Christmas: A Reflection on Things So Strange
At Christmas, we remember the beautiful and strange reality that the Eternal and Divine One chose to take on human flesh and dwell among us.
Every year, Christians face the distractions of the busy Christmas season. As Joseph Pronechen wrote recently, we risk being swept up in “secular busyness ... [t]he hustle and bustle of shopping for gifts. The decorations and displays going up even before Advent starts. Parties and plans for baking goodies begin.” Pronechen offers many good ideas to restore the central meaning of Christmas to the celebration of the holiday. We should indeed build Nativity scenes with our children, sing the ancient “O Antiphons” in the days leading up to Christmas, and celebrate the Christmas season properly: beginning on Christmas Day, not on Black Friday.
The point of these practices is simple and obvious: Christmas is about the birth of Christ, so we incarnational beings must engage our senses, our voices, and our minds in activities that immerse us in the birth of Christ. It is good to celebrate with baked goods and presents, but they must all be oriented toward the reality that God became man and dwelt among us on Christmas, in Bethlehem, 2022 years ago.
Even with this focus in mind, we risk sentimentalizing the reality of Christmas and losing the mystery, the sheer strangeness, of what occurred in that manger. Christian calls to “keep Christ in Christmas” are good, in that they try to turn our heads from the shopping malls and cookies to the scene of baby Jesus surrounded by adoring farm animals, shepherds, and wise men. This is the right idea, but even devout Christians need to stop and dwell on the singular mystery of the Incarnation.
I have read St. John of the Cross for many years. While he is best known for his deep, daunting writings on the dark night of the soul, I think my favorite of his writings is “The Romances.” It is a poem, only a few pages long, one of his lesser-known works and I think one of his most beautiful. Contained within its brief pages is a perfect reflection to bring us deep into the truth and depth of Christmas. “The Romances” are a dialogue between the Father and the Son, beginning before the world was made. “In that immense love proceeding from the two, the Father spoke words of great affection to the Son.” Before earth and its people existed, before time itself, there was an immense love between Father and Son, who communicated, who loved each other and were complete in that Love.
And even though the Trinity was perfectly complete and content, loving and loved, God chose to create us in His image. So, the Father speaks to the Son: “My Son, I wish to give you a bride who will love you. Because of you she will deserve to share our company, and eat at our table, the same bread I eat, that she may know the good I have in such a Son; and rejoice with me in your grace and fullness.” The Father so loves the Son that He creates us, so that by grace we may share in the goodness and love that is God. This alone should strike us with amazement. God existed with no need for anything outside of Himself. He had no need for time, for creation, no need for us to exist at all. Yet He created us, because in His perfect love and goodness, He thought it was good to share that love. The very reason we exist is because it is good for us to marvel at God’s goodness, to partake of His love.
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From here, “The Romances” continue a beautiful dialogue between Father and Son. But God goes beyond creating the earth so that we may share life with Him. He actually sends His Son, God Himself, to take on the flesh of man. Imagine this: God existed before the world, outside of space and time, complete and perfect. Yet this Perfect and Eternal One descends into the creation He Himself created, making Himself a man. And so the heavenly dialogue of “The Romances” descends quickly, shockingly to the earth, where God is “laid in a manger among some animals that were there at that time.”
God goes from highest heaven to a barn, from perfect bliss to a place where he cries and moans among men. Here, we see the most incredible mixture of God and man, where in the arms of Mary, on a cold night in backwater Bethlehem,
The Mother gazed in sheer wonder on such an exchange: in God, man's weeping, and in man, gladness, to the one and the other things usually so strange.
How strange indeed. We see God, descended to the moaning, crying helplessness of a poor infant. We see a man, with normal human flesh and blood and tears, containing the very gladness, the divine happiness, of God.
Do we ponder these things when Christmas comes around? Do we remember what a beautiful and strange reality it is that the Eternal and Divine One chose to take on human flesh and dwell among us? We ought to, and not just for abstract and personal reasons. It is important, as people dedicated to the restoration of our culture, to reflect on the profound mystery of the faith we embrace. If we believe the truth of Christmas, we understand that God existed before time began, that He freely chose to create us and to enter into our world in order to share His goodness, His love, with others.
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This ought to transform our whole worldview, even our political worldview. This world in which we live is not one in which humans live at the center. It is insufficient to prioritize God and religion among the projects that we need to institute the good life, as if faith and religion are mere goods in the marketplace of conservative ideas. No, God is the center, and God had no need for us to exist. Therefore, the Incarnation, the celebration of Christmas, is the center point of our existence on earth. All our politics, policy proposals, and desires must be subordinated to the fact that God chose to create us in order to share in His goodness and love.
Let us remember in this Christmas season that we are not meant, primarily, to effect change in the world by our political efforts. Nor are we meant to make God merely a meaningful part of our lives. Rather, God is the center of everything. He is Being Itself.
In an act of sheer gratuitous generosity, God created the world that we might share life with Him. And on Christmas, He took on human flesh to make that sharing of life concrete and real. Let us reorient our personal and political lives around that reality, so that the Incarnation, this strange and mysterious co-mingling of the human with the divine, might be taken seriously and celebrated with the reverence that it deserves.