The scene is a Christmas Eve service years ago at another area church. The service there is not tremendously different from what we observe here: there are carols, there are the familiar scripture lessons, and there is the singing of “Silent Night” by candlelight.
One small difference is seen during “Silent Night:” a younger couple, usually one with an infant, walk out dressed in robes to represent Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus, and take their places next to a manger set up in the chancel. They have no lines to say – it’s a symbolic gesture, a final picture before people leave for the evening.
One particular Christmas Eve, everything begins as usual. The singing begins, the young family makes its way out to the manger. The song finishes, and there’s just a slight pause before the pastor says his benediction. And it’s in this pause that the baby, who’d actually been laid in the manger, props himself up on the one side and gives the congregation a huge smile.
No one was really prepared for that. It was a great light-hearted moment to be sure. It’s not that often in portrayals like this that the one playing baby Jesus flashes a smile at everyone! More often, the baby is fast asleep, or at least not developed enough to pull himself up like that. Or, if you don’t have someone young enough handy, a Cabbage Patch doll works just fine.
And yet, here is one baby doing things a little differently, active enough, curious enough, to want to see what’s going on. That night, he was an excellent reminder that what is celebrated on this night is something real, something flesh and blood, even something that will exceed convention and expectation.
Picture those who come to see the baby Jesus during his earliest months. Picture them as they get close enough to see this child. There’s nothing plastic about it; no cabbage patch doll as a placeholder.
The real sights and sounds and smells aren’t hard to imagine. People find this baby who needed to be cleaned off after he was born, who ate and slept and cried and ate some more and, yes, needed to be changed. People find this baby who’d eventually smile and laugh and be able to pull himself up on whatever was handy. People find this baby who’d grow older, attend school, go through all the ups and downs of puberty and adolescence. People find this baby who’d eventually grow into a man, Middle Eastern and Jewish and among the working poor.
And in this flesh and blood human being, people would swear that they saw and experienced God With Us. People got up close enough to this human being and experienced something authentic and genuine about how God is moving in the world.
For some, it was life-giving and for others it was very threatening. Brushing up against something genuine like that can be either.
For some, something more like the Cabbage Patch doll is more manageable. The artificial is just easier: surface-level relationships, comfort taken in the amount or size of our toys, surrounding ourselves with the sort of people or things that don’t challenge us to move beyond our comfort zones, that don’t push us to personal growth or to confront our bad habits or selfish tendencies. Just as long as we don’t get too close to admit how plastic it is, we should be fine.
But something genuine, something authentic, can help us be authentic as well. It help us be real in our relationships, to be honest with ourselves about the fleeting comfort that the artificial provides us. Like a friend who loves us enough to call us on stuff we shouldn’t be doing, or an honest word or a simple presence in response to questions or doubts about faith, or a sincere helping hand to someone in need rather than a cold dismissal.
This level of closeness, of vulnerability, of accountability can be more inconvenient, less predictable or manageable. But it can also be surprising, joyful, life-giving.
Here is this very real hungry, crying baby, a flesh and blood sign of God With Us, a living, breathing person somehow bringing God near. Here is one who will interact with others, who will do and say amazing things about God and about our world.
In the face of so much that seems or is artificial, something real has arrived.