The Nativity is an outrage. God who is outside of time should not step into time. God the omnipotent should not become a helpless child. God the all-knowing should not empty himself and lock himself into the limitations of mortality. However, it is the incredible outrage of it all that gives one pause. After all, are not the most important things in life similarly awesome, unexpected, and incongruous?
But there’s something more. The older I grow, the more curmudgeonly I become at Christmas. I’m not really as bad as Ebenezer Scrooge because I do love the Nativity of Our Lord, but I’m increasingly annoyed by the twinkle lights and tinsel, the trashy commercialism and crass sentimentality that surrounds the season. I feel like it is a cheap magic act in which the conjurer distracts the audience from his sleight of hand with a roll of the drum, a flash of lights, and a gorgeous girl in a skimpy outfit.
Feeling grumpy about this, my eyes fell on an icon of the Madonna and child in my study and I thought, “That’s my Christmas decoration thank you very much.” The gritty-tender reality of the mother and child is all the beauty I need. Then what hit home was the particularity of the nativity of the Lord. This was a real girl and her flesh and blood child.
Thus a poem for the nativity:
Forget your Christmas cards and little creche
the cutesy donkey, sheep and shepherd boys.
Put away the twinkle lights and all that trash;
the candy, carols, cards and tacky toys.
For there in your safe familiar manger
lies something that should shock and terrify—
a mewling, interstellar stranger,
an undercover agent—infant spy.
He promises to turn every table
and become an unrelenting master.
making the satisfied world unstable
and lashing the complacent with disaster.
Here shivers something unpredictable—
divine but defined, swaddled yet wild.
Here is something tender and terrible—
a feisty girl and her dangerous child.
That “feisty girl and her dangerous child” the theologians call the “scandal of particularity.” St. Paul uses the same word about the cross. “It is a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles” (I Corinthians 1:23)
The apostle’s point and the point of the theologians are making is that most everyone is satisfied by Deism. A God who got things going, but is now “out there” having a nap is a comfortable sort of deity. He doesn’t interfere.
Likewise the “force” of Star Wars and Eastern mysticism is the sort of god one would make up if one were devising an acceptable divine being. Like the god of the deists, the benevolent Spirit of the cosmos is “out there” but not “in here.” C.S. Lewis observed that he always found the nebulous spirit of the nebulae to be difficult to comprehend. All he could come up with for the “Spirit of the Cosmos” was a “great tapioca pudding in the sky.”
The other option is the pagan concept of the demigods. There may be one force to rule them all—be that Brahmin or the Spirit in the Sky, but he sends out other spirits who inhabit the river, the mountain, the sea, and the tree. These subsidiary spirits can take many forms and they may inhabit many physical entities (including you and me) but they do so as infesting spirits—taking residence for a time, but ultimately belonging to another realm of existence.
All of these forms of religion are understandable and (from a religious perspective) acceptable. What is scandalously not acceptable is the idea that the all knowing, all powerful, ever-present God of Gods, the great force, the Almighty Father, the Creator of All Things would step into history at a particular time and a particular place and be born of a particular woman in a particular stable in a particular town in a particular backwater of a particular empire and wind up being sentenced by a particular court and a particular procurator and be executed on a particular Friday afternoon outside a particular city by a particular squadron of soldiers and buried in a particular tomb of a particular nobleman and rise again to invite particular fingers to be placed in particular wounds before eating a particular breakfast of particular grilled bread and fish on a particular fire on a particular beach.
You get the idea. The whole proposal is preposterous. It is not only a stumbling block and a scandal, it is an outrage. God who is outside of time should not step into time. God the omnipotent should not become a helpless child. God the all-knowing should not empty himself and lock himself into the limitations of mortality. It’s a scandal and an outrage.
However, it is the incredible outrage of it all that gives one pause. After all, are not the most important things in life similarly awesome, unexpected, and incongruous? Is it possible that this acorn should become that oak tree? Isn’t it strange that this rivulet should become the Mississippi or that bright light that rises every morning should be the source of all energy, light, and life on earth? Science, which can explain so much, has too often eradicated our sense of wonder not only at how things work, but the bizarre awareness that anything exists at all.
Furthermore, when we think again, is the scandal of particularity so outrageous? For isn’t it the nature of everything abstract, amorphous, and theoretical to become particular? Isn’t it there a thrust and surge within every idea to become a reality? Doesn’t every conception push towards a birth?
Chopin hears music and writes notes on the page, but to be real they must be played by particular fingers on a particular keyboard and be heard by particular ears or the nocturne is nothing. The playwright writes the parts but they must be played by particular actors on a particular stage for the play to come to life. More intimately, must not my love—to be real and everlasting—become particular in one particular proposal, a wedding on a particular date which leads to one act of union which becomes a particular child?
Rather than being an intellectual scandal, the Nativity of Christ the Lord actually reveals something of the nature of divinity itself—that God the creator, rather than being an abstract force in the universe or a benign but static being is always and everywhere manifesting his creative energy by becoming particular. The particularity of the nativity of the second person of the Holy Trinity evidences a God who is forever straining and striving to become particular. That’s what he does. That’s what he is. He cannot be otherwise.
Thus the nativity may remind us of the speculation that there are many worlds and many incarnations of the Word, and that God may be forever creating worlds as yet unknown to us, populated through his eternal fecundity with an unimaginable and endless abundance of creative beings, and that in those unknown realms even now the great drama is being played out on another stage. That even now another incarnation—another manifestation of his glory— is being born and mewling for milk. That another babe in another Bethlehem is being brought forth for the redemption of that world and the rescue of another tribe of lost children of the same Eternal Father.
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The featured image is “Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence” (1600) by Caravaggio (1571-1610), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.