I enjoy singing the hymns in church because it makes me feel like I’ve participated in the service, even though I end up ignoring most of it because I’m focused on keeping my children from disturbing everyone else’s worship experience, or else I’m so focused on ignoring the children’s disturbing behavior that I effectively ignore everything that is part of reality during those 70 minutes we are in the chapel. But I pay attention long enough to sing the hymns. I like church in December because we sing Christmas songs. Tonight I am remembering a sacrament meeting early in December 2008 when the opening hymn was “Away in a Manger.”
So I was in church, paying enough attention to reality to sing “Away in a Manger” and also have some awareness that my five-year-old was lying on the floor under the pew eating Goldfish and my freshly-baptized eight-year-old was whining about how long sacrament meeting takes, especially on Fast Sunday. We had all quarreled before getting in the car because people were dragging their feet and making us late and complaining about fasting and complaining about having to go to church in the first place. If it was a typical Sunday, we probably all quarreled in the car as well, until I screamed at everyone to stop making any sounds whatsoever because if I heard one more unwelcome one, I was going to open the door and jump out while the car was still moving, so help me God.
I was in a bad mood, which I’m afraid is par for the course most Sunday mornings because Sunday mornings have been the bane of my existence for as long as I’ve had children. I once took a naughty two-and-a-half-year-old in the foyer and a commiserating mother said to me, “There’s a reason we take children this age to church, but I forget what it is.” At the time I was so beside myself with annoyance–at my daughter, at the three-hour block, at God himself or whatever powers-that-be convinced me I should both start a family and continue to be a practicing Mormon–that I couldn’t even respond. I was not capable of light-hearted commiseration. I wish I could say things got better over time, but they really didn’t. For a family that goes to church every single stinking week of the year, we are remarkably impious and incorrigible. Sacrament meeting is all about containment–not just the containment of reckless and utterly irreverent children, but of their mother’s seething anger and resentment. The miracle is that we have never set a chapel on fire.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a frazzled mother hissing outlandish threats sort of counteracts whatever influence the genteel Holy Spirit is capable of exerting on short, unruly heathens, so don’t imagine I haven’t already thought of that. It was what I was thinking that Sunday morning in December as the congregation sang “Away in a Manger,” and I tried to sing along, too, wondering if there was enough Prozac in the world to make me fit for parenthood.
I had never had any particular feelings one way or the other for “Away in a Manger.” I thought of it as a children’s song–a nice children’s song–that adults had appropriated. In the second verse it says, “I love thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky/and stay by my cradle ’til morning is nigh.” Those lines hit me hard that Sunday morning, and I couldn’t sing them. Oddly enough I was no longer thinking of my own children.
Is there anything more vulnerable than a newborn baby? When we say “the Son of Man hath descended below them all,” we refer to His suffering in Gethsemane and on Calvary, but on this Sunday I thought of the angel’s words to Nephi: “Knowest thou the condescension of God?”
20 And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms.
21 And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?
22 And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.
23 And he spake unto me, saying: Yea, and the most joyous to the soul.
As William W. Phelps phrased it, “[He] gave himself a ransom to win our souls with love.” Was there any particular reason it had to be this way? God being God, He can theoretically do as He likes, and yet He chose to become human like the rest of us, coming into the world as we all did, as a helpless infant dependent on others for survival. Of course we know almost nothing about Jesus’s childhood, other than that “he increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” We don’t imagine a baby Jesus with colic or two-year-old Jesus getting underfoot or otherwise needing a trip to the foyer (figuratively speaking). Maybe he didn’t cry when the cattle were lowing, but he must have cried at some point–how else would he have communicated his needs? Telepathy? Well, maybe, but I prefer to think he did as babies have always done, that he wasn’t merely an adult in a child’s body, but an actual child who had to grow into a man.
Granted, he probably had a nicer mom than me. But lots of people do. That’s not the point.
I didn’t find out the sex of any of my children before they were born because it pleased me to heighten the mystery of my pregnancy, to consider the stranger in the womb. A Christmas carol refers to Jesus as “the wond’rous little stranger.” Our children are yet strangers to us when they are brand-new. I can remember thinking with each of mine, “Where did you come from, and who are you? Who will you become?” It is astonishing to me to watch my children turn from strangers into “real” people. It is even more astonishing to me when God turns from a stranger, a mystery, into someone real. My children become real to me when they grow up, but my God becomes real to me when I see him as a little child, vulnerable and innocent and yet-to-be. I realize that even if this story of the baby born in the meanest circumstances becoming the savior of the world were not true, I would want it to be true. Not because it makes sense to me–it doesn’t–but because it humbles me and moves me to compassion–for my children, for others, for myself.
One could argue that sentiment pretty well sums up all religion: it is wishful thinking. I suppose it is, but I prefer to think of it as hopeful thinking. Alma 32:27 tells you that even if you can no more than desire to believe, “let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.” One man said to Jesus, with tears, “Help thou mine unbelief.” Faith is a gift, and it is often bestowed at the oddest times, but it starts with desire.
“Away in a Manger” ends with a child’s plea to “bless all the children in thy tender care/and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.” The salvation of mankind–of wretched sinners like me–is no less a miracle than a child being born of a virgin or someone raising himself from the dead, and it starts with desire, which for me starts with a baby in Bethlehem. It’s a story that never fails to touch me, no matter how hectic the holiday season or how grumpy the Sunday morning. And each Christmas I hope that it stays with me all year long.