“Goodnight, Baby Jesus. Goodnight, mommy. Goodnight, daddy,” Sprout said to his nativity, addressing Mary and Joseph. While his theology wasn’t quite right, I love how he personally identifies with the story. That intimacy with the characters is something I’m actually learning from him this Advent season.
This is the first year that we’ve really discussed the Christmas story with Sprout. Ideally, we want Advent to focus on the religious, service, and family aspects of Christmas rather than the presents. But last year, it was all just too much for a two-year-old. We bought him the Fisher Price nativity for Christmas, but after we literally found Jesus under the car seat, it remained in the closet for the rest of the year.
This year, Sprout’s grasp on abstract ideas seemed strong enough to handle at least the basics. Plus, he had my pregnancy and the birth of his little brother as reference points.
Of course, he latched onto the concrete, even gross, parts of the story. Specifically, he found it hilarious that Mary had to change Jesus’ poopy diapers. (I may have emphasized that to increase interest.) The fact that Jesus was born in a cave with cows and donkeys nearby also intrigued him.
But through the telling, I may have learned just as much as he did. Narrating the story to a small person with no previous knowledge forced me to move beyond well-worn tropes. Instead, I had to describe specific physical details, making it more vivid for me as well. Comparing Mary’s birth experience in a strange place with my own rushed one connected me in new ways to her. Now, I know a taste of her fear and strength, even if I was more concerned about giving birth in a car than a cave.
Even though he’s too little to understand Christmas, Little Bird has made the story more real to me as well. I know the blood, pain and exhaustion of recently giving birth. I experience the closeness and tedium of nursing a child daily. I rise in the middle of the night to hold my baby close, just as Mary did. I even know how to swaddle, although we have the benefit of Velcro. And I know the wonder when you look into your baby’s eyes and they look back into yours.
Jesus as a baby makes his humanity so real. None of us will ever be an ancient middle-Eastern Jew under Roman rule. But we’ve all been babies and many of us have been parents to them.
Sometimes, my children can feel like a distraction from God – such as when I’m chasing Sprout around the back of the church, trying to stop him from opening the world’s heaviest doors for the forthieth time that morning.
But this time of Advent reminds me that my children provide a window into an alternate view of God. A view that is beautiful, inscrutable and vulnerable. A view that began with a swaddled newborn in a barn and is with us every time we cradle a child in our arms.
For more on expanding our children’s experience of Christmas, check out Teaching Kids How to Serve Others at Christmas Time.