25 December – The meaning of a child

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Christmas Day

Genesis 1:26-28
Isaiah 9:2-7
Luke 2:1-7

In a sentence:
The birth of Jesus is the meaning and purpose of all births

Somewhere in the middle of 2022, the eight-billionth living person drew breath for the first time. From a rough guess about when modern humans emerged, demographers calculate that this puts the number of human beings born in all of history at around 117 billion. “Be fruitful and multiply”, God commands the book of Genesis – perhaps the most closely observed divine command of all!

What do all those babies mean in view of the prophet Isaiah’s declaration: “a child has been born for us”? What is the meaning of the one child in relation to the 116,999,999,999 others?[1]

To answer this, we need to back up a little and consider first what the old Genesis commandment might tell us about the meaning of any child. “Be fruitful and multiply” is an odd commandment, seemingly given as if not multiplying might have been an option. But at the end of the account of the creation of Adam and Eve in the next chapter, we are told, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2.24, KJV). The thing about “cleaving” is that it’s quite good fun. And so, having cleaved once, the man and the woman are likely to want to cleave again (and again and again), with the typical result being considerable multiplication. This happens naturally so that, of all the cleaving required to produce 117 billion babies, very little has been in direct response to the command to multiply. What, then, is the point of the command to be fruitful, given that the widespread enjoyment of clefts and cleavers results in fruitfulness anyway?

hen what happens naturally is endorsed with a commandment, we’re in the realm of giving “meaning” to the ordinary. The command to be fruitful is a kind of overlay on what would happen anyway, by which God hijacks natural human procreation for some purpose. By claiming an interest in human fruitfulness, God gives a particular meaning to a child. Children are to be born now not merely “of blood or of the will of the flesh or of [human will], but by the will of God” (cf. John 1.13). Children are now born “for God’s sake”. That is, regardless of the motivations of their parents, children are now God-purposed.

And the point here is not simply about children. We were each born, so we are thinking here about the meaning of any human being. And the issue is not whether we are or aren’t fruitful (for whatever reason) but that we are fruit. What does that mean? What were each of us born “for”? We need an answer to this to be able to say something sensible about why we have gathered today to hear St Luke tell us that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son”.

The faith of the church makes a connection between the one birth of Jesus and all other births, and so proposes a meaning of the one and the many births. And this connection and meaning are as unbelievable as all miracles are. The meaning of the Genesis commandment to be fruitful and multiply is that God claims all subsequent human history as a preparation for the arrival of Jesus: Have babies, God commands, so that Jesus might finally appear. Or, to put it the other way around, the birth of Jesus is the meaning and purpose of all other births. By making babies we make history, so that history might be made in Jesus.

Imagine if that were true…

Yet, as I’ve just said, it is quite unbelievable. It’s unbelievable, first, because it’s an impossible thought that one could be the meaning of all, especially when that one is not the first or the last but arrives in the messy middle.

And it is unbelievable, second, because who actually thinks anything like this when it comes to baby-making? The drives of the flesh and the heart are, most of the time, far from any thought about the will of God.

Yet, unbelievable as it is, this connection of our births with Jesus’ birth is the only thought which makes sense of the celebration of Christmas. We don’t have to believe the connection, but without it Christmas would be merely sentimental wonder at childhood, or a desperately wishful hope which distracts us for a moment from the harsh realities of life.

Do this, God commands in Genesis. Be fruitful and multiply not merely because you are driven to cleaving but so that the humanity of Jesus might appear. All human being is oriented towards this. And so, though Genesis speaks of all of us as created in the image of God, the New Testament speaks of the one Jesus as that image. His way of being human is our destiny. Do this – be fruitful – so there may be a history within which Jesus can arrive. This is the meaning of a child – our meaning, our purpose.

And now there appears a third and final unbelievability concerning what I’ve proposed. Meaning and purpose have a future orientation, but the baby Jesus is now very much in our past. How can our birth after the appearance of Jesus be a preparation for his appearance? How can the goal of all human history be in the past?

