There’s an old joke that posits if Three Wise Women visited baby Jesus, they would ask for directions and bring practical gifts. (Or as my friend Deb said earlier this week, “Let us bring him silver and gold? What were they thinking?”) While the joke plays off of harmful sexist stereotypes, it does have a grain of reality – most portrayals of the infant Jesus miss a fundamental truth. They capture his innocence, but completely ignore his inherent messiness.
As I learned from the very first day as a mom, babies are gross. They are beautiful and amazing and disgusting. They come into the world in a rush of blood and other bodily fluids. They poop early and often, if everything goes well. They are capable of spitting up the entire contents of their stomach and appear to enjoy demonstrating this skill. Beyond showing the wide range of bodily functions, newborns have almost zero motor control. They hit themselves in the face, they hit you in the face, they scratch you while nursing.
As I believe Jesus was fully and completely human, I also believe he was fully and completely baby. Beyond the fact that they made babies look like shrunken adults, medieval portraits don’t capture the chaos of being a new mother, even if it is of “Immanuel.” Even the more naturalistic ones of Mary nursing Jesus express only the peace that can come with that, not the struggle or frustration so many mothers experience. It’s clear that the men that painted these were never “Daddies” (even if they were fathers) or had a theology that excluded that perspective. In contrast, I prefer the painting on the front of the book 4 AM Madonnas, which my pastor kindly gave me as a gift. Mary looks exhausted and overwhelmed, while Jesus looks happy and ready to play at goodness knows what hour.
Besides aesthetics, this portrayal of Jesus sanitizes him and his story right from the beginning. It elevates him to someone inhuman, removing the parts of being a physical being that people prefer not to think about. This perspective also eliminates the role of Mary and Joseph as parents. It fails to acknowledge that someone had to change the Holy Diapers and get up with him in the middle of the night when he was teething. While my personal theology doesn’t emphasize Mary as much as some Catholic churches, I think the Protestant church gives her short shrift. Too often, we think of Jesus as having been born and then parenting himself. Acknowledging all of these aspects – especially the “unseemly” ones – is fundamental to connecting with Jesus in all of his human-God essence. If we deny those things in Jesus, we deny them in us as well.
Lastly, this attitude towards baby Jesus as a miniature version of Christ on the cross influences how we parent, both as individuals and as a society. Thankfully, most people don’t go so far as (major trigger warning on the link) the child abuse-level “discipline” that the Pearls advocate, but we too often expect children to act like small adults. It’s so easy to forget how much babies and kids have to learn about the world and how little perspective they have. During the times when I have been tired and frustrated because Sprout won’t fall asleep or just keeps crying, I have to remind myself – “He doesn’t know any better. He’s just a baby.”
If Christians can remember that even Jesus was a helpless, smelly, gross, amazing baby, perhaps we as parents and society can treat our own children more like we would treat him, shining in that manger. That would be a true Christmas celebration.
If you are looking for somewhere to visit in the Advent season, I invite you to my church, which practices “radical welcome.” For other thoughts on Christmas, check out my Christmas post last year, which linked my religion and my passion for social justice.