Unless You Become a Child

“Unto us a child is born” (Isaiah 9:6), and as he lay in the manger, he looked like any ordinary human baby: a frail thing, eight pounds perhaps, and helpless, needing to be fed and washed and clothed.

And yet, after all, not so ordinary. Few newborn babies have to be laid in a manger, and even the superstitions of later ages didn’t make it fashionable. But the circumstances weren’t merely unusual. They were unique. No other mother ever carried such a secret as this young Jewish girl bore in her heart. She was a virgin, but this was her child, conceived in her womb, brought into the world through her labor, and depending on her for everything.

He was a miracle, and not just in the sense that every baby is a miracle. This one was from the Holy Spirit, directly. He was pure miracle, a new creation, and although her neighbors would call him, “Mary’s and Joseph’s boy,” that was only half the truth.

Mother of Mighty God

An angel had expressly commanded her to call his name Jesus, because he was to save his people, but the angel also had told her something else: he was God’s Son, none other than the “Mighty God” (Isaiah 9:6; Luke 1:35), and as she thought and thought about it, it well-nigh blew her mind. In the mystery of grace and by the almighty word of the Creator Spirit, she was now mother to the Son of God.

How could it be? He was eternal, unborn, and uncreated like his Father, but now he had come into her womb, soon she would hear him crying, and one day he would call her Mother. She would have to wait a long time to understand.

Still, he was very helpless. God’s ways were very strange: choosing her, for one thing. But it wasn’t only that. Her baby was “Immanuel,” God among his people (see Matthew 1:23), but a stable seemed a strange place to begin; and even stranger to begin as a child, a helpless babe. Could this be the form of God, veiling his glory behind a baby’s face? Who would believe their boy when he called God his Father?

Sword-Pierced Souls

And what about those troubling words of the old man Simeon? What had he meant when he spoke of a sword piercing her own soul also (Luke 2:35)? Did the “also” mean that the sword would pierce her child’s soul as well? She was “blessed . . . among women” (Luke 1:42), but she still didn’t have the key to these words.

Unbeknown to her, her child was the bearer of the sin of the world, come to bear its curse; and one day she would have to watch, unable to turn her eyes away, as men crucified him, heaven abandoned him, and everything around her spoke only of God’s anger against her child. The sword indeed pierced through her very soul.

But even then, although she was so close, there were things going on in his soul that she could never know. Suffering by itself is no atonement. The damned suffer, but their suffering expiates no sin. In their pain there is no submission, only protest and blasphemy. But Jesus loves his Father through all his suffering and, with invincible faith, clings to him as “my God” even at the lowest point of his descent into hell (Matthew 27:46).

Enter as a Child

But as the child lay in the manger, he had no such thoughts. His messianic journey was just beginning. One day the wind and the sea would obey him, but for the moment he needed to be changed. In a dozen or so years, he would be causing astonishment among the rabbis with the depths of his understanding, and as a young man, he would speak of God as no one ever spoke of him before or since. But now he was but a baby, his powers were still slumbering, and like every other human infant, he began with knowing nothing, even of the Scriptures. Such knowledge would come later, but only through the Holy Spirit, and only when the child was ready.

The childhood years passed, but Mary’s boy never forgot what it was like to be a little one. He himself, lying in a manger, had been a sign of God’s way of doing things. God had countered the violence of tramping warriors and bloody tumults by sending a child (Isaiah 9:5–6), and now he had inaugurated his kingdom by sending a child. That was so like the wisdom of God!

Years later, when his disciples were dreaming of greatness, Jesus took a child, and told them of this greatness: “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). It’s the only way in. Even a Nicodemus (or an Augustine) has to enter the kingdom not as an Eminence, but as a spiritual baby: knowing little, bringing nothing, and needing all.