This first appeared as a regularly scheduled column in The Finger Lakes Times (NY):
Is it the fresh spherical perfection of an infant’s head that holds its sweetness, or hair so downy with newness its future texture, color, or disappearance isn’t even a thought?
As I held that warm bulbous round of new life to my cheek, I felt myself resisting the task at hand, which was to lower him over the cold marble concave, scoop three handfuls of lukewarm water over his head, and announce him welcome in the name of the god my tradition annunciates.
Holding a baby is not an every day occurrence for those of us with grown children, no children, or no grandchildren. For me, once thoroughly immersed in balancing the needs of my own four little ones, holding an infant and realizing how rare it has become, made me all the more gluttonous of the moment.
It has become almost cliché these days to echo the ancient Celtic notion of “thin places” where the veil between holy and human – or if you prefer a non-religious description, between ordinary and extraordinary – has grown exceedingly thin. “Thin places” and “the veil” are descriptors appropriated by Christians and New Agers alike, because they are such soft, cozy, atmospheric images for encountering the sacred. This time of year, causes me to think about a much more visceral image, the cervix.
As a new father, I had to learn basic physiology all over again in childbirth classes. Hearing about how the cervix thins as the labor progresses, and assigning numbers from one to ten to its level of resistance, did not quite capture the miraculous violence that would take place within my wife’s body. Every centimeter of thinning was battleground won in a war between resistance and liberation. There is nothing soft, cozy, or atmospheric about the extreme thinning of the cervix on its way to birth.
Extremely thin moments between the holy and the human (or ordinary and extraordinary) do not come without an intense struggle either.
Human beings are often self-orbiting creatures and any number of things, like stress or substance abuse or immaturity, speed up and harden self-orbiting mentality and behavior. The holy, or even the truly beautiful, aren’t experienced from inside a self-orbiting cocoon. We have to be shoved off our axis, and re-directed to an outward orbit, to encounter the holy. The cervix between the holy and us does not give way without a struggle.
With the holidays upon us, I need to offer this word of explanation to the unchurched and non-Christians subjected to Cultural Christmas: the stuff you see on television and in stores is not the Christmas story. The images of Christmas presented by the commercial culture, and even the romanticized stuff that can also be seen in many churches, is an embarrassment in the way it trivializes the actual Christmas stories.
The original Christmas stories (there are two very different versions) are about a revolution aimed at thinning the cervix between the holy and humans.
The original Christmas stories are about an intense struggle to move away from our self-orbiting instincts and toward an orbit around compassion and justice. They are less about the sweetness of a baby and more about its vulnerability. They are stories with a hard edge rather than the easily commercialized version blared all around us.
May our holidays this year, be a labor and delivery that brings about the birth of a more compassionate, less self-orbiting populace.