Welcoming the Newborn: A Christmas Meditation

December 25, 2018

This post hinges much on the experience of parenting (spiritual or natural). If you are reading this and are not a parent, this can still be helpful, but may require an extra ounce of imagination and reflection. Perhaps, taking a moment to reflect on all of the things our own parents had to do to get ready for our birth would be of real benefit here.

Earlier this year, my wife gave birth to our second girl. My co-worker and good friend also gave birth to their fourth child just a few days ago. Throughout the year friends and relatives have made announcements of a child to be born or that their child was just born much to my own joy. I share the sentiments of our current Pope, his predecessors, as well as numerous recent saints and Catholic thinkers that having children is a sign of hope in the midst of a popular culture that seeks to valorize intentionally childless marriages. Despite what the circumstances might be–whether the child was planned or a surprise, the moral state of the parents, the financial situation, the state of the “world” that the children are being brought into–children are good!

This is not to say that raising children well is easy. Good parenting calls upon every talent, competency, and gift and parents will still find themselves at wit’s end. I’ve walked into dozens of situations like the following where my daughter is crying uncontrollably, and I’m trying to stymy any panic that wants to surface while trying to troubleshoot the situation and figure out why she is crying like her hand has been chopped off. I come to find out that she’s frustrated by trying to fit a ball inside of a bottle where the mouth is several sizes too small. However, the real reason she is crying is not that the ball refuses to fit into the bottle, but it is just about nap time and she’s just really tired. It is the most uncertain undertaking a human being can attempt. But it is the most essential and fulfilling of human endeavors. The best things in the world are able to happen as a result of good parenting and some of the worst things in the world have resulted from bad or no parenting. I understand why people might shrink at its prospect. It changes a man into a father and a woman into a mother. To assume such roles rightly demands sacrifice.

Bringing a child into the world requires a lot of preparation and flexibility at the same time. Children are not robots such that all will go according to plan. Every child will be an exception to some rule, norm, or convention. Some children will be allergic to peanuts, others will have type-I diabetes, others still will have eczema, shorter than average, taller than average, larger head size, smaller head size. And some will be about the fiftieth percentile in just about everything, which is actually quite unique. Once a parent understands this, it is a step to realizing the true significance of parenting. A parent is there to help the child realize and assume the unique and unrepeatable mystery of who God created them to be–to reach the “full stature of Christ.” When I think about the preparations my wife and I had to make for each child, I still wonder were there any things that we did that we didn’t have to, things that we didn’t do that we should have done, or things that we prepared to do but overlooked.

Bishop Robert Barron remarked that during Advent there are really three “advents” (read as “arrivals”) for which we are preparing. The first is the past advent, the first coming of Christ 2,000 years ago, where are preparation is coming to understand the importance of the incarnation. The second is the one yet to come, the second coming in which Jesus “comes again in glory” at the end of time. The third one is the spiritual advent of Christ into our hearts, the immediate and present coming. As I thought about this third kind of advent and how many of the people I am connected to that are preparing for the foundational human endeavor of child-rearing, I cannot help but draw the similarities between it and the Advent preparation for Christmas. Advent and Christmas is the time where we wonder, “Am I prepared to nurture the new life of Christ in me–my heart, mind, and soul? Am I doing all that is necessary so that it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me?”

Newborns bring with them certain non-negotiable demands on their parents. They have to be fed, they have to be within a certain range of temperatures, diapers must be changed in a timely manner, etc. These aren’t just cutesy little rules to a game. Neglect can be extremely detrimental to development and be a threat to their life. Christmas reminds us that our faith is the same way. Once we hear the truth of the gospel it must be nurtured in our hearts and minds if faith is to take root. Faith is often symbolized as a fire or plant which needs certain conditions not only to survive but to flourish and grow. At Christmas, our faith literally took the form of an infant. Mary’s job was not over once she said her “fiat” and gave birth to Jesus. It was a twenty-four-seven commitment to raise, protect, and nurture the now human but still divine Son of God. Because of the full humanity of Christ, if Mary failed in her motherhood, Jesus would not have been able to accomplish that for which He came.

To nurture the life of Christ within is to grow spiritually as an adult. California has recently been addressing the need for families to “Talk, Read, Sing” to their young children as part of the First Five California campaign. In the first five years of life, it is crucially important to talk around, to, and with children so that they actualize as much personal potential as possible. It is not simply for developing language skills but it is overall cognition, socialization, self-esteem, and just so that children know they are loved. Again, the faith must be nurtured in the same way. Frequent contact with God’s word in scripture, liturgy, prayer, and the community of faith helps to develop a healthy and strong faith.

Lastly, just as having a child demands a lifestyle change, so does faith. Before getting married, I stayed up well into the night doing whatever I wanted. Some of it is productive like reading, writing, or working on some special creative project that I wanted to try. Most of the time, however, I was watching movies, playing video games, or surfing the web. Now, I’d consider myself lucky if a get an hour or two in a week to play video games and only during nap time. Despite it being no longer when and what I want in terms of my baser desires, I realize that this life as a husband and father makes me a better man and I am ultimately much happier for it. Again, faith is the same.

The commitment to be a spiritual and faith-filled person cannot begin with a lukewarm and vague desire to “pray more” or “have more faith.” It demands a firm and consistent change in routine. If there’s one thing that I think technology can really help in faith it is in this aspect. Setting a daily or weekly timer to go to mass, say a specific kind of prayer, read the readings, read a spiritual classic, or committing to some other spiritual act is the equivalent to watering that plant or feeding the flame. Watering a plant once is not enough, neither is two times, nor three. It must be watered continually, again and again. I know this from experience. Luckily for me, I maintain my faith better than I care for plants (but I am getting better at caring for plants). But like having a child, being open to Christ and allowing there to be an internal Christmas is a life-altering commitment.

Mary is a model of faith precisely in and through the way she was a parent. On behalf of humanity, she said yes to being impregnated by the Holy Spirit to bear Christ, to bring Jesus to term within her, giving birth to Jesus and making that ongoing commitment to be the mother of the Word incarnate every single moment afterward. Now she reigns as Queen of heaven, but she is still the mother of that one and the same Jesus Christ. Christmas is a time where with Mary, we can say, “yes” and bear the son of God in our heart, mind, and soul. It is a great commitment, it will bring us to our wit’s end time and again, and it will be life-altering, but seeing that child Jesus become who He was meant to be will only make us what we were meant to be.

Merry Christmas! Unto us a savior is born!

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