4 Advent 2012
As some of you know, for the last decade I have been engaged in the study of psychology. I only took up formal studies in that field after seminary. For me, a priest, to study psychology is to study theology. We say that God created humankind in his own image – male and female created he them – so to study humankind is to study an icon of God. To learn more about our interior world is to learn more about God’s creation.
One of my favorite theorists from the field is Douglas Winnicott, who was a British psychoanalyst and pediatrician. If you’ve ever talked about Linus’ blanket or your child’s teddy bear as a ‘transitional object’ then you are referring to Winnicott. Winnicott did a lot to study and learn from children at play.
In his writing, Winnicott has a neat way of making a very short but provocative statement. My favorite saying of his is this: “There’s no such thing as a baby.” That may seem an odd thing for a pediatrician to say, but since what he means by it has to do with today’s Gospel reading, let me say it again: “There’s no such thing as a baby.”
Let me share what Dr. Winnicott means by his statement by asking you a question. If an infant is born into your care, what will happen to that infant if you pay absolutely no attention to her? I mean, what happens if you do not feed the child, don’t give the infant something to drink, don’t clean her, don’t hold her? What happens if you completely ignore her?
Well, the answer is obvious and intuitive. Without physical care, the infant will die very quickly. That question was too easy, so let me ask another. Let’s say you take care of the physical needs of the newborn – you feed her, bathe her, change her – but you do so with minimal physical contact. You don’t hold the child, don’t have physical contact with the child, don’t engage the child, don’t coo at the child, don’t play games with her. In other words, you provide for the physical needs of the infant, but don’t provide social or physical contact.
The tragic answer to that question was most thoroughly addressed in 1945 by a European psychiatrist, Rene Spitz. In his book Hospitalism Spitz said that without touch, without social contact the infant in the worst case will die. In the best case the infant will develop severe psychiatric disorders. Pediatricians use the term ‘failure to thrive’ to talk about infants that don’t take off and grow and develop appropriately. Without touch, infants fail to thrive.
So let’s go back for a minute to the statement: There’s no such thing as a baby. What my friend means by saying this is that there is no such thing as an individual. We humans by nature are social beings. You can’t be born into this world alone. It takes a good-enough mother to help you survive. It takes the love and care of a family to raise a baby. It takes a community to coo, hold, love, and play with a baby. Without physical touch, without holding, without play, without social contact we all fail to thrive.
I think that concept has huge theological and philosophical implications about what it means to be human. It absolutely refutes the stupid American idea of ‘rugged individualism’ and the arrogant idea of being a “self-made man.” If you thrive in life, if you are proud of your accomplishments, if you have built a nice career, then to steal a line from President Obama, “You didn’t build that.” It took a good-enough mother, a family, a community, school teachers, caregivers, neighbors, medical personnel, a standing army to raise you. It took an entire nation to provide for you and to secure a world in which you may not fail to thrive. Human beings are made in community.
With that foundation, let’s go back to the Gospel story, which is a lovely and touching story of two pregnant women: women full of human life, walking communities of two. Mary has learned of her incredible fate – she is carrying the life of the Messiah inside her. She runs to her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant with the boy child who will become John the Baptist. And when John is in the presence of his Lord, he dances with joy in his mother’s womb.
So, Jesus hasn’t even been born yet, but we already have a glimpse of the holy community that will raise him. He has his Father, who is in heaven, the Holy Spirit, and he has angels to announce his birth. He has this incredible, faithful woman, Mary, who will mother him, provide for his physical needs, but who also will hold him, touch him, coo at him, bathe him, play with him, educate him, and protect him from harm. He has an incredibly understanding adopted father in Joseph, the carpenter. He has Zechariah, the priest, Elizabeth, and John the Forerunner as relatives. He has shepherds who will stand by his cradle and acclaim him as his birth. He has foreign wise men, who will travel to see this child-king.
He has a devout and righteous man, Simeon, who, when Jesus is brought for circumcision, takes Jesus in his arms and says, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Simeon, a holy man, who spent a life in prayer, praying, pleading for the coming of the Messiah, fervently beseeching God, “Come, Lord, right now.”
Jesus has Anna, an 84-year-old prophet, who never left the temple, but prayed and fasted there day and night. And when she beheld the infant she ‘began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2. 36-38).
And Jesus had a village, a dusty town called Nazareth. It was there, among the villagers he saw every day, that ‘the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom” (Luke 2. 40). There were others of course, unnamed saints, people who would educate him, influence him, disappoint him, frustrate him, inspire him. There were the local rabbis who educated him in the Word of the Lord. There were the faithful people of his local synagogue who would influence him and be models for him. There were the praying poor, the nondescript, devout villagers who sat in silent prayer, praying for the Messiah. It takes a village to make Jesus. There’s no such thing as a baby Messiah.
And as he grew in strength and wisdom, Jesus’ world would be more and more populated. More and more people, friend and foe, would become a part of the life and story of Jesus, until the scene bursts with crowds of human beings in the horrible days of the Passion.
What do Mary’s pregnancy, the birth of Jesus, his upbringing in Nazareth, his education in the synagogue, his participation in Temple worship, his religious upbringing, his secular education have to say to us about our holy lives?
There is no such thing as a ‘non-practicing Christian.’ If you are a Christian, then you are engaged in a community of faith. You don’t sit at home praying in your recliner. You come to church, share in the apostolic teaching and the prayers and in the breaking of bread. It means you participate in a communal life – with actual, incarnate, living breathing human beings, who will inspire you as they frustrate you. It means you participate in a 2000-year-old religious life – a life that is mysterious and wonderful, haunting and disturbing.
It means that if you sit and say, “I don’t believe in organized religion,” what you are telling me is that you don’t need other people in your so-called spiritual life. It’s just you and God, and you and Jesus, or, allegedly, you and Buddha. And I will tell you that opposes the religious genius of the ages.
It means that we believe in and practice interpersonal relations. It doesn’t mean we have to be in love with one another, but we do have to get along – in the Name of this infant, Jesus. And getting along takes work, sometimes very hard work, and open communication. It means we really do have to be able to say “The Peace of the Lord be with you” and we really have to mean it.
It means that whatever life we have, we have together, made one in Jesus Christ, our Lord. We will welcome the influence of others, greet dialogue, learn from one another.
It means that we can and will inspire one another, urge one another on to new life in Christ Jesus. We will continue to gather in the Name of the Lord on the Lord’s day, gather together in community to share in the apostolic teaching, the prayers, and the breaking of bread.
This, and much more, is what we learn from this particular baby, Jesus of Nazareth. Share in his life, now and always.