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“Goodnight, Baby Jesus. Goodnight, Mommy. Goodnight, Daddy,” my three-year-old says to his nativity, addressing Mary and Joseph. While his theology wasn’t quite right, I love how he personally identifies with the story. So far, he’s taught me more about that intimacy with the characters than I’ve taught him.

Ideally, we want Advent to focus on the religious, service, and family aspects of Christmas rather than the presents. But when my son was two, it was all just too much. We bought him a kids’ nativity for Christmas, but after we literally found Jesus under the car seat, it remained in the closet for the rest of the year.

At three, his grasp on abstract ideas seemed strong enough to handle at least the basics. He also had my own pregnancy and the recent birth of his little brother as reference points.

Of course, he latched onto the concrete, gross parts of the story. Specifically, he found it hilarious that Mary had to change Jesus’ poopy diapers. (I may have emphasized that to increase interest.) The fact that Jesus was born in a cave with cows and donkeys nearby also intrigued him.

But through the telling, I may have learned just as much as he did. Narrating the story to a small person with no previous knowledge forced me to move beyond well-worn tropes. Instead, I had to describe specific physical details, making it more vivid for me. Comparing Mary’s birth experience in a strange place with my own rushed one connected me in new ways to her. Now, I know a taste of her fear and strength, even if I was more concerned about giving birth in a car than a cave.

Even though he’s too little to understand Christmas, my younger son has made the story more real to me as well. I know the blood, pain and exhaustion of recently giving birth. I experience the closeness and tedium of nursing a child daily. I rise in the middle of the night to hold my baby close, just as Mary did. I even know how to swaddle, although we have the benefit of Velcro. And I know the wonder when you look into your baby’s eyes and he looks back into yours.

Jesus as a baby makes his humanity so real. None of us will ever be an ancient middle-Eastern Jew under Roman rule. But we’ve all been babies and many of us have been parents to them.

Sometimes, my children can feel like a distraction from God—such as when I’m chasing them around the back of the church. 

But this time of Advent reminds me that my children provide a window into an alternate view of God. A view that is beautiful, inscrutable, and vulnerable. A view that began with a swaddled newborn in a barn and is with us every time we cradle a child in our arms.

Originally published on the author’s blog 

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Shannon Brescher Shea

Shannon Brescher Shea is a mom of two young boys who's just trying to make a difference. Living in the suburbs of Washington D.C., she writes about her adventures learning to be kinder and more sustainable at We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So. You can also join her family in exploring parenting, growing up and this big, beautiful world on Facebook and Twitter. When she's not writing or parenting, you can often find her on her bike, in her garden, or drinking tea with lots of sugar and milk.

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