I’m not exactly sure how Christmas-time turned into what it has. A few weeks ago, when I found myself emerging from the London Tube at Regent Street to an explosion of neon lights and Boney M’s godawful rendition of Hark the herald, it struck me that this commercialist-kitsch fanfare is almost certainly the antithesis of what Christmas originally represented. Odd, I thought, how England, which has largely abandoned its religious traditions, seems more religious about Christmas than the land of my birth, which still has a fairly definite sense of its roots in Christianity.
Anyhow, the story, through familiarity and custom, has nonetheless become somewhat mild, but it once contained an idea that is no doubt beautiful, but also, no doubt, alarming. The idea is that the Ground of Being, the Logos (Λόγος) as the glue of reality, took on flesh and blood and moved into a very human neighbourhood, as a very actual (not just mythical) human being. Today, God is often thought of as an object — a bearded old man like Zeus — but he was once thought of as ‘Something’ quite different. God — the very“inexpressible Good, this One, this Source of all unity, this supra-existent Being. Mind beyond mind, word beyond speech” which is “gathered by no discourse, by no intuition, by no name” and “is as no other being is” (“Cause of all existence, and therefore … transcending existence”), as Pseudo-Dionysius describes him — violated his own commandment not to make a graven image and stepped into skin like a walking blasphemy.
There in a cave, a baby boy — pissing, shitting, crying, sleeping — was (mis)taken by shepherds and philosophers for being the Originator of the Universe. Their claim, which most Christians still hold today, was that the One who is so unlike what is conceivable that he is more like nothing than like anything else and yet is not nothing — some Jewish Rabbinic traditions refer to God as the No-Thing — took on a name and a culture and became, of all things, finite and mortal; the Source of Life took on a form that is always in the process of dying. Life took on death, or so it is claimed.
To look at this from another angle, it’s helpful to read Chesterton’s reflection on Christmas in his The Everlasting Man (1925):
Christ was not only born on the level of the world, but even lower than the world. The first act of the divine drama was enacted, not only on no stage set up above the sightseer, but on a dark and curtained stage sunken out of sight; and that is an idea very difficult to express in most modes of artistic expression. It is the idea of simultaneous happenings on different levels of life. Something like it might have been attempted in the more archaic and decorative medieval art. But the more the artists learned of realism and perspective, the less they could depict at once the angels in the heavens and the shepherds on the hills, and the glory in the darkness that was under the hills. Perhaps it could have been best conveyed by the characteristic expedient of some of the medieval guilds, when they wheeled about the streets a theatre with three stages one above the other, with heaven above the earth and hell under the earth. But in the riddle of Bethlehem it was heaven that was under the earth.
So, yes, whatever you believe about this event — and it is an event in the catastrophic philosophic sense, meaning that which happens in such a way as to entirely disrupt our perspective — it does not take much to see that it is not about a God who is tame and cute. Rather, it is an event that calls people to see the baby Jesus as we see the presence of any new child (but with a twist): it is something terrifying; it is something to be marvelled at; it is something earth and life-shattering. This is something that parenthood has taught me. Images of cute smiling infants carry only half the truth: the other half is the bit that we miss about Christmas, namely the mindblowing, bewildering awe of the event.
That Jesus was born to a very poor family in first century Palestine is something easily forgotten amidst all the glitz of Christmas lights and the torment of endless shopping lists. If Christ had been born in America today, the event wouldn’t have been called the incarnation, but rather (maybe, if theologians had a sense of humour) the intarnation: God taking on the life of a hillbilly.
It’s not an easy one to get a handle on. And, really, I’m not sure it was ever meant to be an idea that we could get a handle on. The first Christians proclaimed the idea, not because they thought it would make a nice story, but because they (most disturbingly of all) believed it was actually true. This is certainly the most alarming thing. It seems so naive. And yet, the happening was so cataclysmic that it split time into two and forced generations to rethink the nature of God and Reality. It was an event that meant that maybe God is not so distant after all. Maybe Reality is actually personal. Maybe the divine is something we can find in a cave, in a place of very local limitations, where the hands that flung stars into space could not even reach the heads of animals around him.
May you have a very disturbing Christmas.