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Baby Talk!

Fr Dennis Smith, December 18th, 2011

‘You are going to have a baby.’ When a young woman hears those words spoken to her by a doctor, it’s usually a cue for joy, excitement and intense satisfaction. Perhaps she and her partner have been trying for some time to start a family, or to add a baby brother or sister to the family, so it’s a cause for celebration.

But not always. For it may be an unexpected pregnancy. She may be a young girl whose schooling will be disrupted and whose life is to be changed for ever, and whose family will be angry and disappointed. Or she may be a woman who cannot afford to have another child, or a woman approaching middle age who will have to cope with all the physical changes and emotional upheavals and who says in bewilderment, ‘Fancy having a baby at my time of life!’

‘You are going to have a baby!’ When the teenage Mary was told these words, St Luke writes that she was ‘greatly troubled’, and even after the angel had given her detailed instructions about what the child was to be called and an explanation of how she was to become pregnant and a declaration that all this was to be the work of God, Mary replied with the words, ‘May it be to me as you have said’ – which can be taken either as words of affirmation or an expression of resignation – ‘Oh, all right then. Whatever!’

We don’t know which explanation is true, but Mary must surely be the patron saint of all women who have to face unplanned pregnancies! For, from then on, Mary’s life will be turned upside down, and full of surprises.

But we have to face some surprises too, and perhaps the biggest surprise of all is to be called on to see something of God in the form of a baby. For when we hear that familiar story, as we do at this time every year, it calls out of us a reaction of sheer love, because we adore babies. We feel a tenderness and a protectiveness towards them. And at Christmas we’re invited to join ion what has been called ‘the universal conspiracy of baby-worship’. God becomes ‘the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay’. So we keep him passive and docile. When we see him represented for us in the crib or in the nativity scene, we almost feel that we have to ‘shush!’ so that we don’t wake him up, for then he might make demands, he might interfere in what we want to do.

But that’s not what babies are like. They do wake up. And they make demands. And when we describe the infant Jesus, it’s easy to forget that this is a real human child that we are talking about. ‘The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.’ As if!

For, if that were true, the miracles of an angel talking to Mary and a virgin bearing a child would be nothing compared to the miracle of a healthy baby who never cries! For babies may be helpless and dependent, but they’re certainly not silent. Babies make their presence felt. They change lives. Babies mean angry howls, sleepless nights, hungry mouths. They need to be cared for and taught and amused. They need to be introduced to our familiar worlds of listening, knowing and understanding.

If God is with us as a baby, He’s not with us as a silently sleeping one. He may call out from us the qualities of love and devotion and compassion. But he does so by his insistent demanding cries. And when a baby cries, it can be alarming if we don’t understand what the baby wants. Is he hurting? Is he tired? Is he hungry? (in my case the answer was probably ‘Yes!’) Is he lonely? Does he want his nappy changing? Is he too hot? Too cold? What does he want...? He can only tell us by crying, and we have to wait while we try one thing after another before finding out what he does want. And we have to wait much longer before the time comes when we and the baby can actually speak to each other. Until then, we’ve got little to go on other than a scarlet face and a screaming voice.

So, if we think of God as being in some way present with us in the form of a baby, we’re confronted with our inability to understand the alarming and insistent demands of God. A baby teaches us the need to employ time and patience in order to learn to communicate with him. And time and patience are needed to enable us to learn to communicate with God. He will not give us immediate answers to the questions we want to ask.

He won’t tell us instantly why people suffer, or how to cope with death, or how to overcome loneliness or pain or poverty, or any of the many things that may afflict us. He won’t immediately help us to solve the problems of international conflict or global warming or the poverty of  the developing world. For he is a God who gives us no ready-made answers. Instead, He offers us a human life begun as an infant. And if we want to find an answer, it means learning to be patient and attentive, and learning over time how to talk to him, and listen to him, and to understand what it is that he’s trying to say.

‘You are having a baby!’ said the angel to Mary. So are we all, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas. The persistent crying and sometimes incomprehensible laughter of a baby can awaken us from our sleep, and then we have to learn what these things mean in order to respond. Sometimes there are no easy answers, and so we have to begin a time of patient and loving attention. We have to learn what makes him cry, so that we can share his view of the world. And we have to learn what delights hi, so that we can share his joy.

A lot of learning needs to be done when a newly-born baby comes into our lives. And a lot of learning needs to be done when the Christ-child is born among us. For then we must try to understand more fully what it is that he wishes to say to us and to our world, and then strive to do all we can to ensure that his insistent demands are met.

So may he be born once more among us all this Christmastide.

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