Behold the babies

Dear President Trump,

This year for Christmas our pastor chose to focus on the word “behold” – it’s on the front of the church Christmas card and it was the title of her Christmas Eve sermon two days ago. The dictionary definition of “behold” is to

“see or observe (a thing or person, especially a remarkable or impressive one).”

Her sermon worked with this idea by pulling forward the players in the traditional Christmas story of Jesus’s birth who are usually just bit parts – the animals occupying the manger, the out-of-the-loop smelly shepherds, the inn keeper who couldn’t/wouldn’t find room for the refugee girl about to give birth. She definitely referenced the usual objects of beholding liberally (i.e., Jesus, his parents, and angels), but she kept much of her focus on those who really weren’t thought to be especially remarkable or impressive, the ones who showed up with all their ordinariness in tow (or failed to show up, in the case of the inn keeper – though she didn’t dwell on that person all that much). Basically, her message was that we need to open up our sights so that we see, that we behold, those on the margins and stop giving all our energy and attention to those in the limelight or that history ends up deeming most important.

It’s a critically important message and definitely one that flies in the face of everything you stand for, which is a great clue that she is on a righteous, life giving track. And I’d like to embellish it a bit by bringing in the idea that the word “behold” is also about how we “see or observe (a thing or person…)” and not just the object of the attention. I’d always thought that to “behold” something meant to look at it with reverence, that the act of looking and seeing in this context is different from the everyday, often superficial looking-but-not-really-seeing looking most of us do most of the time. Thus, I was surprised that neither the sermon nor the official definition mentions this aspect of “behold.”

However, when you expand the basic online dictionary entry to get the word’s origins there’s this:

“Old English bihaldan, from bi- ‘thoroughly’ + haldan ‘to hold’. Parallel Germanic words have the sense ‘maintain, retain’; the notion of ‘looking’ is found only in English.”

And there it is – to thoroughly hold someone or something is the original meaning of “behold”, which feels so right and so important. The German parallels fit the original old English because if one is thoroughly holding someone or something, one is maintaining or retaining a purposeful steady focus on whatever it is. If we combine the idea of thoroughly holding (maintaining, retaining) with the idea of looking, it gives a different quality to the idea of beholding and squarely brings in the intentions of the looker and conveys that they are purposely and thoroughly seeing, beholding. And if we combine this with our pastor’s focus on those on the margins we get to a reverential, thorough holding of those we’ve been conditioned to overlook and dismiss, all of which squares quite nicely with Jesus’s later focus and way of being with people who his society had labeled less than or “the least of these.”

Another pastor gave the Christmas Eve children’s sermon and once the kids were gathered at the front of the church, she asked them to tell her the names of some super heroes. After several were thrown out (sadly all male figures) she likened Jesus to those super heroes and asked why a tiny, vulnerable refugee baby was cast in that role. The children’s sermon came before the main message so she couldn’t really spill all the beans, but the point was that this baby was born into a marginalized existence not unlike countless other babies and that this baby and all babies have the capacity, the super power, of bringing people together. She didn’t say it quite like this, but it was implied that babies need to be thoroughly (literally) held and that the holding, the beholding, needs to be purposeful and steady for the individual baby to survive and thrive, and in turn, communities that do this for babies will survive and thrive.

May all babies be held safely.
May we see to each babies’ happiness.
May we see that in caring for each babies’ health, we are doing right by everyone.
May we respect all babies and their need for peace.

Sincerely,
Tracy Simpson

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