DECEMBER 23 2011 THE CATHOLIC HERALD
Listen to the cry of baby JesusTheChristChildwasno porcelain figurine, says Caroline Farrow. He was a living, breathing child who may have given Mary sleepless nights
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 realities 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
A detail from Rembrandt’s Holy Family with Angels: ‘Jesus most certainly would have cried to indicate to his mother that he required feeding’ CNS /Art Institute of Chicago 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 twoweek-old baby fast asleep in her Santa Babygro on Christmas Day. It seems incredible when I contemplate that the almost eightmonth-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 Judgment, 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. Caroline Farrow blogs at Carolinefarrow.com
Rejoicing doesn’t require a huge budget The media say that Britons will have an ‘austerity Christmas’. But Catholics should celebrate the feast with gusto, says Oliver Marre
Writing at the beginning of December, I am surrounded by predictions of an “austerity Christmas”. It’s not just a subject of chatter among friends: the papers are full of it and their evidence is manifold, if disparate.
On the one hand, there have been numerous gloomy prognostications about low spending on the high street; on the other, a robust denunciation in the Daily Mail of the decision taken by the listings magazine Radio Times not to put Father Christmas on its front cover this year. “Would Father Christmas be seen as a bloated, red-faced symbol of over indulgence?” asked Radio Times’s editor, who has recently increased the price of his publication by 10 pence.
Elsewhere, there have been handy tips provided for saving money, some enticing and some less so: “Don’t buy wrapping paper” and “buy your gifts in January” were two of the more Scrooge-like. Whereas making your own jams and chutneys and wrapping them in brown parcel paper to go under the tree has old-world charm, eco-cred and requires love, effort and forward planning – much more so than a trip to Selfridges.
Last Christmas Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of Scotland’s Catholics, suggested that a little less cash-flashing might not be a bad thing. “There was no pomp and ceremony in connection with the birth of Jesus – rather the opposite: it took place in simplicity and in poverty,” he said in his Christmas message, a sentiment echoed in the sermon in my local church last Sunday. Unsurprisingly, Cardinal Keith is quite right, although I hope the gold, frankincense and myrrh were
‘It surely is not a good thing if Catholics start to appear as the anti-Father Christmas: lean, pale and mean at a time of great celebration’
nicely wrapped and not nearing their best-before dates.
It is not always obvious where to draw the line. On the one hand, it is definitely true that the limitless consumption which characterised the Christmases of the boom years was not a good thing. Not only, as we now know, was so much of it based on unsupportable levels of credit, but it did obscure any other meaning of Christmas. It got in the way of remembering and celebrating the birth of Christ. A little more reflectiveness, a tiny bit of temperance: these are attributes to be valued all year long.
On the other hand, you do not have to be a hardcore hedonist to believe that celebrations should actually be fun. Lent well serves its important purpose, and avoiding meat on Fridays has turned out, as far as I can tell, to be a worthwhile exercise in abstinence and not just a ritual embrace of fish and chips. But Christmas is a feast day and, goodness, we want a feast. It surely is not a good thing if Catholics start to appear as the anti-Father Christmas: lean, pale and mean at this time of great celebration.
Having been a student for the last two years, I am no stranger to careful Christmases. I’ve never had the competence to make my own jam, but I am well-practised at strategic planning and necessarily modest expenditure. Rejoicing does not have to rely on a big budget. There’s no reason we cannot be moderate in what we eat, what we give and what we hope to receive. But it would be a pity if, after the summer’s illicit, materialistic orgy of rioting, that convenient chameleon “anticapitalism” now takes the opportunity to seize the moral high ground in the guise of austerity Christmas, eclipsing the birth of Christ and encouraging us to stay at home and feel smugly miserable.
Puzzling, as I have been, about this, I did something I’ve never done before. Call it my way of boosting high street sales. I bought an Advent calendar which is stuffed full of fairly unpleasant milk chocolates. In fact, I bought two of them. They are decorated with pictures of trains and fat, jolly children skiing and snowballing, and – he’s in there too – Father Christmas looking as much a symbol of over-indulgence as you could care to find. I think there might be some angels at the top, floating around, confused. And I gave these two pieces of over-priced, consumer tat to two of my impressionable young sons. In doing so, I hoped first to make them happy. I wanted them to be excited about
Advent. If this isn’t a good time to have a bit more of a sugar rush, then when is? But secondly, I wanted to embrace the possibility that you can understand what Christmas is really about – and you can impart that to others, whether by explaining it to children, or living and sharing the Gospel in a thousand other ways – at the same time as enjoying mulled wine and a third helping of turkey roast.
As far as I can make out, chocolate calendars need not be incompatible with the moment the Word became Flesh. I don’t see how they are at odds with praying for world peace, thanking God that we are not the starving ones or, for that matter, wrapping parcels of more worthwhile food for those who are. Nor, I think, do they present a barrier to silent and awestruck contemplation of what occurred that night in Bethlehem. I’ll be encouraging my sons to think of all these: but, then, preferring a cardboard version of the Nativity to a cardboard Father Christmas does not do away with the need for that either.
As it happens, this Cadburyfuelled gesture of mine was unexpectedly undermined by the discreet delivery of a parcel (ordered on the quiet by my wife) from Aid to the Church in Need, consisting of an Advent candle and rather beautiful calendar. Disconcertingly, the children are all far more excited by these than they are by my chocolate offerings. I don’t know whether to put this down to premature good taste, pyromania or the working of the Holy Spirit. Maybe they are not mutually exclusive.
Happy Christmas. Oliver Marre is a pupil barrister and former Observer journalist