Breaking from my usual tradition (if you can call a few blog posts a tradition) of reflecting on Scripture passages, I am writing a few thoughts as Advent ends and Christmas, one of the most joyous and sacred days and seasons of the Christian Church, begins.
We as humans have the helpful yet infuriating habit of breaking large things into smaller things, compartmentalizing aspects, traits, and events into easily understandable and organizable categories. We’ve done this with basically everything, from history (because the Middle Ages ended exactly as the Reformation started all over the world) to cooking to humans to even God.
This activity is, well, human: It helps us, allows us, to cope with the overwhelming interconnectedness and complexity of the world. And if we must imagine that the world can be parsed into neat boxes, we quite obviously must also separate and categorize God. Just as it’s impossible to compartmentalize the world, it’s really impossible to compartmentalize God, who is the infinite Mystery (and yet the intimate Foundation of Existence, which is a real head-scratcher in and of itself).
Of course, describing God with certain words and within certain categories helps us to learn more about God and express that knowledge to others; in fact, it’s really the only way we as humans can share our knowledge of God with each other in a coherent manner. However, we also have the duty to acknowledge God as ultimate mystery and to (attempt to) look at creation as a whole instead of independent entities. An excellent and timely example comes in the Nativity.
The Nativity is the birth of Jesus. (Whoa! What a surprise, right?) With the joy (and the stress) of God coming to earth as man, we often focus on the birth and the birth alone – manger, stable, shepherds, and all. As hard as it is to think about the many needful tasks and preparations for Christmas celebrations and the mass, we must put the birth of Jesus in a wider context. That’s the very reason we have Advent, the main emphasis of which is preparation, not so much for the baby Jesus (that kind of happened already) but for the daily entrance of Jesus into our hearts and the second, final coming of Christ at the end of time.
Let’s consider some other elements, though. The Nativity is part of the larger Christ-event: the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The baby born to Mary was the rabbi and rabble-rouser who fearlessly proclaimed and lived the love of God, the insurgent and scandal who was crucified by the Romans, and the Savior and Word who rose from the dead and promised a radical transformation for all creation at the end of time. These aspects of Jesus and many more are part and parcel of his being and cannot be separated from his birth. The joy and tenderness of Christmas are intricately tied with the sorrow and suffering of the Passion and the glory and renewal of the Resurrection.
The Incarnation of God, starting with Jesus’ conception, shows that God was willing to become part of what He made (even more than He was already) – not just humanity, but the whole of the material universe and biological life.* God loved us and all creation so immensely as to enter into it, not only its joy and life but also its suffering and death. If Jesus was born, he must also die, not necessarily on the cross but certainly as a human being. In being born, God was already dying, yet in doing so God was already bringing new life to the world and the promise of a final, glorious communion with God’s self. Death was conquered the moment God decided to live as a human and submit to it. The Incarnation is part of the continuous act of God’s creation, still going on now until the final transformation and fulfillment of all things.
Now that’s quite a Christmas miracle, don’t you think?
The birth of Jesus is and always will be of immense importance, but only when we place it in the context of his life and God’s love. Considering things in the universal context can be overwhelming and exhausting; we (at least I) cannot do it all the time. But try to set aside some time this Christmas to consider the wonderful, mysterious, gentle, self-giving love of God.
I’m off for family celebrations and vigil mass now. Merry Christmas, everyone! ~
*Denis Edwards, a theologian from Flinders University in Australia, has formulated a fascinating theology considering the role of the material universe, biological life, and animals along with humans in the love of God based in part off the work of Karl Rahner. You can read his thoughts in How God Acts (2010).