"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The unum necessarium for Christmas

Christmas is the Feast of the Incarnation. Reams have been written about the Incarnation by minds, and souls, greater than mine. In the hope of avoiding cheap imitation, I shall restrict myself to an aspect of it that, while doubtless addressed better by others somewhere, is the most important among those which are often forgotten.

The Incarnation and the Passion are necessarily connected as manifestations of the same thing: God's intimate, redeeming presence to us in every corner of life. An obiter dictum of patristic orthodoxy was: "whatever is not assumed is not redeemed." That is the contrapositive of the truth that whatever is assumed is redeemed, the implication being that everything was assumed by Jesus Christ. Leaving aside the endless and largely sterile debates about atonement theory, we must therefore say that the actual crucifixion, death, and burial of Christ is but the most shocking stage of a salvific process of which his birth was but the first manifestation or "epiphany." Stressing the Resurrection without the Passion is empty triumphalism, even as stressing the Passion without the Resurrection is an invitation to despair about this life. God made us eternally rich by emptying himself for a short time. And that began with the Incarnation itself.

I've always loved the Gospel verse telling us that Jesus was born in a manger because his parents couldn't get a hotel room. How like the world. A couple of modest means, travelling to town only for the sake of obeying the law, was forced to deliver their firstborn child, the Author of Life himself, in a cold stable because it didn't occur to anybody to give up their room to them. You can be sure it wouldn't occur to anybody today either. The hotel clerk wouldn't even think to ask anybody. If Jesus were born today, it might well be in the garage of a service station next to the Days Inn you can find in most towns. The equivalent of the shepherds would be the people working third shift for peanuts and the drunk sleeping under the nearby bridge. They might notice and marvel, but that would be about it.

The local news media wouldn't notice either. Perhaps the circumstances of Jesus' birth were part of God's plan for diverting Satan's attention from the Redemption until the time was ripe. Given Herod's fears, that is quite likely. I was led to consider that possibility by reading The Lord of the Rings nearly forty years ago. In that trilogy, Gandalf's plan for defeating Sauron was to put The Ring in the hands of a few unassuming hobbits who, unlike the lords of the West, would be able to sneak into Mordor to destroy it even as its lord's attention was on the relatively weak army sent to challenge him. I've come to believe that's how God operates in most of our lives. If we would but watch and pray in humility, we would come to see that it's in the mundane little things, especially the aversive ones, that God most often speaks clearly to us and seeks to unite himself to us. I hate mundane, aversive little things, as much for their littleness as anything else. I think them unworthy of my attention. I remind myself today how deadly that attitude is. When we're riding high and full of ourselves, Satan has an opening. We're on his radar screen. When we're brought down, frustrated, weak, and helpless, God has us right where we can be with him in that manger and listen to him. If we're willing, that is. Satan has an opening then only if we're not willing. The Herod in each of us can win only if we let him.

That, to me, is the one thing necessary to remember about the meaning of Christmas. Without it, Christmas is sentimentalism for the fortunate and an added reminder of misfortune for the unfortunate. That is what I shall meditate upon before the crèche. There are many for whom this will not be a particularly merry day: the hundreds of millions of dirt-poor folk; the lonely; the mentally ill; the addicted; our troops abroad, fighting and dying far from their loved ones for a cause on which the majority of their fellow citizens have given up. For myself, this Christmas I cannot afford to travel to see those who love me. I cannot even afford to send gifts, and the ones I will have received are not the kind one can put under a tree. And I'm more fortunate than some. But none of that matters if one lets oneself be assured that the divine light is closest to us when the darkness of this world's night seems deepest.

O holy night....
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