We have just marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of one of the most influential figures in 20th-century psychology. D.W. Winnicott (1896-1971) was a pediatrician and psychoanalyst who made important contributions to our understandings of childhood development, the mother-child relationship, and of how human beings relate to one another and to the world. It was Winnicott who finally cracked the secret of why children often get ferociously attached to a favorite bear or blanket, calling such things “transitional objects” that are not irrational attachments but crucial components in the child’s reality testing and movement from a self-contained world into the world of objects that exist independent of the child’s ego and imagination.
Winnicott’s long experience treating children and mothers, especially those separated from each other during and because of the Second World War, once gave rise to a famous outburst: “There’s no such thing as a baby!” That phrase came back to mind in reflecting on the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the temple, often still known as Candlemas and celebrated on February 2.
Think of poor, aged Simeon and Anna. For decades—probably into their 80s—they have hung about the temple because, in typical fashion, God made one of his outlandish promises that they would not die before they had seen “the consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25).
Of what would that consolation consist? It seems quite plausible that Simeon and Anna (and many of their Jewish confreres) expected a king or emperor, a political movement, or a revolution to console Israel, not least by wiping out Israel’s enemies and guaranteeing her freedom forever.
What did Simon see instead? What, or rather whom, did Joseph and Mary bring to him? A baby. A newborn baby.
Does God play jokes like this? For a baby, as we know, is one of the most useless creatures imaginable. Unable to move, feed, or change itself by itself, it is extraordinarily vulnerable. Left on its own, it will die rather quickly.
How could such a weak and helpless creature be the consolation of Israel? Even more absurd, how could such a creature be, as Luke continues in the next verse, “the Lord’s Christ” (2:26)? Is this a joke within a joke?
Others who were hanging about in the temple precincts were probably and understandably moved to mockery at seeing all this. Their voices are well captured in the Byzantine office of Vespers for this feast, whose propers (stichera) repeatedly ask:
O Simeon, tell us whom you are joyfully carrying into the Temple. To whom are you saying: Now You may dismiss Your servant, O Lord, because my eyes have seen my Saviour?
One possible interpretation of these texts is that they voice what Simeon’s detractors are saying: does this doddering old fool really believe that he can now die a happy man at having seen a baby as Israel’s consolation and glory?
The joke, it turns out, is on us and those who disbelieved Simeon and Anna, as later vesperal verses make clear:
Simeon carried the pre-eternal Word of the father in bodily form, and he revealed the Light of the Gentiles, the Cross, and the Resurrection. Anna was shown to be a prophetess, announcing the Saviour and Deliverer of Israel.
The baby is not just a baby after all. He is the pre-eternal Word, the light of the World, the saviour and liberator of Israel. But how?
Here is where Winnicott is so helpful not just to psychology but to a proper Christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology. For there is no such thing as a baby, and that includes the baby Jesus. This Jewish baby does not by his humanity alone liberate and console Israel and all who are grafted (cf. Rom 11:17-25) onto Israel, as we are.
In this light, then, we say “there’s no such thing as a baby Jesus who is not also the Christ.” The two natures—divine and human—that will get defined by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 are absolutely crucial for this baby to be properly understood as the consolation and liberation of the people of Israel and all humanity. This is Christology 101.
Moreover, Winnicott helps us master ecclesiology and soteriology 101: “there’s no such thing as a baby” means that the baby always and only and everywhere exists in relationship. This is what Winnicott meant: the very concept “baby” inevitably and inextricably implies and requires a mother, father, and expanding circle of relations. (This is also true for mother and father: words which only make sense by denoting a relationship.)
Jesus the Christ knows this and acts accordingly. He does not come down to be a one-man band, to launch a revolution all on his own. He is born into a family—he could not but be—and when he launches his public ministry, he immediately surrounds himself with friends to whom, at his departure from earth, he bequeaths the authority to baptize, to forgive sins, and to offer sacrifice in his name and with the power of the Holy Spirit, whom he sends as comforter and advocate.
The salvation of Israel, and of all of us, then, is not a solitary enterprise. It is always and only communal, social, ecclesial. The baby comes bound within a web of preexisting relationships to take us back into the preexisting relationship we have with our heavenly Father and all his children. This allows that ancient text, The Shepherd of Hermas, to say that finis omnium Ecclesia: the Church is the goal of all things.
In a culture of rampant individualism and libertarianism, let Catholics never forget that we are bound up with one another and that each one of us has a relationship to all others, and this web of relationships crosses through a baby who calls us all to share in his work of consolation and liberation, each working for the common good of us all.
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Dr. DeVille – Would that you could forward Bishop McElroy your article. He appears to see little by way of redemption in the life of a baby.