[Mary] gave birth to a son, her first-born. She wrapped him in his swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them to lodge in the house. Luke 2 v7
At the heart of Christmas is the image of a young mother with her new baby. It is not specifically Christian or even particularly religious to see in such an image the archetype of love. And quite right too, for so much of what is involved in loving is bound up with mothering. As a species, we may well have begun to learn about love when mothers with the bigger brains that had evolved to attract and hold a mate discovered that their instinctive mammalian protectiveness and care for their offspring had developed a new, characteristically human, dimension as they came to appreciate the complex uniqueness of each child’s emerging individuality. Love, so to speak, enters human experience though the archetypal first human mother, Eve; that should give us a lot to think about. And then as individuals, we each get our first experience of being loved from whoever mothers us as babies – and if that experience is seriously defective, the struggle to make up for it may last a lifetime. This is because, astonishingly, the love we receive as babies actually shapes the physical structure of our brains. Provided you experience early love, you can grow up to be loving and happy even if you were born in a hovel or a tent – or a stable, come to that. When the writer of the first letter of John says, ‘We love because he [God] first loved us’, he’s on to an important truth, though it’s not precisely the one he had in mind. That important truth is that unless we first experience being loved, we cannot develop a loving disposition.
And because our loving mothers don’t, and can’t, always give us what we as babies want when we want it, we learn that forgiveness is an essential ingredient in any loving relationship. Just as a baby learns that mummy has not ceased to exist when she can’t be seen, so it can learn that love may be sustained through episodes of disappointment and hurt. It is that knowledge that makes it possible to get over, to forgive, disappointment and hurt. The baby can of course only learn that lesson if the love is there in the first place; to the extent that it is absent, disappointment and hurt will teach not forgivingness but rage. Real rage, rage in adults, is a symptom of a chronic, early lack of love; the solution to it – if indeed a solution is to be found – must involve love.
Loving their children comes naturally to most mothers, if not immediately then soon after giving birth. Yet quite frequently self-proclaimed experts have attempted to tell them exactly what they should do as they care for their babies; it seems that love is not to be trusted, that it needs rules to follow. A central part of the Jesus teaching warns us against this approach, and not just in the case of mothering babies; it asks us to trust our love and to allow it to be creative in our relationships. It recognises that to the extent that our relationships become trammelled by rules, they cease to be loving. I don’t know whether it was observation of mother-and-baby interactions that led Jesus to this insight, but there’s no reason why it could not have been.
It’s hard to imagine a more intimate relationship than that of a mother with her baby, this new-comer who has grown inside her. She may have come to sense its individuality during pregnancy, and certainly not long after birth she will begin to notice how this particular baby has its identifying characteristics, especially if this is not her first child. This is key to her love for her baby; indeed, it is the key to love of any kind, for we can love only those other people in whom we have begun to discern a complex, unique and potentially wonderful person. What usually comes naturally to a mother can be learned by the rest of us – even by us men, who have not evolved to have the capacity for mother love. By observing those whose disposition to love is well developed we can all develop the disposition that seeks to discern the individual in the people we meet. I say ‘we can all’, but that isn’t necessarily true, because we need a sense of our own complex, unique wonderfulness before we can spot it in other people; we can only love our neighbour to the extent that we love ourselves, as Jesus’s most famous saying seems to imply. And our ability to do that, as I have said, depends on whether we have known what it is to be loved.
But love is more that this discernment of another person in their glorious individuality. It involves also the capacity and commitment to respond to that individual in their uniqueness. As most mothers come to know, this commitment can become all consuming. There is something quite primitive in this, and it applies to all of us in this primitive way; our instincts are programmed to put our lives on the line for people to whom we are related, but only to the extent that we are related. This is not what we mean by love. In love the response has to be made freely, and that means that sometimes loving behaviour may be withheld; even mummy can sometimes be too busy with her own affairs to give her baby her undivided attention. If loving behaviour is given every time, without fail, it ceases to be free, or at the very least ceases to feel free, and therefore to be gracious – and ceases therefore to be love. This is why the effort to behave always as if we loved is so corrosive of true love.
Christina Rossetti – a woman, notice – wrote a beautiful poem which begins, ‘Love came down at Christmas, / Love all-lovely, love divine.’ Her mythic insight is precise and accurate: love is indeed divine, and it is in motherhood that love begins.