Pam and I had some friends down from Maine last Sunday. Linda, her granddaughter Ali and Ali’s 4-month-old son Carter. It was nice to see them. As a minister, it’s often hard to stay in touch with people from previous congregations; mostly because we’re not really supposed to; stay in touch that is. Once a minister leaves a church, we’re supposed to get out of the way so that the new minister to get their feet on the ground. That’s definitely the right thing to do, for the church. But, as a pastor, when you’ve spent years forming relationships and becoming a part of people’s lives, it’s hard to just up and leave. So, we’re always glad when people from our former churches make the effort to connect.
After church, after Adam the Elf, we all went out to lunch across the street to catch up. Carter is right at that age where he will stare directly into your eyes without any kind of discomfort or self-consciousness. Beautiful blue eyes. We spent much of our lunch just staring at one another. I love that about babies; how everything is new and fascinating, how unabashed they are; how completely ignorant of all the social expectations that adults, and even very young children, come to take for granted. They are just helpless, vulnerable and completely open to everything. It’s beautiful.
I remember a time when my daughter, Sarah, was small enough for me to hold crossways on my chest. Somewhere in an old photo album, we have a well-loved picture of me laying on a couch and holding her like that. She was all wrapped up in a colorful little baby blanket. If we didn’t have the picture, I’m not sure I’d even remember it. Those moments are so fleeting. That old song really hits the nail on the head. “Turn around and she’s a young girl going out of the door.” I’m looking forward to having my children home for Christmas.
When they were babies, I used to love to get down on the floor to play with them. I’d lay on my back and hold them over my head, always making sure that it had been a while since their last meal. We used to pretend to fly them around while saying, “Pigs In Spaaaacccceee,” like they used to say on the old Muppett Show. These days, I try to spend a few minutes wrestling with Coco on the floor after work. It’s very good therapy, especially if you work in an office all day. Nothing clears the mind like a little playtime on the floor. And a dog is really good for that, but if you can find yourself a baby that works even better. Anyway, all these memories came back to me while looking into Carter’s eyes last week. And then a thought occurred to me. There was a time when Jesus was that age. There was a time when Jesus was no bigger than this. Yet from the very first day of his infancy, we have proclaimed him divine, Emmanuel, the creator of the stars of night, God in a baby.
It all seems so impossible doesn’t it. Our rational minds aren’t very good at wrapping themselves around something so paradoxical. I asked Pam one-time what images came to her mind when she heard the words, “God in a Baby.” She immediately reminded me of the scene from the Disney cartoon Aladdin. The genie, played brilliantly by Robin Williams, is trying to explain to Aladdin what it is like to be a genie. He first expands out into the universe with the words “Phenomenal Cosmic Power,” and then curls up into his tiny lamp and squeaks out “Itty, bitty living space.” That’s perfect. I have to give her credit. Pam comes up with some of my best material. God in a baby. Phenomenal cosmic power. Itty bitty living space. Exactly right.
To be honest, I used to be really bothered by this. For a long time, I didn’t want to have any part of a theology that didn’t make good rational sense. As a young minister, I struggled with the idea that the maker of the whole universe was somehow altogether present in the baby Jesus. But gradually, I came to understand that not all truth is necessarily rational. In most things, I find, there is a wisdom that runs deeper than simple logic. Christmas, as much as anything these days, is about celebrating the dance of the infinite and the finite.
Think about it. Every cell in our bodies contains the genetic blueprints for our entire being. The essence of all oxygen everywhere, is contained in every single breath we breathe. All of the world’s oceans are implied by each and every tear. These are scientific truths, but they also reach for a truth that is bigger than science. All things that are limited reach out for that which has no limits. Is it really so surprising then, that we might look into the eyes of a baby, and find the universe staring back at us? The idea may seem illogical, but that’s only because most of the time we simply aren’t looking. Most of the time, what we see in the world around us is only the surface of things. That makes perfect sense, because it is mostly the surface of things that we have to spend our time dealing with. But if we never look beyond the surface, eventually life begins to feel flat and meaningless.
Do you remember the old song by Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?” It’s a very sad song, actually. She speaks the verses in a sort of monotone voice, and then sings a tired refrain about a person who seems to have no ability to enjoy life at all. “When I was 12 years old,” she says in one of the verses, “my father took me to the circus, the greatest show on earth. There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears and a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads. And as I sat there watching the marvelous spectacle, I had the feeling that something was missing. I don’t know what, but when it was over, I said to myself, “Is that all there is to a circus?” Then she sings, “Is that all there is, is that all there is.”
Do you know, it’s heartbreaking to realize that there are people, lots of people, who feel just like that much of the time. They lead “lives of quiet desperation,” as the old line goes. Just this morning I was reading a review of Niall William’s new book, “This Is Happiness.” The book talks about how the author left New York city to live in a rural village in Ireland, and about how the nature of happiness changed for him in his new life. It sounds like a good book, but the reviewer got caught up in how commonly people feel these days that, given all the problems in the world, happiness has become sort of an inappropriate emotion. Apparently, we have no right to be happy because there is so much trouble in the world.
We all feel like that some days. As much as we don’t like the feeling, it’s a pretty normal part of being human. As strange as it may seem, Christmastime, with all its joy and music and laughter always makes some people feel really down. Like there’s a great big party going on but all they can do is stand outside in the cold and look in through the window. We seem to think that Christmas is only for those who can “get into the spirit.” But actually, just the opposite is true. Christmas, the Christian version of Christmas anyway, is specifically for those who need a spirit, who have lost meaning, who cry out for relief from the routine pain and suffering of just getting by. Christmas is for people who need to be reminded, that the phenomenal cosmic power of God can indeed fit into the itty-bitty living spaces of our lives.
Underneath all the tinsel and colored lights, all the gifts and goodies, and even the manger itself, what Christmas is really all about comes down to one simple affirmation. There is more. There is more to life than what we see on the surface. The infinite is staring back at us, not just in the eyes of unabashed babies, but everywhere we look, if we but have eyes to see. We may seem small, weak and helpless against the vastness of space, but we are held precious by the creator of the stars of night.
Which means, we don’t have to wait for our troubles to pass before we can be happy. As Paul said “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) And when we believe that, we know that the surface of things is not all there is. Whenever life seems flat and meaningless, that is not all there is. Whenever your heart is broken and your mind is numb, that is not all there is. Whenever the future seems dark and ominous, that is not all there is. No matter what the “all” of your life may seem to be, it will always be less than the “all” of God. In God’s “all,” there is always more. That’s what Christmas is about. Divine abundance. God in a baby. The infinite, phenomenal cosmic power, within the finite itty-bitty living spaces of our lives.
Let me leave you with some beautiful words from Madeleine L’Engle. This is a poem called…
The Ordinary, So Extraordinary
By Madeleine L’Engle
He came, quietly impossible,
Out of a young girl’s womb,
A love as amazingly marvelous
As his bursting from the tomb.
This child was fully human,
This child was wholly God.
The hands of All Love fashioned him
Of mortal flesh and bone and blood,
The ordinary so extraordinary
The stars shook in the sky
As the Lord of all the universe
Was born to live, to love, to die.
He came, quietly impossible:
Nothing will ever be the same:
Jesus, the Light of every heart –
The God we know by Name.