A Christmas Reflection
- through the eyes of prematurity -
(Christmas 1999)

first published in the Melbourne Age, December 25, 1999

The birth of each of our three children has left an indelible print upon me, none perhaps more so than the extremely premature birth of our third child Samuel, born at 24 weeks gestation weighing a mere 725 grams. Being told in the first 36 hours by the head of the NICU that Samuel's life support system might have to be removed underlined his fragility, along with the fragility of our own hopes and dreams for his life. Samuel began life at the margins of viability, a thin precipice we would walk for many weeks, with repercussions lasting years. It was over three weeks before I would hold Samuel for the first time - a fleeting moment while his bedding was changed, in which his head rested on my fingertips and his heels where my watchband would have normally covered my wrist. That was the week before Easter, and would shape my whole understanding not only of the Easter events, but of other aspects of my faith. As we celebrate Christmas today, and as I watch this nearly three-year-old toddler finding his way through the morning mayhem which is Christmas day in our house, I find my thoughts turning once again to the vulnerable child who spent the first six months of his life in hospital, and wondering about the nature of the events we celebrate today. There are times when it is easy to dissociate this young child from the babe born in such vulnerable circumstances nearly three years ago, something we are wont to do also with the Christmas story: dissociating it from the rest of Jesus' life, and from our understanding of God's activity in the world.

Sometimes events work themselves out in such a way that we are forced to reconsider all that we have taken for granted. Familiar categories are unable to embrace this new reality, and we are forced to commence a search which will help us incorporate or reshape our perspectives to this new world we find ourselves in. As it was for us in the arrival of Samuel, so it is for us as we contemplate the Christmas story.

When Samuel entered the world in the early hours of that Friday morning, there was no hesitation regarding who would share the news of his arrival - people who were important in our lives, and who would then journey with us over the coming six months as Samuel fought to overcome the significant obstacles which lay in his path from that first day. The choice of who to call at such moments is an expression of important relationships and priorities.

When the message went out of Jesus' coming and birth, we are surprised who is on the contact list: first news given to a young teenage girl who would bear the child; her betrothed received personal notification only when his doubts threatened to destroy their relationship. On the day of Jesus' birth, it was the shepherds who received notice: low on the social ladder, they receive priority mail on this historic event. The wise men were left to discover for themselves what the lowly shepherds received direct information about as God surprises us by expressing his preference for those on the margins.

The news I was to convey regarding Samuel's birth was barely credible: we have a third child, small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, struggling for life: how can it be that he still lives? First sight of Samuel was something that shattered all the categories of baby that I had ever known: skin translucent, with no fat deposits to provide its normal colour. Limbs so tiny that three weeks after he was born, I could still slide my wedding ring all the way to his shoulder. Legs smaller than my wife's index finger. Ears yet to be formed. It is as though we were allowed to be present while creation is still being formed.

The news for the shepherds also left them struggling with the plausibility of what they had been told: the Son of God… born where? The Messiah… and you're telling us? Is this the character of God that we have learned? Many yearned to see the face of God, and here it would be found, reflected in the eyes of a newborn child, framed by hay and a feed trough. So vulnerable, so dependent, so… out of character. Yet it was here that the reformation of creation would begin, enveloped in the sights and sounds of a humble stable, attended by poor parents and some lowly shepherds.

Most human understandings of God associate Him with the moments of victory and triumph in life, rather than the humility we find in this scene. Majesty and glory and honour are attributes commonly ascribed by those who worship him, yet the setting of this revelation stand in marked contrast. The hope of the world, born as a baby?

It is here that we encounter one aspect of Christianity's uniqueness: the belief that God entered the world in such humility and vulnerability. The whole scene shatters every presumption about the workings of God's power and challenges our perceptions of God's priorities in this world. The transformation of human history, both personal and communal, would not be in the form of a hostile takeover, it would grow from within. This was not God entering the world in disguise only to be truly revealed later, but God demonstrating something of the essence of His character: humility, and vulnerability.

There is something intensely personal and disarming about this encounter. Every human being begins life in the same way. From this beginning to a humiliating end, the purposes of God expressed in Jesus are permeated with the ordinary and the humble. Holy moments immersed in the common experiences of life. Like Samuel, Jesus life was under threat from the beginning from a hostile force: the very world into which he was born.

The impact of a significant event need not be diminished because of the length of time since its occurrence, nor by our familiarity with its story. Even as I have recounted some of Samuel's story here, I have found emotions welling up: the experience has touched such a deep part of my being that it shapes me in present and often unexpected ways. The Christmas story, old as it is and familiar in its telling as it might be, also has a continuing powerful impact on my life, as I contemplate its wonder, its mystery, and its ultimate outcome.

Contemporary priorities and expectations reverse the Bethlehem story. We determine that God cannot be found in the depth of struggle, so we dissociate our understandings of God from the manger scene. God is too ordered, too neatly packaged to fit in this chaotic and unlikely moment of history: born in an animal shelter and bedded in a feed trough, utterly dependent on human hands to nurture and protect him: we think of God as too much "in control" to be the focus of this scene. In the same way, we miss the coming of God into the desperate and chaotic moments of our own life, considering that it is not the place where He likes to be found.
In the manger of Bethlehem, we are invited to find God. Today it is in the chaotic, dishevelled and embarrassing moments of our own life's journey that we are invited to meet God. In these humble settings He is born. In our own humble - occasionally humiliating - experiences, faith is born.

As I watch Samuel enjoying his third Christmas, I ponder the impact he has made upon our lives and how different it all would be had he not survived. He left hospital for home 176 days after his birth, with the head of the ICU's comments ringing in our ears: "Who'd have thought we would see the day?" Though still quite ill at that time, Samuel is now approaching his third birthday full of enthusiasm for life, uninhibited by the challenges presented by his eyesight and speech difficulties, making his unique contribution to the shape of every member of our family. As we cherish his place among us, celebrating each milestone he reaches and discovery he makes, we are reminded afresh of the surprising ways in which God meets and journeys with us.

And this morning I look to the angel atop our Christmas tree and ponder also the difference in the world and the church had God not chosen to enter it in this way.

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