Christmas is a revolution of nearness. In his Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, Benedict XVI writes:
“We are speaking of an unprecedented and humanly inconceivable novelty: “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14a). These words are no figure of speech; they point to a lived experience! Saint John, an eyewitness, tells us so: “We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” [1:14b]. The apostolic faith testifies that the eternal Word became one of us. The divine Word is truly expressed in human words.”
The message of the incarnation is that the divine presence has come to dwell among us. This is both old and new—as old as the Garden, as new as the manger. As present as breath, as real as flesh and blood. As natural as a mother screaming in the night as the life within her womb demands entry into the world, while, as ever, her nervous, worried, confused husband simply tries to figure out what to do. As practical as dirty diapers, tears, sleepless nights and, soon, skinned knees. To realize that God has truly come to us in the most human and unreserved manner possible is to realize that we must live in His heart in equal fashion, else why go to the trouble? God does not love at a distance, therefore He does not live at a distance. Evangelicals make much of the sin that separates man from God, but Christmas warns us not to go too far with this, or we will idolize the power of sin above the great, forceful, unrelenting power of love.
The Divine Expression is Human
Christ, the eternal Logos of God, Second Person of the Trinity, did not transmit a text message or send a smug little selfie. Rather, eternity became now, heaven became flesh. Jesus pitched a thoroughly human tent among us. The staggering fact of the Incarnation is that when we try to figure out what God looks like, His best portrait is to to be found in the brother or sister beside you. God deigned to render His divine, unapproachable splendor in the least threatening form of all: a newborn babe. Infinite Time became Real Time. The Word was not articulated in a beautiful, pristine, moral philosophy so clinical and pristine as to intimidate us all with its systematic, inarguable brilliance. No, no, look over there instead. See? There He is, that tiny, cold, hungry baby. Can you imagine such a thing? Only after God chooses to tell this story can we comprehend such a story ever being told. Followers of Christ don’t hew to a system, creed, or a doctrinal plank in their chosen denominational platform. They follow Christ. They follow vulnerability, humility, inexplicability. If we wish to advance in the knowledge and love of Christ, we would be wise to start where He started, impotent and shivering in the straw, unknown to all but God.
This mystery was pure subterfuge on the part of God, quietly shredding our proud, self-imposed barriers to fellowship with God, subtly dismantling the entire claptrap system by which we measure our personal worth this great and holy God. In the Incarnation, long before the Cross, we understand why friendship with God is possible. The angel’s declaration is not just a message for that day, but for all time.
“Glory to God in the highest!” they cry. And of course, yes, we know that part all too well, right? He is so high, He is so glorious. We are not. We are sin-infected men of low estate. What is man that thou art mindful of Him? But the angels don’t stop there. They continue, “And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”
Wait, what? He’s pleased? Is that a misprint? Because the timing is all wrong. God can’t be pleased, not yet. Holy God must be angry at sin. That’s our picture of Him—He’s still basically the Old Testament God at this point. Yet there it is, messing with our tidy, airtight theology. Right at the birth of Christ, not later at the inevitable substitutionary atonement for which this One has been born, but right here, right now…God is pleased. Can you believe it? You must. There is no other story but that story. Nothing else makes sense unless you know that God, and forever dispel the false caricature that so dominates popular opinion, both within the church and without. It’s almost like the angels are saying, “We’re gonna spell it out or you’ll miss it!”
They’re right. We so often do. I’ll let Pope Benedict get the last word, again from the Verbum Domini:
“…Yet we would not yet sufficiently grasp the message of the Prologue of Saint John if we stopped at the fact that God enters into loving communion with us. In reality, the Word of God, through whom “all things were made” (Jn 1:3) and who “became flesh” (Jn 1:14), is the same Word who is “in the beginning” (Jn 1:1). If we realize that this is an allusion to the beginning of the book of Genesis (cf. Gen 1:1), we find ourselves faced with a beginning which is absolute and which speaks to us of the inner life of God.
The Johannine Prologue makes us realize that the Logos is truly eternal, and from eternity is himself God. God was never without his Logos. The Word exists before creation. Consequently at the heart of the divine life there is communion, there is absolute gift. “God is love” (1 Jn 4:16), as the same Apostle tells us elsewhere, thus pointing to “the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny”. God makes himself known to us as a mystery of infinite love in which the Father eternally utters his Word in the Holy Spirit. Consequently the Word, who from the beginning is with God and is God, reveals God himself in the dialogue of love between the divine persons, and invites us to share in that love. Created in the image and likeness of the God who is love, we can thus understand ourselves only in accepting the Word and in docility to the work of the Holy Spirit. In the light of the revelation made by God’s Word, the enigma of the human condition is definitively clarified.”
This Christmas, experience the Incarnate message of Christ in your thoughts and inner life. Experience a new beginning in your view of God, the kind that dismantles our persistent, unconfessed, existential dread. No, no….He began pleased at the thought of you. He is pleased. Believe and receive. It is the best gift of all.
Merry Christmas. In excelsis deo!