And wrapped him in swaddling clothes
If the consistent witness of the Gospels is to be believed, the most momentous event in human history begins with the idle whim of a public sector bureaucrat in urgent need of a data point to satisfy his constant anxiety for administrative exactitude – that addictive need for false reassurance through arithmetic that is the all too common characteristic of personally insecure public sector bureaucrats everywhere. It is a census which requires, for no good reason, indeed for no stated reason at all, yet at enormous human cost, every single citizen of the entire empire – the known "civilised" world, to spend time and effort returning to his or her registered hometown in order to get a tick in a box. How many thousands of people must, like Joseph and Mary, have had to travel hundreds of miles by foot to satisfy a bureaucrat’s pitiless search for administrative order and symmetry – and all in the false worship of a supposedly greater good. Nothing else matters if the numbers look good to your line manager. If you ever wondered whether this world ever really needed a saviour, and if you have had personal experience of dealing with public services, you may feel no need to look any further than that for your answer. And so into this world of cruelty, suffering and evil is born a much predicted child who, it is piously believed, will live and grow and thrive to become a leader, a King, an Almighty God in the world who will deliver his people Israel and they will call his name Emanuel – a name that means "God is with us".
And so just such a child is born to travellers in the most abject poverty and in the most dreadful circumstances. The family is excluded from the inn, stabled in the barn, lying down with the animals and laid on the hay in the manger. And wrapped in swaddling clothes.
Few people nowadays know what swaddling clothes really are. In the days before obstetrics, incubators, special care baby unit and neonatal intensivists, perhaps as many as 10% of all children died within their first day of life, because they were so weak, so unable to take care of their most basic needs that they could not even control their own body temperature. So, to save them from the cold they were wrapped in insulating blankets – swaddling clothes. The most such a child could achieve on his first day was to be an object of pity, compassion and love. You would not have to be a Shepherd of a particularly sceptical disposition to ask, "what kind of the saviour is this?
What kind of the King is this?
What kind of Almighty needs swaddling clothes?"
Then I remembered Celia (not her real name) and her story of the five-hour day and it changed my mind about Jesus almost as much as it changed my mind about her.
Of all the chaotic, street-homeless, used and abused young women I have ever known, Celia was about as bad as it gets. She ran away from care the age of 14 and lived for the next 13 years, mostly on the streets, or in prison, sometimes in hostels and sometimes in hospitals. And for most of that time she was an active injecting drug user, primarily crack and heroin, and occupied all her waking hours either using drugs, or doing whatever it took to obtain the money to buy them.
When I first meet her, she is 27 and it is my responsibility to tell her, on a first meeting, that she is now pregnant.
It is a shock to the system; she hasn't been so good with keeping her dates, but we think she's about 16 weeks. We order a scan and the scan says that she is carrying twins. Like many women do, even after years of chaotic use, she simply stops using on the day she discovers that she is pregnant. Doing harm to yourself is one thing; doing it to your child is something entirely different. We help her as best we can with opiate substitutes such as methadone.
To begin with she does quite well. She is housed in a bedsit in Bayswater with "the most useless boyfriend in North London" (her words, not mine). And she passes into the care of another GP, the social services and the specialist maternity drug services. We do not see her again until some months later when she brings the two new babies on a kind of triumphal tour down to the surgery. There's a great deal of hugging, kissing and general congratulations all round.
But above all there is a nagging question - if not a sword of Damocles, then at least an elephant in the room. She is still in the same bedsit with two babies to look after, with no family support, the boyfriend long gone, with the occasional visits of the social worker. She has her benefit money, no other income and no other visible means of support. So, however nice you try to be and however nicely you try to put the question, you eventually have to ask, "My dear, how are you… errmmm… so to speak… managing?"
To which she answers, without hesitation, some of the most noble words I’ve ever heard: "Oh! That's easy. They are my babies. Yes, it's a five-hour day, but when I think back to when I was using, it's easy."
I have known many mothers of new born children, even some who had twins. Many mothers who have had to live the five-hour day of get up, feed baby, toilet baby, wash baby, sleep, repeated over a five hourly cycle, it seems for ever. And never before had I heard one describe it as "easy". But that is what it is to be a street homeless intravenous drug addict – a constant five hour day of "Get up, make money, use, sleep. Get up, make money, use, sleep. Get up, make money, use, sleep". Repeated indefinitely.
And so, for me, Celia will always be my image of a woman who found her place in the world, her peace with the world, her way of life, her place in God's plans. And that is why I think the Lord comes to us not first with power and pride, to make of himself an object of worship. I think that is why he comes rather as an object of pity, compassion and love. – A baby born, laid in the manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes. A King who asks not what the Christ will do for you, but first what you will do for the Christ. Because we believe in the mystery of the Incarnation – that the Presence and Goodness of God in the World does not come to do something for us; rather he comes to give us the grace to be something - to be God’s People in the World.