My best friend and roommate in college did a lot of interfaith studies, and I remember her telling me about a visit she made to a Hindu temple for their celebration of a certain deity's birth. Like many churches during Advent and Christmas, they had a display featuring the infant deity on which to focus their attention and celebration. But unlike the beautiful crèches that have the fancy Jesus-dolly laying in a manger lined with gold lamé, the the Hindu worshipers had the figurine in a swing.
Like an actual, metal and plastic Graco swing. Like many of us have in our living rooms to rock our actual, human, 21st-century-born babies.
It struck us as a fascinating choice and raised interesting questions about the way we think about Baby Jesus. Those manger scenes that we display on our mantles and that people fight to keep on courthouse lawns are so beautiful (well, maybe not those cheap plastic light-up ones) but I wonder if they paint too quaint an image of a pretty, peaceful birth and infancy, and one very distant from our own experience with babyhood. We picture Mary kneeling glowingly beside the makeshift cradle and even if we recognize the roughness and filth of the stable (animal waste—hello!) we probably still don't think about the bodily functions and things that Mary—like any new mom—would have been dealing with. Breastfeeding, spit up, pee and poop...
Three years ago, when I was eight months pregnant with Kate at Christmastime, I reflected a lot on Mary's experience of expectation, feeling the baby move within her, etc. This year, with a newborn at Christmastime, I've thought more about these basic things of infant care that we often never think about Mary doing. I've sat there feeding Claire and thought about Mary nursing the Son of God at her breast, staring into his eyes and wishing her sweet baby a life of health and happiness . . . before he spits up all over her or her other boob leaks milk through that nice blue robe she's always shown wearing.
Kate—like most small children—doesn't see Jesus or the nativity with the unearthly glow that we do, though. She knows that Christmas is Jesus' birthday and that our depictions of Jesus at Christmastime are of him as a baby, and having watched me with her baby sister these last six weeks, she knows what babies do. She demonstrated for us at dinnertime last night, bringing the figures from our "nice" nativity (i.e. not her wooden Melissa & Doug one or the wooden Advent calendar with its rudimentary nativity scene) to the table and playing with them. Not wanting to perpetuate the idea that Jesus is untouchable (even if it meant the figures might get broken, which they didn't) I let her keep playing with them throughout the meal.
And what did she do? She put the tiny, two-inch Baby Jesus figurine on her shoulder, patted him, and said "Jesus needs to burp." She laid him down on the table, lifted his bottom, and said, "I need a wipe. I need a diaper." She even held his little mouth up to Mary's chest so he could eat.
She got it. The nativity means that the Messiah was born as a real, human baby, and all the stuff that brings with it. It was the beginning of a life through which God experienced the roughness of life on this earth. Through which God was with us. Immanuel—God with us. Immanuel doesn't just mean glowing, awe-struck wonder. It also means wet burp rags and dirty diapers.