One temptation of the Christmas season is to approach the birth of the Savior solely as a familiar and comforting winter’s tale. For children, of course, that’s enough. And even for adults, in the end, it comes down to that. But only at the end. During Advent, there’s much else to ponder before we get to those Good Tidings. The more Decembers that come and go, the more I think we would do better to recover what might be called the shock of Christmas. Because it was not logical or obvious that, to save us, God would become man. That shock was intentional, meant to wake us up.
Our kind of God, a transcendent one, by definition stands outside the world in a different kind of existence. The pagan gods could quite easily turn into bulls and bears and golden showers, and mate with the daughters of men, because they were conceived of as part of the world, immortal parts, but parts all the same. By contrast, the Christian God can create and sustain the world – as the pagan deities could not – precisely because He is not a thing, but a different mode of Being entirely. The scientists who claim that there is no evidence of God’s existence in the material world are right, in a way. Christian theologians have long held that His absence from the usual interactions of matter is not a theological problem, but a mark of the divine nature.
Of course, the plot thickens for Christians because we also believe Christ is true God and became true man. The Jewish leaders who tore their robes when Jesus said he was one with the Father, or that “before Abraham was I am,” were following a sound tradition. The Holy One of Israel transcends all finite beings. Pious Jews waited in hope for the Messiah, but everything in the Old Testament seemed to argue against the very possibility of God Himself entering our world. The New Testament candidly records several places where the skeptics seem to have the better argument.
It begins at the beginning. Luke, the sophisticated medical man, knew where babies come from. Yet he is the one – the only one – inspired to record the Virgin Birth and the early days of the Holy Family. We are so familiar with the story that it can be hard to see it for what it is. W. H. Auden unforgettably sums it up:
Joseph, you have heardWhat Mary said occurred.Yes, it may be so.Is it likely? No.
And after the profound sayings and miracles, when Jesus tells the crowds that He is the bread come down from heaven (on Christmas, remember), they are understandably put off. In John’s Gospel, He adds that they must also eat His flesh and drink His blood to be saved: “As a result of this, many (of) his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, ‘Do you also want to leave?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.’” But we also know from other Gospel passages that the apostles remained faithful here, though there were many things they did not understand until much later.
Christmas, Christ’s birth in a carnal body, calls forth faith, perhaps precisely because it mystifies. Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholics, it’s sometimes said, put different emphases on the events of Christ’s life. The Orthodox supposedly focus on Easter, Resurrection, and Redemption, while Catholics emphasize Christmas, Incarnation, and Christian life in the world (with the implied criticism that this tends to make us worldly). But there can be no competition of this kind between real Christians. No one perfectly imitates Christ, who came into the world and lived virtually like everyone else for thirty years before his extraordinary public ministry, death, Resurrection, and Ascension. Without His birth and Incarnation, however, there could be no death and Redemption. Earth and Heaven come together in Him in ways that exceed all telling.
Speaking with holy and Christian accuracy, we believe in this without understanding it. It remains a mystery for even the greatest theologians. Why were we redeemed in this and no other way? The pagan and Jewish critics had a point about Christ’s life and death, as Paul says: for the pagans it was foolishness and for the Jews a scandal.
And yet there is the fact of Christ, a man of no high birth who came into the world, not at Rome or Athens or one of the great Asian capitals, but in a small village in an unimportant nation on the Eastern edge of the Mediterranean in mid-winter. He won no public office, waged no military battles, developed no grand intellectual system – things we might understand as greatness. In human terms, only a fool would have expected such a person appearing in such a place and in such circumstances to turn the world upside down.
But he did, and does, which is why we ponder and prepare this month for His coming.