Two things have puzzled me about Christmas through the years. I’ll offer a view – by no means pretending to be definitive – a view – on these two puzzlements.
First, why are we making such a big deal over the birth of Christ as if the birth alone had done something important? I grew up in a penal substitution theology in which it was all about Good Friday. The only point of Jesus’ birth was to set up his death. Resurrection was a bit of an anti-climax. Salvation was all about the death. Without meaning to deny the centrality of the Cross to our faith, there is more to the story. Anglicans in particular have long emphasized that Incarnation itself is salvific. One of our Eucharistic prayers, recounting the story of our salvation, says,
He took on our human nature
that he might live and die as one of us.
This is a point of emphasis in Anglicanism but seeing Incarnation as salvific in itself is core orthodox Christianity. The Nicene Creed says,
For us and for our salvation,
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary
and was made human . . . .
St. Athanasius (a key player in shaping the Nicene Creed) said, “He became what we are so that we might become what he is.”
Something happens in the Incarnation. It is not just a necessary step toward the rest of the story. This is one angle on it. Neuro-science demonstrates that we humans are hard-wired for empathy. It’s built in through our mimetic neurons. When we watch a needle plunged into the hand of another person, we wince.
Ah but we are also hardwired for self-preservation. We sense that are vulnerable and mortal. The theological word is contingent, meaning not necessary. The world was here before us. It will be here after us. It can get along quite well without us, so we are at risk.
Through evolution, we learned that we can increase our survival chances by teamwork with those who are like us – family, clan, tribe, race, nation, religion, etc. Any criteria will work to form a team with which we identify.
Now here’s the scary thing. When we watch the needle plunged into the hand of one of our teammates, we wince mightily. But if the needle is plunged into the hand of someone not of our team, someone beyond the pale of our concern, we do not wince much if at all. And if we think plunging the needle into the hand of the outsider will make us and our team safer, we are right ready to do it.
That kind of thinking— when it manifests as thinking at all – is primitive, regressive, and dangerous. But that kind of feeling goes with the turf of being human. We’ve all got it to some degree. It divides us, traps us in groups, sets us against each other, and leads to war, persecution, and genocide. In short, it may be natural (as in evolutionarily ingrained) but it is a problem.
Now look what happens in the Incarnation. Instead of clinging to his divinity, instead of resting secure in a safe Heaven, God chooses to “take on our human nature, to live and die as one of us”. God, who is so far beyond us as to be called by theologians The Wholly Other, becomes one of us precisely to share our vulnerability. God who could be beyond the reach of any hardship assumes compassion -- com-passio – to suffer with – as his chief attribute.
God is the source and destiny of all things, including our lives. God is the meaning and purpose of all things, including our lives. God in the Incarnation makes compassion overriding self-preservation the be all and end all of existence itself, including our existence. In the Incarnation, God decisively moves the goal posts. God in the ultimate act of compassion “becomes what we are so that we might become what he is” – compassionate.
The second problem is that we celebrate Christmas as if it has now made an end to hardship and all has been set right.
No more let sins or sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
Handel quotes Isaiah about the lion and the lamb. Mary’s Magnificat says justice has finally arrived. The angels sing. And Handel announces with exuberant joy:
The Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Hallelujah . . .
And he shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah.
It sounds like as of that night in the stable these, 2,100 years ago, all has been hunky dory. But then there is history. Things got really bad right there in Bethlehem in 66 AD. It isn’t that great today. We have had plague, holocaust, nuclear immolation of cities, terrorism, torture, and all manner of horrors. This Christmas falls at a time fraught with some grim foreboding. I sometimes see the religious celebration of Christmas as if it means the Kingdom has come and I wonder, what are we smoking?
Has Christmas brought peace on earth or not? Has the Kingdom already come? Can we claim such a thing with a straight face? This is a tentative thought.
There is a sense in which the answer is clearly no. Just like our Jewish brothers and sisters, we are still waiting for the messiah – in our faith, it is to come again in power and great glory. Jesus taught us to pray “thy Kingdom come” because he knew the Kingdom was and is still a-coming. The Christmas story is in a sense about something yet to fully happen. We are living toward Christmas.
But there is also a sense in which it happened once. Not as a vague theological abstraction, but as real as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, God joined us in this life and -- by joining us in it -- made it different, infused it with hope when there had been only violence and despair. We believe in our hearts the words of our sacred scripture. It happened. So, we do remember Christmas at the same time we anticipate it.
But there is another encounter with Christmas, in some ways the most important one. Jesus told us to pray “thy Kingdom come” because it is still a-coming. But he also said “the Kingdom is (present tense) among you.” He told his followers to heal people and perform acts of mercy and wherever there were acts of mercy to tell people “the Kingdom has come near to you.” And whenever any kind of evil is vanquished, as it so often is, it is because “the Kingdom has come upon you.” The Kingdom breaks in whenever godliness happens, when love flowers, when peace breaks out, when we dare to let our God-given compassion set us free from the constraints of our fear-based self-preservation spasms. And that is Christmas. Christmas happens – not just for a 12-day season but not all year round either – it happens at the strangest times in the strangest places, like an unkempt stable.
I wish you all Christmas. No need to qualify it. Christmas to whatever extent it is Christmas is already the most pyrotechnic of joy.