“We know that [the Birth of Christ] celebrates the central event of history; the Incarnation of the divine Word for the redemption of humanity.”
– Pope Benedict XVI
An Extraordinary Thing has happened. And we celebrate it every year. But do we really? Surely there is plenty of discussion about Christmas each year. First, we consider the tasks we must perform before we can truly enjoy the season – shopping, cooking, card-writing, and traveling. Next, we consider how nice it will be to have time off from our daily responsibilities and reconnect with family and friends. Finally, in our most “enlightened” state, we consider whether Christmas is, or is not, getting its just due in the public square. The annual debates about the dubbing of “holiday” or “Christmas” parties, “winter” or “Christmas” break, the presence or absence of public creches, and whether our children’s school pageant or concert is defined by “Jingle Bells” or “Joy to the World”.
With great respect and deference, I would contend that none of these considerations gets to the heart of what Pope Benedict XVI called “the central event of history”. At times, in the midst of the stresses, responsibilities, and frustrations of the season, we have forgotten this “central event”. God became a man. Stop everything and consider that once again. GOD BECAME A MAN. When considered, it is literally world-changing. To understand God Incarnate, however, is only the first step in truly understanding and appreciating Christmas. We must move to the next question of “Why would He do this?”
When we ask this, it is important to reconsider the Christian Narrative. Forgive this recapitulation, but it gets to the essence of God becoming man, otherwise know as The Incarnation. God created man (and woman) in His own Image. God granted man a special dignity as one of His own children. He also respected His dignified creation by granting man Freewill. But man went astray. Again and again, God tried to bring sinful man back to Him while always respecting man’s freewill, yet loving him greater than any devoted parent loves their own child. Man, however, in toddler or adolescent rebellion, always sought his own way and repeatedly rebuffed God. Nonetheless, in spite of being spurned time and again, God had plans for an ultimate reconciliation. God’s prophets declared to man that a Messiah was coming. The Messiah would deliver man from his bondage to sin – the ultimate source of man’s separation from God. With man’s Redemption, he would be reunited with God in Heaven for eternity. Where, Why, and How this Messiah would appear and What He would do were made apparent in hundreds of years of writings and prophecy. It was even clear what lineage He would emerge from. But when the Messiah arrived, He was missed. And He is still missed.
The miracle of the Incarnation, of Christ’s Mass, was revealed to a young virgin peasant, to an older Jewish carpenter, to a field of shepherds on night-shift, and to a handful of foreign kings or wise men. A locust-eating wild prophet and an unlikely pregnant cousin were also blessed with an understanding. This was the motley crew attending the Messianic entrance. And everyone else missed it.
Homeless, shivering, unbathed and outcast, the Holiest of Families found themselves in the lowliest of circumstances. A cave or makeshift stable would be the paradoxical entry point for the Creator of the Universe. So far from a triumphal entry accorded to kings, Caesars, and dignitaries, the Christ-child would enter His own creation hidden in plain sight. The paradox of God-made-man – in fact, of God-made-baby – was captured brilliantly in G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man:
“[T]hat single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle.”
And though His birth would be paradoxical – the contradictory juxtaposition of the Mightiest Being arriving in the humblest position – it would be just the beginning of the Riddles of God. In fact, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ would be modeled on the circumstances of his birth – Divine, Brilliant, and Paradoxical. A God of Justice would give lessons on selfless mercy, a God of Brilliance would preach parables understandable to children, a God of Power would allow Himself to be stripped, tortured, and hung on a cross, and a God of Law would forgive those who betrayed and persecuted Him. This paradoxical Incarnation story may have stunned, stumped, and stymied the greatest of thinkers, yet it has inspired, entranced, and emancipated us in spite of our incomplete understanding. The birth of Christ meant the Redemption of man. As C.S. Lewis considered,
“For certainly no seed ever fell from so fair a tree into so dark and cold a soil as would furnish more than a faint analogy to this huge descent and re-ascension in which God dredged the salt and oozy bottom of Creation.”
And yet, there is a purpose. C.S.Lewis would add,
“He goes down to come up again and bring the ruined world up with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift, he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders.”
God became a man. Do we remember this at Christmas? Do we truly comprehend it? It is the Central Event of History. And it all started with a Birth. Merry, Merry Christmas.