A Star in the East

Early in your tenure as a new parent it finally dawns on you why babies are born so cute.  Their cuteness works as a kind of protective coloration to make you overlook the round-the-clock feedings, the nonstop screaming in the night, the constant eruptions from every orifice.   Yet still you find yourself wanting to protect them, when more often it seems you are the one who needs the protection.  You are willing to forget the enormous expense, although you discover soon enough that the financial drain continues long after they stop being cute.   In evolutionary terms, cuteness enables these winsome little creatures to survive and reproduce, thereby ensuring the continuity of the species. 

Nature is indeed a sly devil -- a fact that was driven home as I observed all the fawning over my niece's new baby at a family gathering.  Not that I am entirely immune from the seductions of these little ones.  Holding a newborn in my lap once again, I found myself indulging in all the rubbery facial contortions and silly noises that are called for by the occasion.  I extended my forefinger, and the baby wrapped a tiny first around the end of it.  You forget how small they are.  You forget the bright light of an infant's smile and the clear gaze.  This little alien seemed to have arrived from a civilization far more advanced than our own.

It is significant that Jesus is introduced in the New Testament as an infant, although only two of the gospel narratives have anything to say about his childhood.  The earliest accounts make no mention of a miraculous birth.  Biblical scholars may perhaps be forgiven for suggesting that these stories are later embellishments, particularly since accounts of a divine child born to a virgin are a standard motif in ancient mythologies.  Yet the very recurrence of this motif suggests there may be a deeper truth here, whatever its factual basis.

The psychologist Carl Jung identified the divine child as an archetype in the human psyche, a constellation of ideas and images that is manifested in dreams, myths and the popular imagination.  The divine child represents our higher spiritual self and is associated with purity, innocence and redemption.  He is at once vulnerable and invincible.  In Greek mythology, the baby Heracles strangles a serpent who attacks him in his crib, while the Hindu god Krishna tramples a giant serpent underfoot when still a boy.  Moses and Jesus both survived the extermination of Hebrew boy babies when they were infants.

In the gospel of St. Matthew, the Christ child is visited by "wise men from the East," or magi, who were more nearly astrologers than the three kings of later Christian tradition.  It is the wise men who acknowledge Jesus as king, which is the whole point of the story.  Their wisdom comes in seeing through the outward appearance to the divine manifestation within.  The divine child is is not so rare an occurrence as we might imagine.  Every child born into the world bears its stamp.  It is the person we were all created to be, before we grew up and forgot who were were.  Yet some glimmer of recognition remains, and we are drawn to its light as the wise men were once drawn to the star over Bethlehem.

Matthew 2

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