Life in the Marketplace of Ideas
Four Reasons Why Christmas Matters
There once was a time when I was embarrassed to speak of a "personal relationship with Jesus." Surrounded by professors of theology and scholars of religion who looked down their noses at popular expressions of religious devotion, I spoke not of Jesus but of "Christ" or the "Son of God" or (most pretentiously) the "Second Person of the Trinity."
I came to realize that when Christians speak of a personal relationship with Jesus they are expressing, albeit in different language, the inward relationship that mystical theologians have enjoyed and explored throughout the centuries of the church. To "walk and talk with Jesus" is to seek the constant indwelling of Christ, a mystical union that is not abstracted from but united with everyday life and all its activities.
That inward union, that personal relationship, is only possible because God became a person. Our most intimate relationship with God, in other words, is only possible because of the astonishing and impossible event we celebrate at Christmas. God entered into our condition. God became one of us, capable of relating to us not merely as Creator and Mighty God but also as friend, as brother, as beloved. The truck driver who imagines Jesus in the passenger seat as he rolls across the plains of Nebraska, the school teacher who asks Jesus for patience as she nears the end of the school day, the worker in the fields of Alabama who talks and jokes and argues with Jesus as he goes about his work, the crippled child who asks Jesus for the strength and courage to carry on -- all of these people, whatever their education or theological sophistication, give expression to a profound theological truth that is all too often forgotten: that ours is not only a high and mighty God who fashions the suns and measures the span of the heavens, but a God who dwells amongst the lowly, the humble, the contrite, and the suffering.
It is right and fitting to "walk and talk with Jesus." Without Jesus, our relationship with God grows cold and abstract, the contractual relationship of a creature to its Creator. With Jesus, the very same Jesus who entered the world in the event we celebrate at Christmas, our relationship with God is interpersonal. It is passionate and intimate, characterized not only by worship and reverence but also by tender mercy and forgiveness, love and mutual understanding. With Jesus, we can know God and be known by God through and through. With Jesus, we have footsteps in which to walk. With Jesus, we have the transformative presence and power of God with us even in our most human and most painful moments.
3) We celebrate in Christmas that God delights in accomplishing the impossible and exceeding the hopes of men, in using the small, the weak, and the foolish things of the world to humble the great, the mighty, and the wise.
Christmas is, among other things, a story of the impossible. God becomes human. The timeless, changeless God enters into history with all its change and variation. The mighty God who created all things humbles himself and becomes a helpless infant. The "reason for the season" is thoroughly un-reasonable. This is not what reason would expect. Reason would tell us that these things are impossible. Yet God loves to explode human conceptions of what is possible. God loves to show us that He is greater -- and nearer to us in love -- than we had imagined.
Christians should cherish the paradoxes of Christmas, the paradoxes of the incarnation and redemption, and should never deny the many ways in which they are offensive to secular reason. When the first generations of Christians began to tell the tale of God's incarnation in a manger in Bethlehem, their story was profoundly offensive to the sensibilities of those around them. The notion of a God become flesh, a God who entered the world amid the effluvium of birth, a God who came not as a conquering King or superhuman hero but as a flailing and weeping infant, as a poor carpenter and the son of a carpenter, a God who had to endure all the pains and excretions and indignities of embodied life, and a God who was rejected and tormented and ultimately slain -- Jews and Gentiles alike found this profoundly offensive to reason, precisely the opposite of what one would expect.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.