A baby’s cry

Being held in the light (photo by Martin Malina December 2022)

This Christmas when we sang “Away in a Manger”, I stopped at the part in the carol where it read: “…no crying he made”. Really!? We know Jesus cried as an adult when his friend Lazarus died: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). If he could cry as an adult, surely he would cry as a baby. He was, after all, human.

And if the baby Jesus cried, did the shepherds hear him cry?

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.[1]

The shepherds were outside. And not temporarily. They were “living in the fields”. In Canada at this time, we would be winter camping. But most of us may have experienced camping in the summertime. Outdoors. In nature. When it’s a little warmer. Listening to all the natural sounds of creatures great and small.

Would we hear the baby cry?

The first of four nights we spent on the shores of the Salish Sea last summer, on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State right across the Straits from Vancouver Island. Arriving midweek, we were pleased that there were hardly any people in the small campground right on the water. Below us, where there was room for a tent or two, the sites were not occupied, thankfully! Assured of some days of rest and quiet, I enjoyed the view from our small cabin located on a ridge overlooking the water.

It was peaceful. Quiet. Only the sound of the gentle breeze through the Sitka Spruce trees and Western Hemlocks that guarded the shoreline. Only the chirp of jays and sparrows, and even a couple of ospreys. Occasionally I heard the distant and meditative throb of engines from an ocean tanker going to and coming from the ports at Vancouver and Seattle. It was a pleasure to be outside.

The weekend arrived, bringing more people to the campground including some families with young children to the tent sites below us. The noise levels increased. 

On the last morning, I sat down in my favourite spot in front of our cabin on the ridge beholding another glorious morning. I usually got up early as the sun was rising over the water and most people were still in bed. And it was quiet.

Except the baby crying. Right below us in a tent a family had pitched the night before, the sounds of a wailing infant sliced through the morning reverie. It wasn’t a consistent cry, either. The baby would scream – a desperate plea. Then, stop. And moments later, it would start over again.

My reaction was one of anger and frustration. How dare this baby interrupt my prayer time! I didn’t want to hear the baby’s cry. I wanted to hear the birds, the water, the wind!

But just then I started writing my Christmas Day sermon! Because in a moment of grace, I let go of the need to control my circumstances. In a moment of grace, I let go of my preconceived notions of where God was being revealed to me.

Not always in those uninterrupted, peaceful, and undisturbed moments. Not just in places and circumstances that I can control and manage. But in the spaces and places in between. When I loosened the tight grip on my world, something beautiful happened.

Would the shepherds hear the baby cry? Well, my guess is that they did. Why? Because they were “keeping watch over their flocks by night”. In the nighttime, a dangerous time—in more ways than one considering the violent politics in 1st century Palestine. In the night when fears mount and dangers lurk in the shadows of our imaginations, they keep watch. They were awake, paying attention.

So, as the baby cried that early morning last August on the Salish Sea, rather than give up, I allowed the noise of the baby’s cry to become part of my prayer. I kept paying attention, listening even more carefully, going with the flow. And, when I did that, I noticed two things:

First, something I hadn’t heard on our trip until that morning when the baby cried, was a loon’s mournful song in the distance. I love loons. To me, the loon’s call is a sign of God’s call. In between the baby’s cries, a loon announced its presence in the cacophony.

And then the baby emerged from the tent, being held by a loving parent who rocked the baby and walked along the shore carrying their bundle of love. The baby didn’t stop crying right away when the parent held them. But I learned an important lesson of faith:

When I let go, when I can’t hold myself any longer—so to speak—God holds me. In love.

When the shepherds heard the baby cry, they moved into action. They didn’t wait till morning. They went right away—running even—to Bethlehem to “see this thing that has taken place”. And visit the Christ child they did, because they were already practised in the art of “keeping watch by night”. They were attuned to the sounds of God reverberating throughout all of creation, all of the time.

Christ is born! Jesus is with us, Immanuel. Will we hear the baby’s cry today?

[1] Luke 2:1-20

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