Gabriel was already 15 months old when I got to hold him for the first time. Easter morning.
My wife and I, we held him for the first time not in a hospital or maternity ward but in a hotel.
That’s where our adoption worker brought him to us. Instead of pinks and blues, the “delivery” room was decorated with tropical plants and Mayan art.
Technically speaking, he wasn’t still a baby. He was no longer a newborn but his toddler’s eyes still looked out at the world with innocence and wonder. His fingers were still small and fragile beneath their soft, pudgy skin, and they still clutched onto my fingers for protection. And even though he knew a handful of words already, he still most often spoke in shrieks and cries that demanded care.
We spent our first few days as a new family in that little hotel in Guatemala while we completed the paperwork for Gabriel’s adoption.
The wrought-iron table in the hotel courtyard was where I first sat him on my lap and learned how to feed him and wipe his mouth and clean up after his spills. It was where we discovered his love of hamburgers and his propensity to stuff his cheeks full before swallowing.
The slate patio outside our hotel room, where we sat down on the ground opposite each other, pushing plastic cars back and forth, that’s where I learned to earn his trust.
The hotel garden had a tall, thin palm tree growing in it. That’s the tree I pulled on and swayed back and forth, pretending to be an angry gorilla. That’s where I made Gabriel laugh for the first time. That’s where I made him laugh away his fears.
And then there was the old burgundy armchair in our room- that’s where I held him against me and, for the first time in my life, let my too-cool, cynical voice sing soothing and silly songs to him.
I didn’t know much about babies until that Easter morning. I thought that just because babies are wordless and dependant then they must be passive, harmless too.
I didn’t know then that babies alter lives. They clutch and grab and pull on us when we’d like to get on to something else.
I didn’t realize until that Easter morning how babies disturb schedules, how they force us to think about someone other than ourselves. They jumble and reorient priorities. They call out of us a tenderness and compassion we didn’t know we possessed.
Babies literally make us Easter new, giving us a glimpse at the person we could be if everything else in our lives was wiped clean or made new.
I didn’t know it until that Easter morning but if you really want to invade someone’s life, if you want to mess with their priorities and preconceptions, if you want to change them or draw out them love and mercy- then you send them a baby.
Our first night with Gabriel was Easter night, six years ago. My wife was asleep on top of the bed still in all her clothes. The television played softly in Spanish and showed pictures of Easter parades from earlier that day. Gabriel stirred awake next to my wife, crying and fearful.
At that point in my life I’d been a Christian for 11 years. I’d been a minister for 5.
And it was Easter. But it was the first time in my life that I really understood Christmas. Incarnation.
Or rather, it was the first time I understood how incarnation and resurrection go together as surely as Gabriel’s hand inside my own.
I sat Gabriel in the burgundy armchair with me. He curled up in my arms and I sang him back to sleep. I saw pictures of the Easter Jesus play across the TV screen.
And I looked down at Gabriel: tiny, trusting and unknowing. And I thought to myself: ‘This could be God. In my arms. Breathing against me.’
That’s when the strangeness and mystery of what we call ‘incarnation’ really hit me for the first time.
Thinking about how much Gabriel had already changed me in just a few hours, I realized for the first time what a powerful thing it is that God does in Christ.
I used to scoff at the idea of incarnation because I thought a baby was just a safe idol that could be used by us, could be made into whatever and whomever we wanted.
But it’s actually the opposite.
Babies have within them the power to remake us.
What God does in Christ is actually more powerful than a hundred floods or a thousand armies.
Go ahead and ask a baby about what you’ve done or not done in the past.
Ask a baby about that relationship you’ve yet to reconcile.
Ask them about the expectations you’ve not met or about the sins you’ve committed or that thing you’re afraid to tell your spouse or your children or your parents.
You’re not going to get an answer. Babies don’t give answers. They just give light. With babies all that matters is that they are present, that they are there, that they are with you.
Try telling a baby you’re not completely convinced they exist.
Try telling a baby: ‘I don’t think believing in you really works in a modern world.’ It’s not going to get you off the hook. With a baby all our questions are relativized.
Babies force us to love them on their terms.
The calendar and the TV said it was Easter, but to me that first night with Gabriel was like Christmas. And ever since that night I’ve realized how you can’t have one without the other.
Holding him in my arms I could sense a new life that he opened up to me. He had neither the words nor the power to absolve me, but, holding him, I felt that everything had been forgiven. Who I’d been before he came into the world no longer mattered.
It only mattered who I would be from that moment on.