There can’t be very many of us for whom the sheer fact of existence hasn’t rocked us back on our heels. We take off our sandals before the burning bush. We catch our breath at the sight of a plummeting hawk. “Thank you, God.” We find ourselves in a lavish existence in which we feel a deep sense of kinship—we belong here; we say thanks with our lives to Life. And not just “Thanks” or ‘Thank it” but “Thank You.” Most of the people who have lived on this planet have identified this You with God or gods. This is not just a matter of learning our manners, the way children are taught to say thank you as a social grace. It is the cultivation of adequateness within ourselves to the nature of reality, developing the capacity to sustain an adequate response to the overwhelming gift and goodness of life.
Wonder is the only adequate launching pad for understanding for exploring this fullness, this wholeness, of human life. Once a year, each Christmas, for a few days at least, we and millions of our neighbours turn aside from our preoccupations with life reduced to biology or economics or psychology and join together in a community of wonder. The wonder keeps us open-eyed, expectant, alive to life that is always more than we can account for, that always exceeds our calculations, that is always beyond anything we can make.
If in the general festive round of singing and decorating, giving and receiving, cooking meals and family gatherings, we ask what is behind all this and what keeps it going all over the world, among all classes of people quite regardless of whether they believe or not, the answer is simply “a birth.” Not just “birth” in general, but a particular birth in a small Middle Eastern village in a datable time—a named baby, Jesus—a birth that soon had people talking and signing about God, indeed, worshipping God.
This invites reflection. For birth, simply as birth, even though often enough greeted with wonder and accompanied with ceremony and celebration, has a way of getting absorbed into business as usual far too soon. The initial impulses of gratitude turn out to be astonishingly ephemeral. Birth in itself does not seem to compel belief in God. There are plenty of people who take each new life on its own terms and deal with the person just as he or she comes to us, no questions asked. There is something very attractive about this: it is so clean and uncomplicated and noncontroversial. And obvious. They get a satisfying sense of the inherently divine in life itself without all the complications of church: the theology, the mess of church history, the hypocrisies of church-goers, the incompetence of pastors, the appeals for money. Life, as life, seems perfectly capable of furnishing them with a spirituality that exults in beautiful beaches and fine sunsets, surfing and skiing and body massage, emotional states and aesthetic titillation without investing too much God-attentiveness in a baby.
For all its considerable attractions, this shift of attention from birth to aspects of the world that please us on our terms is considerably deficient in person. Birth means that a person is alive in the world. A miracle of sorts, to be sure, but a miracle that very soon gets obscured by late-night feedings, diapers, fevers, and inconvenient interruptions of fussiness and squalling. Soon the realization sets in that we are in for years and years of the child’s growing-up time that will stretch our stamina and patience, sometimes to the breaking point.
So how did it happen that this birth, this Jesus birth managed to set so many of us back on our heels in astonishment and gratitude and wonder? And continues to do so century after century, at least at this time of the year?
The brief answer is that this wasn’t just any birth. The baby’s parents and first witnesses were convinced that God was entering human history in human form. Their conviction was confirmed in angel and Magi and shepherds visitations; eventually an extraordinary life came into being before their eyes, right in their neighbourhood. More and more people became convinced. Men, women, and children from all over the world continue to be convinced right up to the present moment.
Birth, every human birth, is an occasion for local wonder. In Jesus’ birth the wonder is extrapolated across the screen of all creation and all history as a God-birth. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”—moved into the neighbourhood, so to speak. And for thirty years or so, men and women saw God in speech and action in the entirely human person of Jesus as he was subject, along with them, to the common historical conditions of, as Charles Williams once put it, “Jewish religion, Roman order, and Greek intellect.” These were not credulous people and it was not easy for them to believe, but they did. That God was made incarnate as a human baby is still not easy to believe, but people continue to do so. Many, even those who don’t “believe,” find themselves happy to participate in the giving and receiving, singing and celebrating of those who do.
Incarnation, in-flesh-ment, God in human form in Jesus entering our history: this is what started Christmas. This is what keeps Christmas going.
