Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Smell of Babies

I was given the chance to hold a little baby the other day. Someone came into the office with her 6.5-pound granddaughter, allowing the staff to coo and melt with admiration. I had been to the hospital earlier that day, so I didn’t ask to hold her. I wasn’t worried about it, but wanted to be cautious. So I wasn’t disappointed when, after I made a passing comment about how cute the baby was, the grandmother dumped her into my arms.

Not much bigger than a bag of sugar, she slept soundly in my arms. She smelled the way babies smell—not unpleasant but distinctive. My wife is pregnant and should be giving birth in a few weeks, so I considered the experience a chance to brush up on my baby-holding experience. It isn’t that often that one gets to take a tiny precious little thing like that into ones arms.

On this day, we remember a time when Simeon, the old prophet who dwelt in the Jerusalem temple, took the 40-day-old baby Jesus into his arms and declared, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” This man took the tiny God-incarnate into his hands and exclaimed to the Temple that God’s salvation had arrived in the form of this defenseless child, who probably weighed about as much as a bag of sugar.

What does it mean to hold God in your arms? How does it feel to stare down at God almighty, asleep against your chest? His mother and father were amazed at what was being said about him. I wonder whether they got a little nervous when the cute but slightly crazy old man started singing these strange things about their infant son. At Christmas time, when I hear the nativity story, I think about God being born in a stable in Bethlehem, but, just as Luke’s narrative trails off, I quickly forget about God being a baby.

That Simeon was able to take God into his arms gets to the heart of our faith. Ironically, it’s easier for us to imagine God as all-powerful, infinite, and beyond all comprehension than it is for us to understand how that same God fits into a tiny little child. But God became as vulnerable and weak as that infant. God allowed himself to be embraced by a gray-haired prophet. It’s an even more tangible expression of the incarnation than the birth itself.

God reaches out to us in an irresistible way. Just try to stay away from a little baby! God embraces us by becoming embracable. He wants us to stare down at his sleeping face and brown, stringy hair. He invites us to smell that familiar baby-smell and sigh ever so gently at the wonder of it all. 

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