After hijacking the absolute human necessity of being born, God does the same with another absolute necessity: staying alive by eating and drinking. Do this, Jesus says – eat this bread and drink this cup – that my humanity might be present among you again. Do this, for the appearance of me: eat and drink and become the many members of the body of Christ.[2] This – the body of Christ – is no mere or weak social metaphor. Become the body of Christ: become the appearance of the humanity of Jesus in a community of love, even if only for a moment. In the act of creation comes the command, Do this: Be fruitful. In the act of re-creation comes the command, Do this: Take, eat, drink, together. All of this is towards the appearance of the kind of being human we see in Jesus in the manger, on the roads of Palestine, and on the cross.

Do this: be fruitful. Do this: eat and drink. Seeing these together is to see that, at least so far as God is concerned, the Eucharist is as good as sex. For our part, we might wonder about that! But we can at least see that they have in common that they make possible the appearance of the rich and open humanity of Jesus, the presence of the kingdom of heaven on earth. We are, so that a humanity like Jesus’ own might appear. And Jesus appears, that we might see what life can be, and will be. We are for him, and he is for us.

The difference between us and Jesus is only that, between the promise of the cradle and its rejection in the cross, he succeeds in being fully and freely human, and we usually don’t. This is lamentable, but not the end of the story: “a child is born for us”. While we are the reason this one child can be born, he is born for us. Our failings, whatever they may be, are simply that the humanity of Jesus is not yet our humanity. When we talk about “sin” we mean just that we don’t often live freely in love as he did. But this is secondary to his being for us and not over against us.

For the humanity of Jesus is not only the “model” for our own but is also a promise: we will be as he was, knowing God as he did. We will be the presence of God’s kingdom of love and freedom. This “for us” is so central to the story, that we can might dare even to say, Mary wrapped us in cloths and laid us in the manger of the world, and God looks to make us come alive and grow in God’s own Spirit.

For the final time, none of this could possibly be true. It contradicts everything we think we know, which is that the many give meaning to the one, and not the other way around.

Yet here we are, a remant gathered 2000 years after the event of one birth. We might be here because of tradition or obligation or curiosity or misapprehension. Or we might be here in order to be reminded of something we think we’ve forgotten, and so to understand once more.

In any case, let us understand what it would mean if it were singularly important to hear that “a child is born for us”. What would it mean that there, in that one place in the messy middle of our history, is the beginning from which all things have sprung, and the end towards which all things are headed? What would it mean that there is found a humanity which, to date, we have only seen as in a glass, darkly, but through which God sees us as if face-to-face?

To believe that this one child is indeed born for us would be to believe that each gurgling bundle of joy, each callow youth, each jilted lover, each soldier lining up the sights of his rifle, each bearer of terminal cancer, each tearful refugee, each self-satisfied magnate of industry, each frail old soul moving slowly from her bed to her window seat… Everyone, Everywhere, All at Once is purposed for the appearance of God in a humanity like Jesus’ own. To believe this would be to see in another person not only what we think they are or even what they think they are – which is too often to see only the straw in the manger. To believe that Jesus was born for us would be to see in another person the child who is purposed for the appearance of God. And it would be to begin to live differently, as if our lives and the lives of others mattered far beyond anything we could have imagined, because it is God we are to become.

Of course, this is all quite unbelievable, Wonderful as it might be were it true.

But in view of everything we see going on in and around us, this might be the one thing we need to believe, and to begin to live, for God’s sake, and for our own sake, and for each other’s sake:

we are born,

that Jesus might be born,

that we might become like him.

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. And his name is called, Wonderful…

[1] While Isaiah wasn’t thinking of Jesus here, his words have been borrowed by Christians to say something about Jesus.

[2] The other absolute human necessity is dying, which is “covered” with St Paul’s reading of baptism – dying with Christ – a thought for another time!