The night that God let go

A reflection for Christmas Eve, adapted from that shared at Holy Cross Timperley.

Tonight we recall that holy night when God took on our human life with the most fragile of beginnings.

God himself became a helpless bundle of tears and gurgles.
God himself identified with human beings at one of the frailest moments of our existence: the moment of our birth.

Our Christmas carols sing of this wonderful truth, but how often do their words pass us by?

He came down to Earth from Heaven
Who is God and Lord of all.

So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his Heaven.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate deity.

And of course, John, in the prologue to his Gospel, puts it like this:
In the beginning was the Word.
The Word was with God.
The Word was God.
The Word became flesh.

Here is the God who created the stars and the planets and the oceans and the mountains.
Here is the God who is so holy that the Israelite people could barely stand in his presence and live.
Here is that God choosing to leave his Heavenly throne to come and live among his people.

Tonight we find our God lying in a feeding trough: the tiny baby of a peasant girl and her fiancé.

What is this, if not the ultimate divine act of letting go?
God let go of the Heavenly realms, to come and live among his created beings on Earth.
God let go of divine power, to begin life here as each of us has done: weak, vulnerable, helpless.

Welcome to Christmas night. The night that God let go.

We all know what it is like to have to let go of something, or someone. We have all known loss. Human experience calls us back to this well trodden path of letting go. We may have had to let go of childhood, of possessions, of ambitions, of past hurts, of good dreams and bad memories, of relationships, of health, of our home, of dear friends and family members, or even of our very selves.

Letting go can be beautifully liberating, or crushingly painful. Sometimes it is both. Many of us here this evening have walked some very difficult pathways of loss and letting go this year. And in all that we have to let go of, in all our experience of loss, God has been there before us. He knows what it is like to have to let go.

He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us he knew.
And he feeleth for our sadness
And he shareth in our gladness.

The incarnation, and this tiny baby who is the centrepiece of our nativity stories, is a reminder that God knows what human life is like.

We can never justly accuse God of not knowing human suffering, because he came to Earth and lived it for us.
We can never justly accuse God of not stepping into our shoes, because that is exactly what he did.

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I wonder what we see when we look at the nativity scene. Mary and Joseph, yes. And a baby. Shepherds and sheep, wise men, perhaps a donkey and an ox. Not forgetting the angels.

I wonder how often we look at that scene and see God? We know the baby is the baby Jesus. We know this baby is God, taking on human form. But do we really see him?
Do we truly grasp the full significance of this tiny baby laid in a feeding trough?
Do we look upon this baby and remember all that God let go of, in order to come and live this life of frailty and humility?

The nativity is not a fairy tale to make us feel warm and fuzzy at Christmas time.
The nativity is not, primarily, a script for a school play.

The nativity is an account of loss and pain, of flesh and blood.
The nativity is an account of life’s interruptions and injustice crashing headlong into God’s love and mercy.
The nativity is an account of our frail and fickle lives becoming intimately entwined with the awesome, majestic, eternal life of God.

On this holy night, we give thanks to God that he let go of everything to walk in our shoes: to feel our pain and to know our helplessness.
On this holy night, we commit to God our own acts of letting go, our pain and our loss, and we ask for his gentle love to enfold us.
On this holy night, we gaze upon the Christ child, and see that the Lord has drawn near to the broken hearted.

On this holy night, the Word became flesh, and he lives among us.

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The milk of human kindness: A plea to the Women’s Institute

Another day. Another headline about a woman being asked not to breastfeed her baby. This time the lady in question was asked not to attend meetings of her local branch of the Women’s Institute until her child was weaned. Apparently “this is a common policy at WI meetings, as many WI members see the meetings as an escape from family life where they can concentrate on themselves and meeting other women”. The WI have since apologised and stated that this policy does not extend to breastfeeding mothers.

There is not much of a case to be made by anyone seeking to stop women breastfeeding freely pretty much wherever they like. The argument has been well rehearsed elsewhere and I won’t rehash it here. Opinion on this is strong, and the debate has been had.

But it seems to me that where clashes about breastfeeding occur, they are often not about breastfeeding at all.

However a new mother (or father) feeds her (or his) baby, the parent and child need time together to bond. Bonding is rarely instantaneous, but is a process that happens over weeks, months… perhaps years. Certainly the first few months of the child’s life are vitally formational in this respect. Bonding happens through physical contact and verbal and non-verbal communication, and the time this is most likely to happen is when the baby is being fed, by breast or bottle. Put simply, if a parent and their young child are to bond well in those first few months, they need to spend as much time together as possible.

A new mum is also at risk of becoming dangerously isolated very quickly. Looking after a baby is physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually demanding. And it can be incredibly lonely, particularly if a partner returns to work soon after the birth. No wonder that one charity estimates that as many as 3 in 10 new mums suffer from postnatal depression. It seems clear that parents of babies, and mums especially, need support, love, company, kindness and community.

So…
Babies and parents need one another’s company.
And…
Parents of young children need community and support.

If parents and their babies are to have the best chance of flourishing, they need to be welcomed together into social circles, organisations, meetings and events. If a parent is told they are unable to enter a specific place with their baby, this is potentially damaging for both parent and child. Either the parent and child have to part company for a time, where they could otherwise spend time bonding with one another. Or the parent remains with the baby, but becomes even more isolated.

This is not about how a child is fed. In the case outlined above, the Women’s Institute acknowledges the “right and freedom of every woman to breastfeed”. But what about if a woman who bottle fed her baby was placed in the same situation? Would her baby not be allowed to attend meetings, where the breastfed baby was? Both babies, at that stage, need the physical contact and communication with mum that both breast and bottle supply. The development of both babies is important, and the wellbeing of both mums is important.

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This is not about breastfeeding. It’s probably not even about new parents and babies, exclusively. This is about how we become community. It’s about how we live in such a way as to provide hospitality to one another. It’s about pushing beyond our own comfort zones, overcoming fear of the unknown or “escape” from the uncomfortable, to advance our mutual flourishing.

We exclude those who makes us feel uncomfortable at great cost. So dear Women’s Institute, this Christmas time please think again about your “child free zone” policy, because you may find your meetings are enriched, bolstered and blessed by young mums and their babes and toddlers. Just as you enrich, bolster and bless those families in return.