The Infant Jesus Points to Calvary
This is the point at which contemplation through our love of an infant begins. ….
Christ's immemorial plan is that his life shall survive until the end of time, as it began in Bethlehem, not in the great and powerful but in the lowliest and least: “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble” (Luke 1:52).
For two thousand years Christ has seized upon, inhabited, and survived in the littlest and frailest. The fostering of an infant's life is a thing of terror as well as of beauty. We are face-to-face with life at its most precious, housed in its frailest. That life depends for its survival upon us, upon the intelligence, the skill, the perseverance, the unceasing, untiring vigilance of our love. It requires of us a love that is as strong as the worn and hollowed rock, and as delicate as the dew that trembles within it.
We stand on one side of the cradle, death stands on the other. The new life is still a spark, a spark that we kneel to fan with the warm breath of our own life, a spark that death could blow out so easily.
So is it with the Christ-life in each of us and in the world. It is lodged in little ones, in the weakest and puniest, and love and death stand over it face-to-face. In the mysterious period of natural life between birth and babyhood, there is a parable of the Christ-life in the soul.
Infancy is something complete in itself. It is a mysterious growth from darkness to light. Once again, we are reminded of the seed, of the thrust of the frail sapling life through the darkness and through the hard crust of the earth into the light. In time, when the infant has become an established baby, the world will approach him from outside himself. Every new sound and sight and touch will be a new experience, not of himself alone, but of the world and himself.
But while he is an infant, the human creature works his own way from inside his own darkness and aloneness outward. He comes out of a world of darkness and silence and warmth into a world of painful light and noise and cold, of sensation and of pain.
He is alone for a long time even in his mother's hands; the communion between them is not yet realized. He cannot yet respond, and no skill of hers can reach his deepest being in its primal darkness. He is here, in the room, in his little cot, yet he is away and aloof, just as the dying, whose cold hands we chafe with ours, are with us and yet are eons and eons away.
Both for the infant and the mother this time has an element of sorrow; for he is fighting his way through to the consciousness which is the beginning equally of joy and grief, of pleasure and pain, of life and death, and the way is a journey alone through darkness.
In the infant's first struggle to lay hold of his life, we can see in embryo the passion of man, the passion that recurs all through his life. Later it will be disguised, hidden by the grown man's reserve, but now it is naked, defenseless. The beginning of every life is a lonely fight with death, a dim shadow and showing of the Man who is in all men coming back from the tomb.
Our life in Christ is the risen life. We live in the life of one who has overcome death, who has come back from the dead and laid hold of the world again with wounded hands, who has taken hold of its soil with wounded feet and loved it with the heart which it has already betrayed and broken and pierced. ….
The child's first smile is a reflection. It is his and yet not his; it is the reflection of the mother's joy in his life, given back to her. Birth and resurrection in their countless manifestations in the body of Christ on earth bear a striking resemblance to his historical birth and resurrection.
The life of the baby following the life of the infant has a quality of reassuring ordinariness. This quality of ordinariness in the risen life is an age-long reassurance: This risen Jesus is no ghost, no apparition of terror and judgment bringing the frozen air of the grave with him. This is a man of flesh and blood, and this is God, endowing all that he touches with life, but touching what is ordinary, the substance of our life; making life supernatural, but living our natural daily life; eating and drinking with us, bidding us touch his wounds, not to reproach us with them, but to convince us that he is still the same Christ, who overcame death by dying.
He is still the word made flesh, who has lived all our lives, who has been wounded with all our wounds, and who has died all our deaths, and who has risen from the dead, a living man of flesh and blood still, to live in us and to live our ordinary lives.
Now the baby, too, has become ordinary; the Christ-life that was almost visible in him has become hidden; his own personality is already a disguise. The elemental miracle is not seen any more.
The mystery of the night is over; the procession through the darkness is accomplished; the peculiar beauty of infancy has gone forever, and with it the minute face of sorrow, and the helplessness of the beautiful hands that were like sea anemones floating gently upward in shallow water. The spark of life that we fanned with our breath burns the single tiny flame that can enkindle the whole earth: the flame of resurrection, the Lumen Christi — the “Light of Christ.”
The service of the infant is a thing of love, therefore of joy. There is joy even in the saddest love, and the love of an infant, even when it has a quality of tragedy as in our days it too often has, is fundamentally joyful. It must be so, for it is the purest love of the purest life.
…. No one, having received a little child, could count the cost. They could not list what must be done and given and given up for an infant. Every 24 hours could not be a period of trial made up from ceaseless small tortures.
But if anyone in such circumstances did count the cost in that way, turning the focus on self, their life would become insufferable; there would be that in it of which they must either rid themselves or else they would be broken by it. But if the focus is on the infant, there is no hardship. The life of the mother, like the life of the saint, is not a life of repression but of the spontaneous, necessary expression of love.
If, in fostering the little seed of light which is Christ's life in us, the concentration is on self, on what we are giving and what we are suffering, then, indeed, we put ourselves into the place of the mother who is not a mother, the woman who counts the cost of loving her own child, and we force ourselves to face the choice of giving up the life in us, or of destroying ourselves in conflict between self and the life that has been given to us.
Christ came, and comes now, that we should have life and have it in its fullness, that we should be wholly human, wholly natural, wholly supernatural, that in all our loves he should be our life. If our mind and heart and eye are fixed not on self, but on the Christ-life in us, we shall realize the wonder of truth in his words “My yoke is sweet and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).
Yet we know that of ourselves we can do nothing; how then can we hope to save this life that is housed in our own weakness? …. We must put the infant Christ in our souls into the Father's arms. We must trust him to hold us in his hands, to put us wherever we should be, to arrange the environment that is best for us, to rock us to sleep when we should sleep, to wake us when we should wake, to ease our pain when our pain should be eased, to feed us when we should be fed, to lift us up and to put us down according to the wisdom of everlasting love.
Everything felt for an infant by everyone in whom human nature is not dead is a dim reflection of God's love for the world. All that grace and miracle of sustaining love in us is his shadow in our soul. We are made in his image and likeness, but we have almost obliterated, almost effaced, his image in us by the grotesque travesties with which we have overlaid it. In the presence of infancy, man is restored to the image of God.
Now, most wonderfully, we can learn God's care for us, by searching our own hearts. The father and mother within us is only the faint image of the Father and Mother in God.
He is the Father and Mother whose heart never sleeps, whose hands never lift from their works that they have made. He is the one who has numbered the hairs on our heads (Matthew 10:30, Luke 12:7). In his humanity we are clothed as in a warm woolen garment. In him we live as in our home.
He is our food and our drink, our shade in the heat, our comfort in sorrow, our healing when we are wounded, our light in darkness.
Caryl Houselander lived from 1901 to 1954.
This excerpt is reprinted, with permission, from
- December 19-25, 1999