Illustration by Adam Q

Clerical life: In search of baby Jesus

A number of years ago, we were offered the opportunity to cast a live baby as Jesus for our Christmas service. We’re not going back
December 9, 2021

This is the time of year when it’s traditional for people to greet clergy with a cheerful, “This is your busy time of year!” And I nod and smile and get my own back by saying the same thing to the young men at the butcher’s. Being busy for me involves a lot of administration. May Mr T have a robin redbreast on his tombstone? Is it essential to disseminate the deanery development planning materials more widely across the parishes to facilitate active engagement? Has that wedding document made it safely to Shire Hall? Yes, probably not, yes, in that order. Here come two irritable emails about the parish magazine. The landline rings. It’s a funeral director. Since there’s so much admin, all the things that take me out of the rectory and onto the high street—or into the pub, the village hall or the church—are a joy.

Our Advent and Christmas schedule is almost back to what it was before the pandemic, though congregations are masked and we’re continuing with the livestreaming. We check the case numbers religiously since the public health protocols have become matters of guidance. On our heads be it if we get it wrong. We’re still not sharing the common cup. Maybe at Easter it’ll be safe. Our community Christmas lunch won’t be happening either, though we’ll have hampers to deliver. The village charities will be meeting soon to disburse their grants, and I’ll get to walk around with the envelopes. Crucially, our Jesus was born last Thursday, so while it is my busy time of year, at least—unlike the magi, the shepherds and Herod—I’m not looking for an Infant Messiah.

When I was newly ordained, I followed the custom of most churches and found a doll to represent Baby Jesus in the crib service. It was the same one that we kept in the vestry and used for teaching about baptism. At Christmas, it would be swaddled in a shawl and presented to Mary. It did the trick: it was baby-shaped and, like Little Lord Jesus in the carol, it didn’t cry. I like to think that we all did a good job of imagining it was a real baby. But a number of years ago, almost by accident, we were offered the opportunity to cast a live baby, and the difference that made was greater than I could have imagined. We’re not going back.

That year there was no need for imagining. Mary held the infant with awe and looked at her with amazement. The shepherds crowded round. So did the angels and the magi. The baby yawned, murmured, and stuck her fist out of the shawl. Everyone adored her, and she adored the attention. Every nativity play or crib service I’ve been a part of since has had a real live baby to play Jesus. Sometimes we have a very small baby, but other years the child is like the bouncing lad in Tiepolo’s Adoration of the Shepherds. Always, though, there is delight as the baby is brought forward and settled on Mary’s lap. “It’s a real live baby!” “Look at the little hands!” “He’s awake! He’s looking at me!” “Be gentle!” Sometimes we have a boy, sometimes a girl. Most recently, in 2019, Jesus was played by the tiny son of a Hindu family, whose grandmothers came up from north London to adore him from the front pew. This year Jesus will be very young indeed; he may well sleep through the whole service. But if not, that’s all right too. It’s OK if the baby cries. To paraphrase Justin Martyr, the great Christian apologist of the 2nd century: the Word of God became a crying baby. That’s the Incarnation for you: Christians believe that God became fully human and dwelt among us, sharing our life: tears, smiles, hunger, homelessness, the lot. Everything except sin, and that he shares through suffering.