Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Twelve Joys of Christmas: Babies (Falling Down)

The Twelve Joys of Christmas: 
Babies (Falling down)

I know some people who could watch the Planet Earth video clip of ducklings falling out of tall trees over and over again. I suppose the appeal is some combination of the cute, the weird, the brave, the magical, the almost miraculous (I mean it's a long way down, but they survive). 

Let's face it, a lot of us like cute babies of all kinds--humans, of course, but also puppies and kittens and colts and calves and ducklings and those darling little Velociraptors from Jurassic Park. I've never loved a baby scorpion  but there must be a scorpion researcher somewhere who does. 

And this very human wonder and joy, assuming it is not just another socially-constructed bit of consciousness (but if it is, then the idea of social construction of consciousness is also socially-constructed so I'm not sure why anyone would appeal to it as a truth claim), relates to the deep physical, mental, and emotional "meanings" of the feast of Christmas, which begins today. The day of the celebration, the joyful participation in, the Nativity of Our Lord (as some folks refer to it, anyway). If you aren't one of those folks, I hope you will stick with me through the twelve days of Christmas, dear reader, because I hope to be writing for you as well. 

The idea of a king or a messiah coming to save us from our enemies and, perhaps more importantly, save us from ourselves is good news and a cause for great joy in and of itself. But there has always (or a least for a really long time) been great importance given to the idea of this birth, this baby, the really weird event in which, the stories say, some divine presence came to live in and somehow "be" in an animal body. And, unless we have strong reason to think otherwise, a cute baby animal he was. Maybe even with those cute big eyes that some baby creatures have.

Certainly, he was, like all babies since forever, but especially all babies in the First Century, all babies before penicillin, all babies born into poverty (and we could add to the list), a vulnerable creature. There is something about the vulnerability of babies (and baby ducks falling out of tall trees or tiny baby pudu deer or baby kittens) that appeals to something in human hearts (which I use for shorthand for whatever that is in us that makes us say we have "hearts" in precisely this way). Something in the vulnerability of babies moves us, we hope, to attend to them. To love them. By love I mean . . . well, I'm too tired to get into that. Let's just figure out what love is, in all its lovely forms, as we move along through Christmas. But here I include more than deeds of kindness. I mean, also, the attraction, the magic, the emotionally moving appeal they make to us. That stuff.

There is also something innocent in these newborn creatures. I know Augustine would argue with me, but it's not my point anyway, so he'd lose at least this argument. I don't know if they are judicially innocent, as such. But they appear to us as innocent. We value that innocence. We, sometimes, at our best, want to protect that innocence. And, again when we are at our best (or when we think of ourselves as being at our human best), we are distressed at least and perhaps totally heart-broken by innocence violated. Of course, this MAY apply more just to human babies and human children, but I think imaginatively and emotionally we transfer this over onto animals as well. 

There is, of course, also the issue of need. Babies are needy. We love to see babies nursing. They somehow know how to suck as if there lives depend upon it. Which, in fact,  they literally do. We like to play "dress up" with our brothers and sisters when they are smaller (or at least we help them get dressed). Because . . . they need. Everything. They are needy little creatures.  

Sometimes, of course, we complain about needy people. But seriously, babies? We don't judge them for that. We don't hold it against them. We hold it against us and we hold it against others (even in court!) if we or they are not concerned, are not careful (in the good old-fashioned sense of the word) about the needs of the neediest.

Baby Jesus, the son of God, who shone radiant beams from his holy face (well at least  in song and illustration)? What about him? Let's assume for now that he was innocent. But could he have been needy? Vulnerable? I suppose so. His mother and father were careful about him it appears. They didn't leave it to the angels, for heaven's sake, to swaddle his loins (since, it's Jesus, I assume he had loins instead of the more vulgar stuff the rest of us need swaddled). 

Being divine I suppose ambrosia would have been his food of choice, but, as far as we know Mary suckled him just like her momma did for her and so on back all the way to Mother Eve (whose milk, they say was tainted).  At some point, Mary must have said to Joseph, "I've got to feed the baby." Which might be translated into Ben Camino language: "I/we am/are under an obligation, on the basis of the needs of this child I/we have brought into the world, to provide the nourishment he needs without which he will perish (barring angelic interference--see Ben Camino's point above about swaddling)." I love when mothers talk like that.

We know Ambrose focused lovingly on the scene at the manger in his wonderful Advent hymn from the 4th Century. Deep theology, but also some attention to the imaginative/emotional charge of the nativity event. I wrote about that in an Ironic Advent Meditation. 

Certainly, in the age of St. Francis and, through his influence, ever since, we have emphasized the idea of gazing on and meditating on and having some deep emotional human response to this vulnerable, innocent, needy child who came to us to save us and to show us love,  but who also needed us (or our human ancestors anyway) to care for him. 

