Every second 4 babies are born around the world. By my calculation that means that in our Christmas Day thus far around 168,000 have been born. They have been born in so many different circumstances; smart hospitals, less smart ones, refugee camps, birthing centres, street corners, the back seats of cars, and even some at home. There have been water births, Caesarian sections, forceps deliveries and straightforward ones. Some have arrived unexpectedly in a rush, others after long arduous labour. Sometimes Dad has been present, or close by, at other times he has even been unaware that he has just become a Dad. Midwives and birthing assistants have been very busy. A little over 7,000 of these babies will not survive until their first birthday. The majority of all these new members of the human family, all bearing God’s image, have been born into poverty; many into extreme poverty.
I always have mixed feelings for anyone born on Christmas Day in our nation. Just what is the best way to celebrate such a birthday with everything else that happens around Christmas Day? But that is a question from a rich person in the rich part of the world. For many there will be little capacity to celebrate either Christmas or Birthdays though my experience of the poorest is that they will do all that they can to do so.
Rosemary and my 4 were all born well away from Christmas. I remember each of their births well. It was a privilege and joy to be there; although seeing my beloved wife in such agony did not make it a pleasant time throughout. We were fortunate; we had fabulous support from what is still the brilliant National Health Service and wonderful midwives. The births all went safely and our 4 have grown up healthy. We all know that this is not the case for everyone; particularly for those who are poorest where alongside the 7000 born today who will not make it to 1 year old another 750 will die before they are 5. This is a dramatic improvement since 1990; over this period child mortality in under 5s has improved by around 50%. The prospects of living for every child in almost every nation on earth are much better than they were just a few years ago. But the task of improving the life chances of every child, and indeed every birthing mother, continues to be one that has to be pursued.
Of course the life chances of a baby born 2000 years ago in the Near East were worse than they are for most babies born today. This was not enhanced by being born away from home, and not having the best medical care available in Bethlehem at the time. We can safely assume that everything possible to make Mary’s labour and delivery will have been done within the limited circumstances. The new born boy may have been laid in a cattle feeding trough but I think we can safely assume that attempts would have been made to make it as clean as possible, and that fresh straw or hay would have been provided. After all Joseph and Mary were deeply aware that this child was very special indeed and that God had given them an awesome responsibility to fulfill. Many questions must still have remained in their minds about why they had been chosen. They must have wondered why on earth God had added to the complications by making them have to travel all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem so late in the pregnancy. And surely God could have arranged things a little better to ensure there was room in an inn? But no, God apparently wanted His Son born into difficult circumstances not easy ones. God was determined to face life with its difficulty not in its ease.
Mary and Joseph will have been full of hopes, and of fears. The hymn writer made a clear point with ‘the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight’.
Indeed the birth of every child comes with a mixture of hopes and fears. The mixture will vary from parent to parent and circumstance to circumstance. For some there will be many fears and few hopes; for others it will be all joy and hope with any fears being minimal and pushed away. However for all there will be a mix.
Every child is a sign of hope. They indicate life continues; they offer a future beyond ourselves; they will be here after we are gone. They can bring about new things in our world. Here might be a future inventor like James Dyson, a sports star like Katy McLean or Rory McIlroy, a politician like Baroness Maeve Sherlock or a church leader like Libby Lane; or simply, as it will be for most, a future good citizen serving their neighbour well.
For every child as a sign of hope there will be hopes. Parental and grandparental hopes particularly. But we do well as a society to help children as they grow have hopes and aspirations. It is the responsibility of every community and of us all to encourage and engender hope for every child; whatever their background or ability. Here in the North East there is a need to raise the aspirations of our children and young people, especially of those living on our large estates and in some of our villages. It is the responsibility of us all to make it clear that cycles of deprivation can be broken; one generation can be different from another. It is particularly the role of the church to encourage hope and aspiration for Jesus coming into the world tells us that everyone is valuable and everyone can be fully the person God made them to be. Jesus came to give life in all its fullness. His coming is good news for ordinary people like the shepherds of Bethlehem to whom God first announced the arrival of His Son.
There are always fears at the birth of a new child too. Fears about their health and development. Fears about our ability to cope as parents. I can still remember the fears of not hearing Caroline breathing and wondering if she had stopped completely. I remember the fear of wondering if I could have enough love for a second child when all my love was focused in one; not realising just how much love expands when the second arrives; and indeed the third and the fourth. Love is not a limited commodity it can just keep growing which is why I can love them even more now than when they were first born. Fears are understandable and inevitable but it is love that drives out fears. It is hope that overcomes the darkness of despair.
We need as a society to help parents with their fears. Parenting support matters greatly. We need to help parents give their children the time and love they need. So wage levels and employment patterns are important so that parents do not have to work every hour they can to make ends meet or have to leave their child in the care of others for too long. Good child care is important but good parenting even more so. The Christmas story also reminds us that both mothering and fathering matter. Children need good role models from women and men. Fathers need to be encouraged to take their full responsibility for children alongside mothers.
Yes Mary and Joseph would have had many fears alongside their hopes. They would have had the same fears as every parent with their first born child. Perhaps their fears would have been heightened by the particularity of their son. But they had also been given insights into the hopes for him in a way that none of us could ever experience. So many hopes for the baby Jesus; although just what these would mean art and Joseph did not know.
This Christmas let us reflect on the value of every child. Let us celebrate the hope that every child brings. Let us encourage and support parents in their great calling. This Christmas let us reflect again on the birth of the child in Bethlehem.
For this child, named Jesus by the angel Gabriel (Yeshua in Hebrew; he who saves), this child is the one who brings hope to every child born today. This child is God with us; God alongside us in our humanity; in our frailty. This is God submitting himself to the total dependency of a foetus and then a new born baby. This is God committing himself to experience humanity from the inside, with all its risks and oddities. This is the God who will learn to sit, stand, walk, talk, control his bowels, learn to read and become a carpenter. This is the God who will face death and triumph over it; the God who will take into himself all of human sinfulness and rebellion and restore us into his life and family. Every child is unique; there are no repeats ever in God’s creation. But this child is unique in a very special way for He is God incarnate, enfleshed, embodied; God as a human being. As such Jesus is the hope for every child born today.