The Mystery in the Christ Child’s Smile

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The first act of a man is to smile. When a baby’s animal needs are met, and he has drunk his mother’s milk, and has been changed, and has slept enough; and when he finally has acquired enough coordination and control, that we can speak of his doing anything at all – the first thing we can ascribe to him, which is distinctively human (not sucking and rooting, which he does, but which he shares with the animals), is that he smiles.

I do not mean those times when a very young baby is sleeping and what look like smiles flit across his face, or when he sometimes smiles “into space.” I mean, rather, when an older baby, at two or three months, can finally focus his eyes long enough to look into his mom’s eyes, and smiles at her.

This, it’s fair to say, is the first thing that a human infant does. Not raising a hand in a gesture, not a spoken sound, not a nod or wink, but smiling at another human being. It’s so astonishing that everyone gathers around and exclaims, “Look, he’s smiling at you!” We see that his smile is distinctively human from its subtleties, but also from what it develops into later.

Thus, this smile has meaning. It is not “a mere reflex,” because it has purpose and takes place in a context. Yes, it’s “hard-wired,” if by that we mean simply that it’s not learned. Indeed, it’s spontaneous, but then so is the quick-wittedness of a mature man – since “nature too does not deliberate,” as Aristotle said.

But if it has meaning, it is a meaning that comes to us through our nature – and thus from the Author of Nature, because the infant’s smile is not his own particular act – the way that, later, each child forms sentences in his own individual way.

Madonna with Child by Sassoferrato, 1639 [Rijks Museum, Netherlands]
Madonna with Child by Sassoferrato, 1639 [Rijks Museum, Netherlands]

Let the Author of Nature, then, present the meaning of an infant’s smile: “When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived; but when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain, because of her joy that a man has been born into the world.” (Jn 16:21) We may assume that what mother and child are joyful about is the same. And what we see in the infant’s smile is joy that a man has been born into the world.

Joy that “a man” has been born, not that “I” have been born – because it is joy in the goodness of his nature and existence, not personality. An infant is selfish only in the sense that he is always striving to fulfill his needs. But he is completely self-less and abandoned because, dependent as he is, he has no thought of himself as against others; he is entirely “with” us.

But there is joy also that a man has been born “into the world.” The phrase suggests both a “coming from” and a “coming into.” And we see both in an infant’s smile. Coming from: In a baby’s smile we see he has come from somewhere, not the womb, but from the Father.

In his smile he shares with us something that is otherwise hidden. We sense that his smile is a revelation of a special relationship he enjoys with the Creator, as an innocent and fresh “new one” (in St. Josemaría Escrivá’s phrase). That is why an infant’s smile can even evoke shame and a sense of unworthiness.

Coming to: without doubt an infant’s smile is a joy shared with another person and inherently social. It makes a demand on us to respond with joy in a like smile – and we do.

This transcendence-in-immanence, which the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas recognized in the human face, is seen first in a baby’s smile. Imagine then the smile of the infant Christ, expressing joy that a God-man has come into the world.

Our Lord likened his Passion to a child’s birth in that verse from the Gospel of John. Let’s do the same. For many saints, their last act as well as their first was to smile. Did the saints’ Lord and Pattern, then, smile on the Cross? He must have smiled, even in his suffering, when he looked upon Mary and said to John, “Behold, your mother.”

St. Thomas Aquinas connects this word on the cross to the wedding feast at Cana: “Before, when the Mother of Jesus said, ‘They have no wine,’ (2:3), he replied, ‘O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come,’ that is, the hour of my passion, when I will suffer by means of what I have received from you, my human nature. But when that hour comes I will acknowledge you. And now that the hour has come, he does acknowledge his mother.”

Since “there is a direct thread joining the manger and the cross,” as Pope Francis said in his Christmas homily, this word on the cross connects to Bethlehem too. Through Mary’s eyes. Good disciple that she was, she may have remembered her son’s teaching and looked up at the Cross as a kind of childbirth.

And, if we suppose that Our Lord smiled at her from the cross, let’s imagine that she saw, in that smile, the smile of her infant child. The meaning of both smiles would be the same. In both she would have seen the joy of Christ’s human nature, taken from her, revealing divinity, come into the world in order to save through his Passion.

Here then is an antidote to sentimentalism about Christmas, in what the very smile of the Christ child portended. For it signified, as Pope Francis said, that “The mystery of Christmas, which questions and unsettles us, is at once both a mystery of hope and of sadness.”

Michael Pakaluk

Michael Pakaluk

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is professor at the Busch School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD, with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children.

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