By Derrick Peterson
A well known philosopher once wrote that in his homeland in southwestern Germany there was a saying: that when an event happened so long ago, there is a point when it becomes no longer true. For Truth is not merely an idea, a fact, but also its effect. An effect often lost, as Isaac Watts wrote in his poem, because “time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away, they fly forgotten, as a dream . . .”
For Christians though, the problem is perhaps the reverse: that there is an event that is so true, it no longer really occurs. In our seminars, or colloquiums, or cutting edge youth events with tattooed speakers and a properly coiffed worship leader, we pine after a “relevant” faith—or even cruder of making faith relevant, whatever that means—yet we are always already too relevant now, it seems.
Christmas is everywhere, murmured between lights, in tacky sweaters, Christmas carols, in the great roots of presents like the very shoulders of the earth holding the pine and tree-topping angel aloft by magnitude and many colors. Fox News speaks of a "war on Christmas" (an annual campaign Jon Stewart humorously lambasted as "an empty ritual devoid of its original spiritual content"); far from those who deny such festivities, the truest enemies are perhaps its very champions, who lionize Christmas as merely cultural mores.
To assert that the denial of Christmas is an assault on our way of life is to misunderstand Christmas itself, which is that assault. Where Nietzsche spoke of Christianity’s utter “transvaluation,” of all antique values in the name of sympathy, charity, forgiveness, grace, we speak now of these things with the brusque impatience of one invoking domains of common sense proper. Of course we are supposed to love others, even strangers, foreigners, the disabled, the weak. Of course we can have hope in a future better than now, which makes now possible.
The Advent stands in the twilight, a truth so recognizable to be subsumed precisely in its comfortable and general familiarity; alien enough to remain idiosyncratic in its particulars and at arms length. Christ became so True, we no longer have need of Him.
We forget by all earthly standards, this story makes God out to be an idiot. This is not an impiety, remember, but the very heart of prayer. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom; the weakness of God stronger than man’s strength.” (1 Cor. 1:25)
The world itself had been hewn from its proper course with Adam, tilting now and listing towards the nothingness from which God initially called it in all His glory and omnipotence. Iniquity? Rebellion? Violence? Yes. And the solution? In the face of our war machine and bloodbaths God became this beautiful, fragile little hill of clay.
To the cries yelling upward to the desolate stars of the lid, begging for God's presence; or to those whispered prayers in the desperate and long watches of night, God replied, “In a moment I will be with you, but it will be of a different kind.” Any analogous move in the business world would cause stockholders to ask for a change in management. When you ask a CEO to act, he doesn’t usually become the janitor to do it. We asked for a king, and we got a suffering servant. In the slaughter bench of history we get—a God who cannot even control his own bowels for the first few years? A God whose gossamer eyes are those of an infant, peering into an infinite empyrean sky, not even recognizing the heavens as His own handiwork? Where we all hope against hell He eventually remembers what He came for?
God walked between the lights in the void; now he lies between the stench of animals and hay. There is no Atlas here, holding up the earth by mere might--for this child is the axis that turns the world. And as Melito of Sardis wrote so long ago, eventually “he who hung the stars is himself hung upon the cross.”
But it has its own elegance, doesn’t it? I think any parent can tell you how the small fingers of an infant, tender and pliant, whose giant-like grip wraps around your fingers, can still any storm of life and put it in its place. And where we called for the act of a person like us only much, much bigger, the true Infinite said the answer was much, much smaller. It is not the devil who is in the details, but God. Where the act of our salvation is not the supernal but in the hope a child gives to a husband and wife.
And we sometimes lose this little light. We speak frequently (rightfully) of the Incarnation. That great mystery where God came near. And we all (at least, I think, those who took the time for a Christmas sermon) formally, and more or less firmly, believe in miracles. And so accept the (still insane) notion of a virgin with child, born from the Spirit of God hovering over her; much like the Spirit hovered over the waters when Creation commenced.
