Jesus the Baby
(Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to Peter, “Follow me.” – John 21:19 (NRSV)
Isn’t it amazing to read about death so soon after a celebrated birth?
Perhaps it only amazes those who don’t know how vulnerable you can feel carrying a 2-day-old around. G.K. Chesterton quipped, “The children are already frightened,” when someone advocated protecting a child from a scary story. The adults are also always frightened, especially when we are young parents in charge of absurd vulnerability. I always wonder what God was thinking about coming as a baby. So dangerous for divinity!
The quick brush of death with birth only amazes those who missed the part about this child being different. His death was to glorify God. The shepherds and the angels didn’t get it. I don’t know why we should make believe we do. We can try but we don’t have to succeed. “The value of the Jewish Messiah is not that he never arrives, but that his arrival is imminent. Every second of time is the straight gate through which the Messiah might arrive,” said Walter Benjamin. Does that theology of the now/not yet, the always coming, help us with the mystery around birth and death being such good friends? It helps me. The ending doesn’t so much happen as threaten to happen.
Jesus the baby becomes Jesus the man becomes Jesus the Savior. Jesus the living becomes Jesus the dead becomes Jesus the living. Even something as lovely as singing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve will not last forever. The candles will be extinguished, the cover put back on the organ, the hymnbooks rearranged in the pews. The show that opened will also close. Your best moments will evaporate and so will you. My best moments will evaporate and so will I.
The pattern of Jesus opening the gate, silencing the night, and being vulnerable as a child, on behalf of children, who always open humanity’s next gate: this will neither die nor leave. It will actually glorify God.
Let us so beware any sense of permanence that we can enjoy the fleet of life and pattern ourselves to one opening night after another. Amen.
Donna Schaper is Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church in New York City. Her most recent book is I Heart Frances: Letters to the Pope from an Unlikely Admirer.