I grew up with a brand of Christianity that was heavily centered on Good Friday. We celebrated Christmas along with everyone else. But the meaning of Christmas was confused at best. It seemed like a necessary first step toward the cross which didn’t quite cohere with Joy To The World.
Decades later, now decades ago, I learned that the folks who first shaped the contours of orthodox Christian faith, especially St. Athanasius, the chief architect of the Nicene Creed, taught that the Incarnation was salvific in itself. Something happened in Bethlehem in 4 B.C.E. (or whatever year Jesus was actually born) that changed the relationship between God and humanity, even between Creator and Creation.
How that salvation worked was and still is hard for me to grasp. It is called “assumption.” In a mysterious way, when God assumes human nature, then human nature is sanctified, redeemed, made holy. That feels right to me even though I can’t explain it logically.
There is another way I have been thinking of Christmas as salvific that I can understand a little better. It goes like this: Being human is a precious and wonderful thing precisely because it is so brief an experience, so vulnerable, so frail, such a mix of joys and sorrow, virtues and vices, moral heroism and moral disaster. The beauty of being human is inseparable from the fragility of being human. I say this as one whose youthful pride and certainty are long gone and as one who has seen love at its tenderest in the hours of suffering and death, in the moments of contrition and forgiveness. Being human is insubstantial, ephemeral, fallible, and for those very failings is all the more to be cherished.
Yet the vulnerability of being human – physical, spiritual, and moral vulnerability – is so great that we cannot bear our human condition. It is just too hard. We need to be sustained now and ultimately redeemed by a God who is above all this, beyond “the changes and the chances” of this life. We need to be held by the Serene Center of the Universe, who was and is and ever will be. Our fragility can subsist only in God’s strength.
The problem is the immeasurable distance between God and us. The vastness, the incomprehensibility of Divine Majesty, the namelessness, imagelessness, unutterable wonder of God means God is beyond our reach. And we cannot climb up to God. All religion that purports to elevate us to God merely inflates our egos and thereby separates us all the farther from God.
It was therefore necessary for God to come to us. “Condescend” is a bad word now. But it used to have a good theological meaning -- “to come down to.” God came down to us. God joined us in the mix and muddle of human life. “For us and for our salvation, he sent his only and eternal son to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us.” And therein the basic shift happened and religion has never been the same.
Instead of our trying to climb up out of our human frailty to meet God in the Divine Serenity, God joins us in the stable of mortal human life. It is in this stable of human living that we meet God. It is here we find the seed of peace and joy. The meaning of our frailties – all of them, physical, moral, spiritual – is changed from the wall the separates us from God into the gate that opens our hearts to God. That is the miracle I celebrate at Christmas. However, you understand this Holy Season, I hope you will be touched by grace right where you live, that you will find a light in your darkness, and that you will experience the assurance of God’s love for you exactly as you are.