Christmas, in the Incarnation that it celebrates, has its foundation in creation. The Genesis stories of creation begin with “heaven and earth,” but that turns out to be merely a warm-up exercise for the main event, the creation of human life, man and woman designated as the “image of God.” Man and woman are alive with the very breath (“spirit”) of God. If we want to look at creation full, creation at its highest, we look at a person—a man, a woman, a child. There are those who prefer to gaze on the beauty of a bouquet of flowers rather than care for a squabbling baby, or to spend the day on the beach rather than rub shoulders with uncongenial neighbours in a cold church—creation without the inconvenience of persons. This may be understandable, but it is also decidedly not creation in the terms that have been revealed to us in Genesis and in the person of Jesus.
All this arrives as most welcome good news at the birth of Jesus: here we have creation as God’s gift of life, creation furnishing all the conditions necessary for life—our lives. Good news, truly, what the Greeks named kerygma, a public proclamation that becomes a historical event. The birth of Jesus is the kerygmatic focus for receiving, entering into, and participating in creation, for living the creation and not just using it or taking it for granted.
In the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel, his re-writing of Genesis, we read, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” St. Matthew and St. Luke begin their Gospel stories with detailed accounts of Jesus’ birth. St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians, the first written reference to Jesus’ birth, calls Jesus the “first-born of all creation.”
Creation is God’s work, not ours. We accept and enter into and submit to what God does—what God made and makes. We are not spectators of creation but participants in it. We are participants first of all by simply being born, but then we realize that our births all take place in the defining context of Jesus’ birth. The Christian life is the practice of living in what God has done and is doing. We want to know the origins of things so that we can life out of our origins. We don’t want our lives to be tacked on to something peripheral. We want to live origin-ally, not derivatively.
So we begin with Jesus. Jesus is the revelation of the God who created heaven and earth; he is also the revelation of the God who is with us, Immanuel. The original Genesis creation, the stories of Israel, the lamentations of the prophets, the singing of the psalms—all of these make sense of the light of that one birth that we celebrate at Christmas. The theologian Karl Barth goes into immense detail (he wrote four fat volumes on it) to make this single point: “We have established that from every angle Jesus Christ is the key to the secret of creation.”
The conception and birth of Jesus is the surprise of creation. “This is God’s initiative going beyond anything man or woman has dreamed of.” This is the birth that will now set all births under the conditions of God’s creative initiative.
By stating that Jesus is “born of woman”—this Mary (as both St. Matthew and St. Luke attest)—St. Paul insists that Jesus is most emphatically human, the firstborn of all creation.” That this Mary is at the same time a virgin prevents the birth of Jesus from being reduced to what we know or can reproduce from our own experience. Life that is unmistakably human life is before us here, a real baby from an actual mother’s womb; there is also miracle here, and mystery that cannot be brushed aside in our attempts to bring the operations of God, let alone our own lives, under our control. The miracle of the virgin birth, maintained from the earliest times in the church and confessed in its creeds, is, in Karl Barth’s straightforward phrase, a “summons to reverence and worship….” Barth maintained that the one-sided views of those who questioned or denied that Jesus was “born of the virgin Mary” are “in the last resort to be understood only as coming from dread of reverence and only as invitation to comfortable encounter with an all too near or all too far-off God.”
Artists, poets, musicians, and architects are our primary witnesses to the significance of the meaning of virgin to the virgin birth as “a summons to reverence and worship.” Over and over again they rescue us from a life in which the wonder has leaked out. While theologians and biblical scholars have argued, sometimes most contentiously, over texts, sexual facts, and mythological parallels, our artists have painted Madonnas, our poets have provided our imaginations with rhythms and metaphors, our musicians have filled the air with carols and anthems that bring us to our knees in adoration, and our architects have designed and built chapels and cathedrals in which we can worship God.
Madeline L’Engle’s poem “After Annunciation” tells us why:
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.
Conception, pregnancy, and birth language that features God as the Creator occupy a prominent place in our Scriptures as they give witness to the Christian life. Jesus’ words to Nicodemus about being “born anew” are certainly the most well known. Jesus and Nicodemus between them use the word born seven times in the course of their conversation. In an extravagant metaphor, Paul sees the entire creation groaning “as if in pangs of childbirth” in his letter to the Romans. Another time he identified himself to the Galatians as a mother in the pains of childbirth.
The story of Jesus’ birth is our entry into understanding and participating in our place in creation. But every birth can, if we let it, return us to the wonder of Jesus’ birth, the revelation of sheer life as gift, God’s life with us and for us.
