Twice this year I’ve had two students, both new mothers, come to me to request alternate arrangements because they thought they had to miss my classes when childcare arrangements fell through unexpectedly. Twice I refused to make such arrangements. Instead, strongly convinced that babies and children must be welcome on Catholic campuses, I invited both mothers to bring their babies to class. Both were surprised but ultimately delighted by this arrangement.
It was, truth be told, partly my own delight I was secretly serving. For my youngest child is now almost nine and my wife and I are nearing fifty, so the next lot of babies we are likely to see will be some time in the future if, God willing, our children give us grandchildren. But I still want to see babies now, to marvel over their tiny fingers, their wandering eyes, their herky-jerky motions, their delicious cheeks, which you can’t help but kiss or stroke, and perhaps above all, their little odd and random noises that are somehow enchanting. Who doesn’t love a baby?
Sure enough, one baby, slumbering out of sight under a blanket in his car seat in my classroom, would utter little sighs and moans during my lectures on the first four ecumenical councils, up to and including Chalcedon in 451. That council attempted to settle various disputes by insisting that Christ had both a human and a divine nature. How might He be both divine and human? This is a question all students, from Chalcedon to our own day, continue to ask and ponder. The council’s decree is very sparing in detail. As Sergius Bulgakov said, Chalcedon’s declaration comes with little more than four negatives: the two natures exist inconfusably, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably.
Those are rather abstract words. They do not warmly beckon others to think fondly on this oddly double-natured person. Who of us has two natures, or knows of any other living being that does? This seems too hard for us to think about for too long and so, as many historians have said for centuries, Christians tend, in their imagination, to collapse the tension, preferring to concentrate on either a “high” Christology (Christ the Pantocrator, as we call Him in the East, or Christ the King in the West) or a “low” one, where Jesus the man is front and center.
Of the two, my entire life’s liturgical and psychological sensibility has always gravitated towards the “high.” (This was aided, no doubt, by a strong streak of monarchism in my youth, when I could rattle off arcane details about Tudors, Stuarts, and the rival claimants to many thrones.) With a king, one knows how to behave. There is distance and majesty, which is regally reassuring. The king is “up there,” safely seated on his throne and not likely to get down to disturb my thankfully insignificant life.
With a baby, however, one is on less certain ground. One can be startled by their random and often unclear crying. One feels less confident of what to do. One suddenly, if uncomfortably, holds tremendous power over this virtually helpless infant.
In which of these two forms does God choose to reveal himself to us, and why?
In my disordered imagination, I think I know the attractions of grandly entering the world as an omnipotent monarch. Who among us has not entertained dark fantasies of sweeping down into our enemies’ territory at the head of a fearsome caravan, smiting all who have hurt us, and demanding tribute from the cowering crowds? Which of us, if we are honest, does not have a secret list of enemies we would dispatch to the Tower of London or exile to the far reaches of Siberia?
Contrast all this with how God actually enters the world. He comes not as conqueror but as baby. Few can have reflected on this more movingly than Pope Benedict XVI’s masterful and compelling homily on Christmas Eve 2006:
God’s sign is the baby. God’s sign is that he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendour. He comes as a baby – defenceless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with his strength. He takes away our fear of his greatness.
“He takes away our fear of his greatness.” He does not demand anything of us. He does not make us cower. Instead, the pope continues, he simply asks for “our love: so he makes himself a child. He wants nothing other from us than our love, through which we spontaneously learn to enter into his feelings, his thoughts and his will – we learn to live with him.”
This has forced me to think anew about how “to live with him.” I find myself abandoning the rather high and coldly regal Christology of my imagination, for I have no idea how to live with kings. But I have lived with babies, and such a realization immediately changes how one thinks of God and of heaven, and of the whole vexatious problem of power. If my monarchist tendencies were once drawn to the glorious vision of heaven at the end of the Bible, where there is constant and frightful reference to God’s throne (a word that appears nearly fifty times in the Book of Revelation), today those vision leave me cold. I cannot pray to such a God.
Instead, my meagre prayer has become: Let me, O Lord, be the one who brings you a bottle of milk when you are hungry at 3:00 a.m. and nobody else is around. Let me scrub the floor you just puked on. Let me be a cook and bottle-washer hidden away in the halls of heaven, and that will be enough—more than enough—while the angels do their singing in the throne room: Gloria in excelsis Deo!
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