Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Christmas Miracle

Christmas, Helen Siegl 1990, Philadelphia 
We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.
       (from “For The Time Being” 
                 W. H. Auden)

In last week’s post, I asked: “in a world suffused with miracle and mystery, what do we make of the incarnation, the assertion that God came to earth in the form of a baby?”   There are plenty of people who accept the ample evidence the Jesus was a real person, a man of surprising insight and influence, but stop short of the idea that he was more than that: the son of God, born of a virgin, “God with us,” as the prophets predicted hundreds of years earlier.

Really, no matter how many times we hear the story, no matter how committed we are to the truth of the gospel reports, who could ever claim to understand the idea of God becoming human? The idea of life itself, breath filling us, then suddenly gone, is a mystery no one can fully understand. God in that breath? The power of God in helpless human form?

C. S. Lewis called the incarnation “the grand miracle”: 
“One is very often asked at present whether we could not have a Christianity stripped, or, as people who ask it say, ‘freed’ from its miraculous elements, a Christianity with the miraculous elements suppressed. Now, it seems to me that precisely the one religion in the world, or at least the only one I know, with which you could not do that is Christianity . .  the Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, which is uncreated, eternal, came into Nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing Nature up with Him. It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left. . . . 
The Nativity, Jean Charlot, 1943 Mexico
“Just as every natural event exhibits the total character of the natural universe at a particular point and space of time, so every miracle exhibits the character of the Incarnation. Now, if one asks whether that central grand miracle in Christianity is itself probable or improbable, of course, quite clearly you cannot be applying Hume's kind of probability. You cannot mean a probability based on statistics according to which the more often a thing has happened, the more likely it is to happen again . . . Certainly the Incarnation cannot be probable in that sense. It is of its very nature to have happened only once. But then it is of the very nature of the history of this world to have happened only once; and if the Incarnation happened at all, it is the central chapter of that history. It is improbable in the same way in which the whole of nature is improbable, because it is only there once, and will happen only once." 
The mystery of the incarnation, to me, is not so much that of the virgin birth, the dozens of prophecies fulfilled, the angel announcements to Mary, Joseph, shepherds. I know there are many who insist that what we see is what we get. Nature, science, provable fact, that’s all there is, and all there’s going to be.

For me, there’s too much that explanation can’t explain. Science is great, but only goes so far. Reason is a good thing, but I’ve seen how far short reason often lands. Explain the color of a sunset as much as you want – why does the beauty of those colors speak so deeply to our hearts? Show me the math that explains musical theory: why do certain sounds make me homesick for someplace I’ve never been?

Of all the mysteries I wonder over, here’s the big one, as Lewis said, “the grand miracle”: the son of God, himself part of God in a way we can’t explain, chose to come to earth as a baby, helpless, tiny, powerless, and aligned himself with the poorest of the poor, an occupied people, pressed down by the brutality of the Roman military engine. The Word that spoke the universe into being – whatever that means, however it happened – that Word agree to be born as an outcast, a displaced person, in a time of great hardship, in a land with little freedom.
The Nativity, Frank Allen Humphrey, England

Writing to the Philippians, Paul said: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”

There’s the grand miracle: he used his power to divest himself of it, made himself nothing, the poorest of the poor, to show us another avenue to peace, to freedom, to joy, and to take on our age-old enemy, death, in a way that only God himself could do.

And invites us into that reality. Imagine Paul saying this: “Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus . . .”

I can understand rules: do this, don’t do that.

I can understand liturgy, prayers to say on what occasion.

But God with us? God a baby, hunted by Herod, passed from hand to hand?

Nativity, Sadoa Watanabe, 1965, Japan 
God divested of power, influence, comfort, reputation? 

And for what – for pompous Pharisees, who spat in his face?

For scurvy lepers, who begged to be healed, then ran for home, forgetting to say thank-you?

For a conscience-less thief, ridiculing him from the cross beside him?

For all the generations of defamers, accusers, angry agnostics, cynical skeptics?

I think of my own paltry attempts at love, and how I respond when my efforts are rejected.

I think of my own small investments in peace, kindness, justice, healing, and how discouraged I get when the investments don’t yield immediate rewards.

I think of my own small sacrifices. Hours spent reading a picture book for the millionth time. Weekends spent sharing a bathroom with a dozen middle school girls. Summer evenings singing crazy songs with a bunch of kids in a hot urban neighborhood.

And for what?

Was it sacrifice at all? Or was it a chance to be with people I loved, to share life with people I cared about?

Was Christ’s birth, life, time on earth, a sacrifice? Or was it an explosive, humbling expression of love on a level we’ll never understand?

As I surround myself with Christmas, I’m mindful of the words of the friend who seemed to understand Jesus best:

Nativity, Yo Iwashita, Japan
"This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth." (I John 3).

I pray Christ’s grand miracle be seen in the miracle of our own love for each other, a love pressed down, overflowing, generous, merciful, kind beyond reason.

May Christ’s miraculous love be yours this Christmas season!

Feel free to share your Christmas thoughts and greetings. Look for the "__ comments" link below.