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Mewling and Puking in His Mother's Arms

He looks so ordinary lying in the hay. Is he more than he appears to be?

Note: These weekly blogs, based on scripture readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, are prepared as sermons for North Baptist Church, Port Chester, N.Y. The writer is a Baptist layman, a life long journalist, and a communicator for church denominational and ecumenical organizations.

Recently Martha and I were preparing our dining room table for holiday guests. We pulled out our carefully preserved Royal Doulton Christmas china and Oneida silver and I watched respectfully as Martha separated each item by its designated role: the entrée forks, the salad forks, the dessert forks, the butter knives, the butter spreaders, the fish knives, the tea spoons, the soup spoons, the salad spoons, the jelly serving spoons …

Having descended from medieval knaves who used their hands and daggers as eating utensils, I find all this very confusing. Martha generally knows what goes where, but the knowledge does not flow naturally in her veins. Her parents grew up on Cuban plantations and my parents grew up on hardscrabble farms in the Catskills. Whenever my spouse and I try to make sense of polite table settings, we remember we are peasants struggling for upward mobility. Sometimes the best I can do is remember Amy Vanderbilt’s advice: grab items from the outer layer of silverware first, and don’t drink from the finger bowl while the hostess is watching you.
 
Most of us who live in the 99 percent have direct or genetic memories of peasant life, and there is certainly no shame in that. Abraham Lincoln, who grew up without benefit of silverware, said God must have loved peasants because he made so many of them. All of us with peasant roots can revel in the good company we’re in. We come from a class of folks that includes not only Lincoln but some of the key players in the bible itself, including Jesus of Nazareth.
 
At the same time, all of us with peasant roots have an above average understanding of what it’s like to be outside the gates of power and privilege. Our peasant ancestors survived by their submission to the rich and powerful, and our forebears were well aware that life for the powerless was risky, unstable and unpredictable. Humiliation and loss was to be borne with stoicism. And good fortune, when it came, was to be received with joy and gratitude to God.
 
There were probably no two peasants in the bible who had less reason to expect good fortune or more reason to marvel at God’s grace than Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed …” (Luke 1:29-48)

It requires a healthy portion of peasant stock to understand the joy these two women felt as soon as they understood that the Creator of the Universe had singled them out as special vessels to carry out God’s plans. Elizabeth, as we understand it, was a mature woman, while Mary was a child in early adolescence. Both women grew up being told they were worthless, mere females, property useful only for the convenience and gratification of men.

It is also likely that Mary and Elizabeth received news of their pregnancies with mixed feelings. Both would have been aware of the cruelties of the world into which they were bringing new life. Both would have observed the high mortality rate of the babies born to their neighbors, and both would have known that life is full of risks and persons born into this bronze age culture could not have expected to live to old age.

Indeed, one of the age-old questions people raise about God is why the creator allows life to be so capricious and cruel. Last week’s murder of 20 innocent children and six of their adult caretakers in Newtown, Conn., was a reminder to all parents that life is full of unbearable and unexplainable losses. 

Mary and Elizabeth were two women the long lineage of parents since the world began whose hearts were shattered by the fate of their children. Who among us could bear the pain if we knew all that fate had in store for the children who are entrusted to our care and love?
 
Granted, when Elizabeth and Mary received word of their pregnancies, it came with angelic authority, so they had every reason to be optimistic about the outcome. Perhaps the angels may be faulted for not mentioning that the mothers’ souls would be pierced with swords, or for leaving out key details about the fate of their sons, including imprisonment, beheading, flogging, and crucifixion. But Elizabeth and Mary were peasant women. They knew that good and bad, joy and grief, were inevitable parts of life.
 
They may have also sensed, as vessels of God’s miracles, that their babies were being thrust into the world as weak, vulnerable human beings to make the point that God’s way is not the human way. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, most Jews in Palestine expected the Messiah to be a powerful military and political leader who would cast out the hated Roman occupation and grind the oppressors into dust.
 
Instead, God came into the world as a tiny baby boy devoid of superhuman qualities but possessed of a willingness to demonstrate that the greatest power in the universe is the love of God. And the way to unleash that power for the salvation of all people was to be the loving and sacrificing servant of all.
 
No doubt the shepherds and the magi who first beheld that tiny human baby had serious questions about who and what he was. And no doubt the shepherds, with their perfect peasant perception, saw it first.
 
“Mewling and puking in his mother’s arms,”
Is he more than he appears to be?
A tiny mouth twisting in sharp alarms
Of his improbable infancy?
And frosted streaks of merely human tears
Tracing the fullness of his brown face?
And black eyes snapping at age-old fears
That our own mother’s lips erased?

Can he be more than he appears to be?
A rooting drive for his mother’s breast,
A human ego driven again to flee
A hunger pang, to seek a human quest
For comfort, warmth, and soft caress
Of mother’s hands upon a moistened cheek.
Who, in selfish moments, only himself would bless,
Caring not what all his race would seek.

Can he be more than he appears to be?
His swaddling clothes leak the same way
Yours did when you were young as he,
And he will not sleep without the sway
Of gentle rocking in his mother’s arms.
His infant eyes seem to mask glory:
But no more than yours when youthful charms
Wrote the first words of your life story.

Can he be more than he appears to be?
So tightly wrapped up in himself
That only his infant needs he’ll see.
Once you put all others on a shelf
Of insignificance while your needs
Were met. Did your infant eyes behold
The world’s suffering? Do his ears heed
The parables that must yet be told?

Can he be more than he appears to be?
And, if so, what sets him apart
From you, whose typical infancy
Was hardly humanity’s fresh start
Toward a lifestyle free from death’s decay?
You, too, had the chance but not the spark
To turn against your ingrained human way
Blindly groping through the godless dark.

Can he be more than he appears to be?
So humanly bound to sinful bone,
What is it his glistening eyes will see
That’s obvious to him alone?
That your humanity failed to receive?
What eternal riddle answers rise
In him that your soul does not perceive?

He is so much more than he appears to be.
Within this child, this mewling youth,
Still hidden by his skin’s transparency,
Is the full script of God’s eternal truth.
Now he weeps complaints about the pain
Of hunger, colic, and damp. But when
On you his full attentions rain
Your rift with God begins to mend.
You will be more than you have ever been.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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