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There are very few subtle points of theology that are shared by the race car driving Ricky Bobby of the movie “Talladega Nights” and St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei. But there may be one. Ricky Bobby, you see, prefers to pray to the “tiny baby Jesus,” to the chagrin of his wife, but Escriva just might have his back. Take this passage for example:
“Every time Christmas comes around, I love to look at representations of the child Jesus. Statues and pictures which show a God who lowered himself remind me that God is calling us. The Almighty wants us to know that he is defenceless, that he needs men’s help”
In the panoply of world religion, worshiping an infant as the one true God is an outlier. The Abrahamic God of Islam and Judiasm appears always fully formed. We know some things about the childhood of the Buddha, but it is not central to that faith.
The story of Christ’s birth was, from a secular point of view, a twist on an old biblical standard, the miracle birth. Just as Moses was saved from the deadly clutches of Pharaoh’s forces, so too did Christ escape Herod’s edict to kill him. From a religious point of view, this is not a literary device, but rather, the culmination of prophecy.
So what does it mean to conceive of God as a baby? To celebrate His birth, an event that He played no active role in? Here we go back to Escriva. This is a concept of a God who is in our care, which really kind of turns things on its head. God is supposed to take care of us, not the other way around.
And yet there are Joseph and Mary, probably changing diapers, God’s diapers. Humble shepherds and wise kings come to adore him.
But it is more than the Christ child who is being adored, it is family formation itself, it is a representation of the primacy of parents and child, and how our broader social and cultural lives stem squarely from it.
And this is not just a message for practicing Christians. As Americans at Christmastime, we all focus on children, with big blockbuster movies and hot new toys, with long languid days off from school and special treats. Because it is not only Christ who God gave to the world, but our own children, and before that even ourselves.
And there is a secret to Christmas, one that children can scarcely even imagine. For all the fun and joy the day brings them, it pales in comparison to the joy and fun that adults feel reinventing the magic of the holiday for their own kids. It is well true that the only thing better than being a child creeping down the steps on Christmas morning is being the mom or dad watching the awe explode on their cute cherubic faces.
So for at least one day a year Ricky Bobby might have had it right. Just as we pray for the health and welfare of our children, we also act, we also teach and work and provide. On Christmas we are reminded that yes, we are all, as they say, children of God, but we are also parents of God, He is also in our care.
We can be humble in the face of God, the universe, the higher power, whatever you call it, but Christmas also calls upon us to be confident in our ability to act, our ability to serve and protect God, our families, and our communities. This is why from medieval triptych paintings to Will Ferrell slapstick comedies we adore the Christ child. For He is a gift, but also a responsibility.