Maybe I should say "allowed us to care for" rather than "needed us to care for," but I'm not sure the distinction matters for this reflection. I'm not looking at the theology of the nature of Christ. I'm thinking of how sweet a thing it is, as part of the Christmas mystery, that this very profound and joyful response to darling, dear, innocent, vulnerable, needy, little, sometimes messy creatures, becomes a central aspect of our worship and our numinous wonder. 

I asked a friend who may be slightly addicted to videos of baby animals (especially ducklings falling out of tall trees) how to account for this wonder (if not worship). And, despite my snarky use of "addiction," I would heartily recommend baby animal videos as therapy for folks who need to feel, to care, and to laugh (a lot--see the link to the video at the end of this piece).

Surprisingly, her first response was not to say how cute they are. Surprising because they are really stinkin' cute. What she actually said was, "they are just so innocent."  High five, I may be on the right track. Don't look at me like that. I wrote innocent before I received any input from the baby animal video addict. She also said, "those big eyes just get me." Um, OK, so I do go back AFTER she said that and stick it into the early part to make it look like I was really on the right track.  

I didn't ask for a theological response, but I got one of those too. "If whoever made those baby ducklings cares enough to cover the ground below in a blanket of leaves, then maybe I have somebody looking out for me too. It helps me feel safe. I feel like I'm falling (and flailing) through the open air pretty much all the time, and it's not pretty." 

My baby animal video addict friend was not trying to claim, I'm sure, that leaves on the ground under the trees from which baby ducklings happen to fall is definitive evidence for the existence of a loving, powerful God who would send His son to be born of Mary in Bethlehem of Judea during the reign of Augustus Caesar while shepherds watched their flocks by night. Just that it has an emotional and imaginative resonance. Maybe like the old "his eye is on the sparrow" idea. I can understand that. That appeals to me too.

Well, I can't lie. I think babies are cute. Including baby ducklings. But, there's a little ironic twist at the end of the Christmas reflection that should remind you all that you are still somehow in the Ben Camino Universe (poor, poor pitiful you)

Baby ducks don't fall out of trees. 

They jump. They leap. They fly with abandon to what should seem like the very scary forest floor below. 

I suppose all babies do dangerous, crazy things (within the limits of their physiology). They don't know they are dangerous or crazy. They don't even know they have a physiology. They are so . . . new to it all, they just do what they do. Babies . . . baby. And they baby with beautiful freedom. 

My expert friend also says  that "they are just goofy, and they don't care who's watching." She adds, profoundly I think, "I wish I could be more like that." Not that we should expect creatures to stay babies and to act like babies (doing goofy and dangerous things) their entire lives. We already have a name for creatures like that. Ben Camino and his ilk. 

And, in truth, sometimes, in fact, we should care who's watching. Right? But don't you agree that, all things being equal, we probably care too much of the time, about too many "watchers," and for too many of the wrong reasons? Surely we can agree that much of the time we need to be more "goofy" and to care less about who's watching. 

The baby ducks jump from the trees. How goofy is that? Baby Jesus, love's pure light, the babe, the son of Mary, according to the ancient stories anyway, leapt, in a rather reckless manner (by most standards), from what would appear to be his true home into the not-so-safe forest floor of our own messy Planet Earth. And I know this sounds crazy to the folks who don't believe or are trying to figure it out but are pretty sure it might be crazy. I'm only trying to explain. It's OK to think it's crazy. But you might keep pursuing some of these ideas. At least the definition of love, which will take all twelve days of Christmas.

But the story goes that in his innocence, he chose, he embraced, he jumped into a vulnerable, needy human existence. Somehow, he wasn't just another goofy duckling, although he looked an awful lot like one. Theology says he is the god/man. That makes him, also, the god/baby. But he wasn't a shiny god just dressed in a baby animal body. He a god and a baby animal. I will explain that next time (I won't actually).

We gather at the creche, as Missy and I did today at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Austin, in wonder and, sometimes, worship. We say lovely prayers, sing lovely songs, and perform ritual actions that help us locate and hold on to what matters most. But something beyond doctrine moves us, touches our hearts (don't make me define that again), grabs us by the whatever baby animals grab onto in us, and reminds us of our own babies and our own babyhood, of our own need and our own good human desire to provide for the neediest, of our own vulnerability and our own joy and wonder at seeing such little miracles in this sometimes stale and sterile world. 

And, in the wisdom of Christmas, if there is such a thing, the will of God is united with the physical/imaginative/emotional core of his most highly-evolved creatures on planet earth to make something magical and meaningful and delightful. Cue giggling noises. And wonder. And very big smiles.

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