Can you bow before a God who has come to Earth as a baby? That’s the scandalous question that Christmas asks us. It is the most unique aspect of Christianity among all the other world religions. Though we believe that there is only one God, we also believe that this God pooped on himself and drank milk from his mother’s breast. And we don’t allow that to be weird enough. Because it’s easy enough to call the baby Jesus God’s son and thus not God even though orthodox Christian theology says that the Son is every bit as much God as the Father. Christmas is the day when God reigns not like a mighty Zeus with his lightning bolts, but as a poor, helpless baby born in a manger.
Babies actually have a lot of power, but it’s a very specific kind of power. They fill whatever room they’re in with quiet warmth and awe. When people come across babies, their hearts are melted. Though babies are physically helpless, only completely unloving, cold-hearted people can remain indifferent to the demands that are imposed on them by that helplessness. It might sound weird to say this, but we actually obey the babies in our lives. Their crying compels us to scramble around trying to figure out what is being commanded of us. Very few people can ignore a baby’s cry successfully. It hurts our hearts too much, even when we’re exhausted and frustrated.
A baby’s power is completely unlike the power of an authority figure with a gun who commands obedience through the threat of physical violence. If a man with a gun tells me to do something I don’t want to do, I’m going to obey out of fear rather than love. My obedience is concerned exclusively with my self-preservation. In a way, I obey a baby’s cry out of fear also, but it’s fear of what will happen to the baby, not fear of what will happen to me. I’m afraid of what it would be like to live with myself if I allowed a baby to get hurt due to my negligence.
What’s unique to Christianity is the idea that we should worship the God who comes to Earth as a baby and ultimately leaves Earth just as helplessly on a Roman cross. The God revealed in the manger and the cross is not a God from whom I fear violence, but a God whom I fear violating. By being born in a manger, Jesus reminds me that every other manger baby in our world is an icon of God who deserves to be obeyed no less than the baby Jesus who needed to be cleaned and fed and kept warm. It’s true that the Bible commends those who “fear the Lord,” but the one whom Christians are called to “fear” is not a Zeus with lightning bolts, but a helpless baby in a manger who would later become a helpless convicted criminal on a cross. If I can allow my heart to fear hurting the baby Jesus in all of God’s precious icons around me, then I will live with the kind of obedience that Christmas is supposed to instill in me.