Throughout my life, I have grappled with a few pet fears. Heights make me sweat, spiders make me screech and newborn babies make me nervous.
I should clarify that newborns used to make me nervous; I have finally gotten a handle on that particular fear. But for my first 30-odd years of life, the prospect of holding an infant filled me with anxiety.
This surprised me at first because I have always loved babies. As long as I can remember, I have been entranced by their adorable limbs, their teeny tiny fingernails. But whenever a new mom offered to let me hold her little one, the alarm bells of panic went off in my mind. They were so vulnerable; their heads had that huge, alarming soft spot and flopped so wildly on their little necks. I feared crushing them or dropping them. Even hugging them caused me super-sized levels of self-doubt.
whenever a new mom offered to let me hold her little one, the alarm bells of panic went off in my mind.
My nervousness might have been more extreme than most, but it does acknowledge one of nature’s truths: Newborn humans are highly vulnerable. They are dependent on the gentleness and care of big, clumsy adults.
And that is why it is astonishing to think that God would choose to enter the world this way: as a fragile newborn who could not even hold up his own head without help.
I am now the mother of two boys, ages 8 and 10. When my older son was born, I was full of joy but also, in a small, deep part of myself, riddled with fear. I found myself grateful to have had a C-section, because it meant extra time in the hospital with the efficient maternity ward nurses. They knew how to hold my little boy, how to pick him up and move him from one place to another, how to help me feed him and swaddle him. They knew how to keep him alive and how to make him thrive. I just wanted to shelter in the wings of their wisdom for as long as I could.
But four days later we left the hospital, my tiny, dark-haired boy curled up asleep in the depths of a huge, new car seat. My husband took a few more days off of work, then he went to the office. My mom came for a few days to help, then she went home. It was just me and my newborn.
And it was fine. More than fine; each day I grew in knowledge and confidence. I got to know his patterns, his moods. We had lunch and took walks. I watched him sleep, held him close, listened to lullabies with him, savored the feel of his tiny soft body in duck-printed sleepers and little knit caps. And within a few weeks, I realized I was no longer afraid. The nurses and my mother and my husband, who had trusted that I could care for this vulnerable little boy, were right. They knew I could do it before I did.
I think of Jesus in those first weeks and months of his life. God incarnate, a newborn with flailing limbs and no neck control, put himself willingly into our nervous and awkward human hands. He could have come as a robust, strapping adult, self-sufficient and dependent upon no one, but he came as the most vulnerable creature imaginable.
That level of trust is staggering.
And though Jesus is no longer the newborn he was 2,000 years ago, he still shows a staggering level of trust in what we can do, in what we are capable of nurturing and creating. As a teacher and writer and parent and Catholic who tries to align herself to God’s will, I periodically struggle to feel worthy of that trust. I have got the newborn thing covered, but in other areas of my life, I sometimes wonder why God would think I am capable of the things God has called me to do. Raising two curious, tech-savvy boys in the perils of the digital age? Navigating the difficult politics of my workplace while preserving enough focus to successfully teach my students? There are times when I feel overwhelmed.
I know I am not alone. God’s work is challenging. It can be daunting to sow peace and work for justice, to give generously, to model compassion, to let go of our favorite resentments. These can seem like huge, terrifying tasks; we fear mishandling them and messing them up. It is often much more comfortable to keep a safe distance and leave the heavy lifting to others.
The nurses and my mother and my husband, who had trusted that I could care for this vulnerable little boy, were right.
But perhaps there is a lesson in the fear I conquered 10 years ago. I think it starts with learning to trust that we are far more capable than we think we are. We have been given examples of others who have shown that trust—Moses, Mary, Peter and countless other saints and witnesses. They show us that the only way to do that is to take the first steps, even if we do not feel completely ready. In our own eyes we may be big, clumsy incompetents, but we are not so to God. Like a parent with a newborn, each one of us is the person uniquely called to do a certain kind of work in a certain place at a certain time.
God trusts us with that work, utterly and completely. And when we hold out our hands and accept what he offers, that is when we discover why.