But how many of us believe in a man and a woman staying together despite a curious pregnancy? When all evidence screams infidelity? When a child cries into the light, shining through the dim and unknown as something not expected, and the husband says “It is alright. I will stay”? Where supernatural hope is also the renewed charge between lover’s glances? That God became man, in our American, “Christian,” culture, is amazing but (seemingly) old news. That a man and a woman could stay together through hardship. Few events boast more credentials of a true miracle.
And in our age of security and secrets; of stealth and uncompromising method and weaponry deposing among worldviews: who among us has seen a genuine act of the representatives of the religious paying their respects to another religion? Let alone an enemy? But this is the very cause of the Wise Men who bring myrrh and frankincense and gold. The Babylonian astrologers came as some of the first believers.
And who among us has seen the resources of an empire brought to its knees to search and destroy a child? To ask: my technology, my panopticon, my power—could a child displace it? Do I worry, amongst swords and coups, about a child whose rumor whispers of a remote power? Will an empire be undone by that little lump of flesh and tears? But Herod sent his men with swords amongst the children. God demonstrated the futility of an empire even to stand against one newborn.
And so here we are on Christmas. God did not override the world because what He wanted to redeem were not just great powers, but persons. Persons who were already being depersonalized by big things. By empire and census and taxes and death and war and famine and plague and sin. The collateral damage of a world gone mad. We are here because God says “I will act and become small, so you who are small can act.” As the theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg says:
"God does not encounter the apostate creature with power and holiness. He is present with it at its own place andunder the conditions of its own existence…This takes place through the eternal Son, who in consequence of his self-distinction from the Father takes the place of the creature and becomes man so as to overcome the assertion of the creature’s independence in the position of the creature itself, i.e. without violating its independence. We are thus to view the incarnation of the Son as the supreme expression of the omnipotence of God…"
And then there is the sky: One little star amongst all the glowing flame of heaven announces him; the angelic host comes, sure, but to shepherds isolated in a dark wilderness; Christ lay in a manger instead of an inn, Bethlehem instead of anywhere else. Christmas is in the ordinary. It is in the ordinary where God's interruption to the world comes. Where the stars, for example, were thought to be fixed amongst their crystalline causeways, a tiny little rebel star appears, incalculable, unprecedented. The heavens are not fixed, it whispered. There is something new. Where the orders of empires held sway, a child defies them:
Through it [the Christian view of man] man was freed in his own eyes, from the ontological slavery with which Fate burdened him…Man, every man, no matter who, had a direct link with the Creator, the Ruler of the stars themselves…It was no longer a small and select company which, thanks to some secret means of escape, could break the charmed circle: it was mankind as a whole which fought its night suddenly illumined and took cognizance of its royal liberty. No more circle [i.e. endlessly repeating cycle]! No more blind hazard [oh Fate where is thy sting?]…Hence that intense feeling of gladness and of radiant newness to be found everywhere in early Christian writings (Henri De Lubac)
We do not need to abstract from the world to transcend to the truth of things; nor need our individuality, and love, and hope, in all their complexities and irreplaceable little moments fear to become nothing because death and time bear us all away. Our ordinary life, where --paradoxically --we so often do not feel the need for God, is precisely made possible in its ordinariness by God Himself. God makes the ordinary possible, and so the ordinary is sacred. In this one little person is the wedding of time and eternity, where God Himself now stands as absurdly human before the world, so we who are human and absurd, with all of our little quirks and smiles and idiosyncrasies, do not have to be dissolved to be saved, but stand in all our particularity in relation to God who became a person among persons. As Karl Barth wrote:
“The man who is God’s own Word, does not send forth His radiant light from afar, encountering the “darkness” of other men as a king, hero or sage; but the Light that “shines in the darkness” is an ordinary man and gives light to ordinary people. This is incomprehensible, and yet because of it revelation is real and the Christmas gospel is quite different from both the sweet sadness and the false optimism of mere reverie. The Word of God is where we ourselves are, not where we should perhaps like to be, on one of those heights to which by some luck and strong effort we might attain; He is where we really are, whether we are king or beggar, in our torn condition in which we who face death appear–in the “flesh” …