And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)
Christmas Day is now upon us, and our thoughts turn once again to that far-away, long-ago barn, and the newborn baby laid in a feed trough.
We know the story so very well. Even if, in a flight of fancy, we place three wise men and a little drummer boy in the stable along with the shepherds and the parents and the Christ Child …
Well, we know the essence of the story, don’t we? We know what it’s really about. It’s called “Incarnation,” and it is a story about God taking on human flesh to become the Saviour of the world. “Very God of very God,” to quote the Nicene Creed.
Or to put it another way, Christ was fully and completely God—“co-eternal and co-equal” with the Father and the Holy Spirit, as Athanasius purportedly said. Emmanuel—“God with us.”
But of course, there’s more—as every instructed Christian should know. Christ was fully and completely human, as well.*
Fully and completely God … and fully and completely human. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, divinity and humanity are reconciled. Reconciled like balance sheets. Our debits, God’s credits … balanced out, reconciled, made equal.
Comforting words—at Christmastime, or any time. Comforting, that is, unless and until you try to understand them. For how can the infinite be reconciled with the finite? How can immortality become mortal? How can human weakness subsume divine Power?
As a bright teenager pointed out to me years ago, frailty and limitation are authentic substances of our human condition. When you say, “I’m only human,” you’re attempting to excuse an error. Or plead ignorance in the face of some unanticipated consequence.
Humanity is defined by its limits. There are things which we do not know, cannot foresee, and struggle to comprehend. There is much over which we are powerless. Like … say … when you’re in a boat out on the lake, and a storm takes you by surprise …
Who can command the wind and the waves?
So we repeat this stuff—about Christ being completely divine and also, somehow, completely human—and perhaps we secretly hope that nobody will ask us to explain what that means.
Truth to tell, through the centuries, Christians—including some heavyweight theologians—have ruminated on this issue … But they’ve never come up with a satisfying explanation.
Humanity and divinity seem like opposites. How could a helpless newborn contain the undiminished glory of Abraham’s God? And yet that is precisely the assertion of Scripture:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11, ESV)
Taking the form of a servant. Being born in the likeness of humanity, Christ emptied himself. He humbled himself.
God cannot die … and yet Jesus died. For that matter, God has no beginning … and yet, every year—on an arbitrarily-assigned date in December or January—we Christians mark Jesus’ birthday.
Like that same bright teenager said to me, “I guess it’s another one of those paradoxes.”
Indeed. Paradoxes. The testimony of faith abounds with these. A virgin conceives and bears a son. Her elderly aunt, a woman long past her childbearing years, also becomes pregnant—and presents her aged husband with his firstborn.
Paradoxes. And ironies. A synagogue official watches as his dead 12-year-old daughter is raised back to life by an itinerant rabbi who has been denounced by the religious elite. The one who comes in the name of the Lord is rejected and shunned by most of the Lord’s people. Though convinced of Jesus’ innocence, a provincial governor sentences him to death. The preacher of peace and non-violence is beaten and broken and nailed to a cross. A lifeless body sealed up in a tomb somehow breaks out, and appears—repeatedly—to Jesus’ bewildered friends.
None of these things should happen—and yet, they do. Some of them are impossible—and yet, they come to pass.
Christmas. It’s a season of paradox—and of great celebration. We confess the paradox even as we affirm our faith. Why? Because, deep in our hearts, we know that miracles do happen. An infant who shouldn’t have survived grows up to become a father himself. The victim of unforgiveable cruelty finds a way to forgive the perpetrators. A once-hopeless addict finds lasting sobriety. We know miracles happen because we encounter them daily.
Love wins—even when it should not, even when we can’t explain why, even when it’s paradoxical—because we who have no righteousness have been made righteous in Christ.
Embrace the mystery. Jesus wants your heart for his cradle, my friend. You’d best make room for him. Each day, the Christ Child is growing in you. On this day, may he be born in you, also.
* “Jesus Christ is true God and true man,” according to The Catechism of the Catholic Church, article 3, paragraph 1, section 3 .