God is the Creator, and his most encompassing creation is human life, a baby. We, as participants in creation, do it too. When we beget and conceive, give birth to and raise babies, we are in on the heart of creation. There is more gospel in all those “begats” in the genealogical lists of our Scriptures (“And Ezekias begat Manasses; and Manasses begat Amon; and Amon begat Josias…”) than we ever dreamed.
Birth, any birth, is our primary access to the creative work of God. And we birth much more than human babies. Our lives give birth to God’s kingdom every day—or, at least, they should. And Jesus’ virgin birth provides and maintains the focus that God himself is personally present and totally participant in creation; this is good news, indeed. Every birth is kerygmatic. The birth of Jesus, kept fresh in our imaginations and prayers in song and story, keeps our feet on solid ground and responsive to every nuance of obedience and praise evoked by the life all around us.
But the actual birth of Jesus has never been an easy truth for people to swallow. There are always plenty of people around who will have none of this particularity: human ordinariness, body fluid, raw emotions of anger and disgust, fatigue and loneliness. Birth is painful. Babies are inconvenient and messy. There is immense trouble in having children. God having a baby? It’s far easier to accept God as the creator of the majestic mountains, the rolling sea, and the delicate wild flowers.
When it comes to the sordid squalor of the raw material involved in being human, God is surely going to keep his distance. Or is he? We may fantasize deep aspirations native to our souls that abhor this business of diapers and debts, government taxes and domestic trivia. Deep in our bones we may have the sense that we must have been created for higher things, that there is a world of subtle ideas and fine feelings and exquisite ecstasies for us to cultivate.
Somewhere along the way some of us became convinced that our souls are different—a cut above the masses, the common herd of philistines that trample the courts of the Lord. Such people become connoisseurs of the sublime.
As it turned out, the ink was barely dry on the stories telling of the birth of Jesus before people were busy putting out alternate stories that were more “spiritual” than those provided in our Gospels. A rash of apocryphal stories, with Jesus smoothed out and universalized, flooded the early church. They were immensely popular. They still are. And people are still writing them. These alternate stories prove very attractive to a lot of people.
In these accounts of the Christian life, the hard-edged particularities of Jesus’ life are blurred into the sublime divine. The hard, historical factuality of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh as God’s full and complete revelation of himself, is dismissed as crude. Something finer and more palatable to sensitive souls is put in its place: “Jesus was not truly flesh and blood, but entered a human body temporarily in order to give us the inside story on God and initiate us into the secrets of the spiritual life.” And, “Of course he didn’t die on the cross, but made his exit at the last minute. The body that was taken from the cross for burial was not Jesus at all, but a kind of costume he used for a few years and then discarded.”
It turns out in these versions that Jesus merely role-played a historical flesh-and-blood Christ for a brief time and then returned to a purely spiritual realm. If we accept this version of Jesus, we are then free to live the version: we put up with materiality and locale and family for as much and as long as necessary, but only for as much and as long as necessary. The material, the physical, the body—history and geography and weather, people—are temporary scaffolding; the sooner we realize that none if it has anything to do with God and Jesus, the better.
The attractions of employing this temporary scaffolding are considerable. For those of us who take this point of view, the feature attraction is that we no longer have to take seriously either things or people. Anything we can touch, smell, or see is not of God in any direct or immediate way. We save ourselves an enormous amount of inconvenience and aggravation by putting materiality and everydayness at the edge of our lives, at least our spiritual lives. Mountains are nice as long as they inspire lofty thoughts, but if one stands in the way of our convenience, a bulldozer can be called in to get rid of it. Other people are glorious as long as they are good-looking and well-mannered, bolster our self-esteem, and help us fulfil our human potential, but if they somehow bother us they certainly deserve to be dismissed.
But it’s hard to maintain this view of things through the Christmas season. There is too much stuff, too many things. And all of it festively connects up with Jesus and God. Every year Christmas comes around again and forces us to deal with God in the context of demanding and inconvenient children; gatherings of family members, many of whom we spend the rest of the year avoiding; all the crasser forms of greed and commercialized materiality; garish lights and decorations. Or maybe the other way around: Christmas forces us to deal with the mess of our humanity in the context of God who has already entered the mess in the glorious birth of Jesus.