“Jerry, did you see the baby?” That popular line from an old Seinfeld episode rings through my head whenever there is a new parent around. Happy, proud parents and grandparents cannot help but gush around family and friends when there’s a new family addition. They show adorable photos and giggle at silly baby antics. The atmosphere, charged with excitement and enthusiasm for the future, is joyous and hopeful for families.
In the Seinfeld episode that made this line famous, viewers learn that the baby was not quite as beautiful to outsiders as he was to his parents. The startled expressions on the faces of onlookers compared to the parent’s adoration made the episode memorable and quite funny. Even though the episode is very amusing, I can’t relate to Jerry and his friends’ cynicism over the newborn but I can totally understand the joy of the newborn parents—for all babies are beautiful and true miracles!
“John, did you see the baby Jesus?” How I wish I could have gotten a look at that baby miracle! I’ve certainly heard glowing reports about the infant—I know you have too. Paintings of him—by artists who never saw him—often depict a glowing circle of light around his head, known as a nimbus or a halo. But he came as one of us, as an infant, the Word made flesh.
I believe that glow only became visible to people, other than his adoring parents, much after the fact. As he left that manger and grew into adulthood, I’m sure the neighbors noticed that Mary and Joseph’s child was different. At a young age, he taught lessons at the Synagogue and confounded scholars. Later, he drew large crowds of followers and skeptics, and performed numerous miracles. When, I wonder, did the neighbors realize they were looking at God incarnate?
The mystery of the Incarnation is unfathomable. The Creed of St. Athanasius states it clearly:
“Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man…perfect God, and perfect man…although he be God and man: yet he is not two, but one Christ; one, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the manhood into God.” (BCP 864) Our minds cannot fathom God’s nature embodied in human life. Incomprehensible, yes, but we are wise to shun speculation and contentedly adore.
Only after his death, and resurrection, did people fully begin to understand “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. They began to connect the dots and understand Jesus’ life and death fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. They, and now we, need the Holy Spirit to help bring about that realization too. Scripture and the Holy Spirit enlightened them, as it can us. Only then, can we proclaim, “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14.
This Christmas, I pray you can answer the question, “Did you see the baby?” with the joyous realization that God dwelt among us and is with us now.
“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” John 1:5
Whenever I hear that verse on Christmas, I think of its profound mystical meaning, however, I also think of the most moving modern story of Christmas: The Christmas Truce of World War I in 1914.
On that Christmas, the world had been at war for four months. The horrors had reached a scale that no nation had seen in previous wars. Any illusions of a short conflict with a swift victory had been dispelled.
On the Western Front of Europe, however, the guns of August fell silent. There was a Christmas Truce. A respite from carnage.
There was no fear of enemy fire from either side across that deadly space between the trenches. Instead, enemies gathered as friends in that no man’s land. Despite bomb-craters and barbed wires, gifts of food, tobacco, and alcohol were exchanged. There were pick-up games of football (soccer as we Americans call it). In one contest, Germany beat England 3-2.
On Christmas Eve, candles were lit in the dark. German troops serenaded the opposing forces with “Stille Nacht,” “Silent Night.”
Christmas ended and so did the Christmas Truce of 1914. The soldiers who exchanged gifts once again exchanged fire for whatever reasons governments say that they must go to war. Such a Christmas Truce would never happen again.
The war and the soldiers slogged on for four years. But on that Christmas of 1914, the light did shine in the darkness of total war and the darkness did not overcome it.
Christian educator John Westerhoff said, “Christmas is about the birth of a possibility.”
During Christmas 1914 on the Western Front, there was a vision of that possibility of peace on earth and good will to all.
I was born on Christmas Day. When I was a child, I absolutely hated that, but now that I’m older I’m sort of glad my birthday doesn’t get remembered. But Christmas was always THE major holiday in our house, one my mother in particular looked forward to all year long. We all looked forward to the decorating, baking, shopping, and (frankly) gifts, all year long.
As a young parent, I continued to enjoy Christmas and all of our family traditions, but started to become a little jaded: the Christmas trees being up before Thanksgiving, Christmas music in October, the constant exhortations to buy, buy, buy. Like many other parents, I had fallen away from being a regular church goer. And then one year my daughter bought me a tin of handmade Hungarian cookies made by a woman in her small bakery in New Jersey.
When I opened the tin I smelled something that instantly turned me into a child again, standing in my grandmother’s house and being offered one of those same cookies she made every year and stored in a bright copper tin. I could literally see myself standing there in her dining room as if time had been turned back.
So I began making those cookies every year, returning to that old tradition, and now my daughters want to learn to do it themselves this year. And I began attending church regularly again, drawing comfort from traditions, especially around the holidays.
Not many others can say that cookies led them back to God and our Lord Jesus Christ! More importantly though is the power of tradition and memory to make us happy and thankful and even hopeful. In the face of Covid, it is perhaps more important than ever to return to Him who said “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Rejoice in the gifts He has given us. Even if they’re not cookies.
Children understand the pure joy of Christmas. Advent teaches them that special things are worth waiting for and are worthy of preparation.
Advent candles and calendars mark the longing. Hymns, and especially Plainsong chants, awake ancient drums of hope within.
One Christmas Eve night when I was about 4 years old, I heard my dad’s footsteps going up and down the stairs of the gigantic log cabin house we lived in on Diamond Street in Elkins, West Virginia. I peeked out my bedroom door and saw him. In Daddy’s arms were stacks of beautifully wrapped presents. I couldn’t even see his face there were so many!
He didn’t see me and I carefully closed the bedroom door and crept back into my bed with a secret smile.
Many years passed and I never told my brother or my sister who the “real” Santa was. Partly, because I knew even then that Santa wasn’t nearly as important as Christ. It is called Christmas, after all. You don’t have to be a grown-up to work that one out.
As the decades pass, pure joy becomes more difficult to hold on to because the losses seem to swell like great autumnal storms that strip the last of the leaves from the beautiful trees.
Even as we prepare to celebrate the joy of the birth of Christ, we know the cross, the path to death, is waiting for him. For us. Steep yourselves in Advent – be thoughtful, receptive to all that is Holy and true, but try, even in 2020, to enjoy Christmas with the joy of a child. Glory awaits.