Two greeting cards have been occupying my thoughts. Both were sent to celebrate the birth of a new child, my first granddaughter. Both have a great deal to reveal about God, as well as about their senders.
The first comes from a dear Jesuit friend now in his mid-80s. He writes directly to the newborn, addressing her by name and expressing an understanding of God's ways that completely overturns the usual notions that surround the coming of a new baby. He begins by welcoming her, and saying how glad we are that she has come to join us "down here." He notes that she has arrived four weeks ahead of schedule, and adds that he is delighted; this reveals that she is eager to be here and ready to make an early start on whatever it is she has come to do for us.
What a difference! To regard a newborn child not just as a helpless tiny person, dependent on us for everything, cute and cuddly but, after all, "just a baby." But rather to revere this newcomer for who she truly is-"a spiritual being on a human journey," whose life has some unique gift to bring to the whole human family. I feel the goose bumps rising on my skin as I realize the impact of what this wise friend has written.
The second card is addressed to me. It tells me that "this baby has some terrific footsteps to follow." It brings tears to my eyes, to go with the goose bumps. I had never thought of it like this. Will these footsteps-my footsteps-really help to lead this little one in the direction of life in all its fullness? It turns any sentimental baby-gawking into a call to accept a new and daunting responsibility-to walk a path that helps to lead another in ways of love, justice and integrity.
In one sense, this tiny baby leads us, helpless though she is, because she is the future. In another sense she follows where we lead, and our own experience and convictions will help to guide her steps. She leads. She follows. Both cards speak a profound truth. Each life, including yours and mine, is a space for God's dream to unfold in a unique way. Helpless though we may feel and, like my granddaughter, very premature, this does not alter the staggering truth that we are here for a purpose, a purpose that was known to God before we were conceived. Even before our universe flared forth from its first beginnings, the core of our being was held in God's heart. The discovery of that purpose starts when the midwife places us in our mother's arms, and it continues as we search out God's ways through the tangle of our daily lives. It is a purpose that only God-with-us can fulfill.
Very soon we will be celebrating the arrival of another baby. Every year this season calls us to contemplate what was really going on in that manger in a remote town in the Middle East, and to reflect on the reverberations of that birth all down the intervening centuries. We think of a little family, struggling, surely, with the momentous events that have overtaken them and turned their lives upside-down. Every baby does that, but this one does it on a grand scale. We watch as the ancient tale unfolds, as they trek to Bethlehem to do what needs to be done to comply with administrative authority. We crouch in the corner of the stable and let ourselves be present to the most intimate of moments, as the new parents hold their child, perhaps already intuiting that in fact he is the one who is holding them.
When I reflect on these things, I am reminded of an interesting difference in the words that describe the event of going into labor and giving birth in the English and German languages respectively. In Britain we speak of a woman's "confinement." The event is focused on what is happening to the mother; she is confined to bed, she is going through a painful and sometimes risky process. The term has slightly negative connotations. In German the equivalent word is Entbindung, which means unfolding, unbinding, releasing, liberating. This expresses a very different view of the process, focused on the new life that is emerging.
We are the body of Christ today. We are called to let God's love become incarnate in our own lives and situations. We are asked to give birth to something of God's dream for creation, in the details of our own daily lives. How do we feel about our response? Is it a "confinement," putting our religious life in a box and keeping it safely contained in practices that we can control? Or are we willing to risk whatever might happen if we truly invite God's love and power to unfold in our lived experience? Most parents rapidly discover that though the baby books may give them detailed instructions on how to proceed, the new baby does not follow any rules. We can expect to be surprised over and over by how the reality of this newborn child of Bethlehem unfolds in our lives. Will we keep him tightly swaddled in our own ideas of how he should be handled and how far he should be allowed to move and act, or dare we "unbind" him and set him free to transform our lives and our world?
This Christmas, in spite of economic gloom, a quiver of fresh hope really is palpable in our world. May this Child, whom we follow, give us the grace to become people whose own footsteps lead in the direction of peace, hope and new beginnings; and may we have the courage to set him free to surprise and challenge us around every turn of the coming year.
Margaret Silf lives in Staffordshire, England. Her latest books are Companions of Christ: Ignatian Spirituality for Everyday Living and The Gift of Prayer.