Jesus. We know he grew up, and that he looks us in the eye awaiting our response. Will we add our voices to the symphony of praise that erupts from all of creation as Psalm 148 invites us to do – or will we be silent? Will we live our lives within the wide bounds of God’s love and mercy as we see them revealed in the life of Jesus – or will we send him away, again?

There’s a picture of Nancy’s sister Lisa, taken the very moment she opened the impossible gift from her sister Janet, the firstborn of the three Pratt girls. The snapshot was taken at just the right moment, for Lisa looks like a Victorian lady who just laid eyes on something utterly unmentionable like a gentleman’s undergarments displayed on a washing line for all the world to see. I know you really want to know that Lisa got from Janet for Christmas, but I only brought up the picture because I’m in it, too. I’m sitting in the background, and you can see that I’m wearing my Christmas socks. For many years, I have successfully resisted the cultural pressure to wear a Christmas sweater or a red-nosed reindeer tie, but a few years ago I gave in and got a pair of Christmas socks. I wear them once, and then they go in the laundry basket and eventually back in the drawer until next year.

Why am I talking about Christmas socks? Because the wonderful passage from Colossians for the first Sunday after Christmas talks about new clothes for us. The baby was God. The Word became flesh. We have seen the glory of God in the face of Jesus. Now what? As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

The baby was God, and with Sharon’s Three Rich Men we come and offer our gifts only to realize, suddenly or gradually, that Christmas is a reverse baby shower: new clothes for us. But this is not like so many trips where you come back and say you’ve been to Bethlehem and you got the t-shirt.  God invites us to wrap ourselves in all that Christ embodies and to let ourselves be changed for good, outside in and inside out. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, and humility. Wrap yourselves in patience, forgiveness, and peace.

We can put away the socks and ties and sweaters until next year, together with the left-over wrapping paper and all the decorations. But you know how much this land and every land needs communities of compassion and people who make room in their hearts for the peace of Christ to rule. It begins with you and me and our willingness to wear these new clothes year-round. It begins with our willingness to let the word of Christ dwell within and among us.

The baby was God, and little Sharon gives voice to the exuberance that calls on heaven and earth, sun and moon and all living things to praise the One who without ceasing loves all things into being. The baby was God, and Auden’s narrator gives voice to our experience. Once again we have attempted—quite unsuccessfully—to love all of our relatives, and in general grossly overestimated our powers. Grossly overestimating our powers – that seems to be the story of our life. But even this very grown-up and somber voice of after-Christmas pensiveness talks about our child-like dependence on the One who comes to us in the baby.

Once again, as in previous years, (…) we have sent Him away, begging though to remain His disobedient servant, the promising child who cannot keep His word for long.

We know he didn’t come solely for us to have a merry Christmas Day or two, but rather to reclaim and redeem our every day. We send him away, because the love that found us demands so much of us, and we are slow to change. But begging to remain his disobedient servant we wrap ourselves in Christ’s compassion, and we are one day closer to wearing it year-round.

The fire God has kindled in our hearts burns bright enough for us to trust that even though we cannot keep His word for long, the baby of Bethlehem and the man of Galilee is the Word of God who keeps us for good.


[1] For the Time Being, in: W. H. Auden, Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson (New York: Vintage International, 1991) p. 399

[2] John Shea, The Hour of the Unexpected (Allan, TX: Argus Communications, 1977) p. 68

[3] See Gail O’Day, NISB, p. 1905-6