St. Thomas a Becket

(canon this month)


What use is a newborn baby?

This month. as we recall the armistice that brought the First World War to a close, I realize how very fortunate I am to have known both of my grandfathers. One was in the Wiltshires and fought in Mesopotamia and the other was in the Royal Marine Light Infantry. Now I myself have grandsons old enough to have been in uniform.

I remember my two grannies as well: one was tall and rather austere, the other short, motherly and would sing us songs from a tattered song book.

A couple of days ago I was at a committee meeting. As it was not quite time to begin, while we were waiting, three of the members were joyfully sharing smiling iPhone images of recently arrived grandchildren. Secretly and unbidden, a question sprang to mind from something I had been reading the night before. It was the question asked by a member of the Royal Institute when Michael Faraday gave his first demonstration of electromagnetism. As Faraday stood in a gas-lit lecture theatre and showed bright blue sparks leaping between two copper spheres, the distinguished audience of scientists were at a loss to know quite what to make of it. ‘This is all very interesting,’ said one, ‘but what use is it?’ Faraday is supposed to have replied, ‘I don’t know; what use is a newborn baby?’

Is it simply to do with potential, this bond between the generations?

Potential is only part of it. In the 1830s no-one knew what to make of electricity. It just is. Certainly no-one had any idea of what use it would be. The world was not full of washing machines and light bulbs and cell-phones just waiting for someone to discover electricity. Shakespeare too was once just a newborn baby needing love; Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night and Richard III weren’t waiting for him to grow up, go to school and get the hang of reading and writing. Talents and abilities have to be identified and nurtured. Original thinkers, scientists, poets, mathematicians and philosophers alike have to wait to be fully appreciated by subsequent generations. In the meanwhile let babies and young children be loved and valued beyond price, not for some undeveloped potential but for who and what they are, now, today.

Babies run ahead of their times and confuse the crowd. Watch the variety of reaction in the street or on the bus to a new baby in a sling or buggy. Some smile, some look away, some just don’t know what to make of it. Babies just are.

By the time you are reading this the first signs of the ‘run up to Christmas’ will be appearing. As Remembrance moves onward into Advent, keep pondering that question, what use is a newborn baby? One of my grandfathers – the one in the marines – was never entirely convinced of the potential of electricity and managed without it all his life. Water came from the spring, light from an oil lamp; electricity was irrelevant. It occurs to me that many folk must draw the same conclusion when it comes to religion and the idea of ‘God’. Don’t know what to make of it. Get along well enough without it. What use is it? As the Christmas stuff begins to appear in the shops, concentrate on the baby.