“We’ve got another holiday to worry about.” – Charlie Brown
Christmas presents conundrums for most of us now because we are reductionists and literalists. The mindset of our time is a curious mixture of scientism and crass entertainment. Only that which can be proven true by scientific method or the correct news outlet is considered real. We are materialists.
So, what do we do about Christmas? The essential message of Christmas is “Emmanuel”; a Hebrew word meaning “God with us.” This raises questions. Who is this God and how is this God with us, and why? The first question’s answer could go something like this: God is the eternal principle in which all things live, move, and have their being; or, God is the high and lofty One, the totally other who inhabits eternity; or, (if you like quantum physics) God is the unified field of potential from which all things arise, exist, and then return. Some say there is no God and that ends the discussion and the questions. It also eliminates finding any truth beyond a truth relative to individual circumstances as they shift like sand in an hourglass. That sounds boring and bleak.
The answers to the second and third questions (How is God with us, and why?) pose the most serious problems to the modern mind. How is God with us? We can accept answers like, “God is with us in nature.” Or, “God is with us in our minds.” Or. “God is with us in our loved ones.” These are certainly true but Christianity (Christmas) gets more specific than that. Christmas says the eternal principle that exists beyond space and time came to exist in space and time, in history, in a particular place, as a particular human being. Just once. The absolute principle of all existence itself (Ipsum esse subsistens) was born and lived and died and rose again (That’s another huge conundrum!) in Yeshua of Nazareth, son of Miriam, when Quirinius was governor of Syria; when Pontius Pilate was the fifth prefect of Judea, from AD 26-36, under Emperor Tiberius. Specific. This answer is problematic for many of us, unless we dismiss it as a myth projected onto history. The Christian answer tells us the transcendent God who created heaven and earth from outside of time in a Big Bang was born, lived, and died as a human being. Blasphemy and nonsense, right?
Emmanuel. God with us. Modern scholarship, practical reasoning, scientific knowledge, and the mindset found on social media and in popular culture, can easily help us dismiss this as superfluous, primitive, pre-scientific, naïve, magical, and mythical; as a fantastic creation of people who didn’t know any better. We can perhaps accept the mythical motifs as symbols for universal psychological truths, and this is certainly reasonable to do. Those aspects are true and useful. We can say Jesus of Nazareth may or may not have actually existed and has become a mythical figure embellished over the centuries, like Robin Hood. A hero myth. This also contains some truth and can be useful. There are many ways to appreciate the claims of Christianity without completely accepting or dismissing them; without seeming gullible and foolish to our peers.
But is there something else that we are missing, something more, something lost to history, something staring us right in the face? Is it possible that beneath the stories and motifs of stars and shepherds and wise men and the various interpretations of it all, there is one essential fact that remains hidden in plain sight? This brings us to the third question: “Why would God do such a thing?” This answer is most disturbing of all to the modern mind; that God, the incomprehensible and uncontrollable mystery, was born and lived and died, and it happened for our sake. Is it possible that the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity inhabited time and space because that’s where we dwell, and eternity is too incomprehensible and unreachable and frightening for us? Because we can’t get there or even believe it exists without help from the outside? Is that right? Could it be that God the uncontrollable mystery did this outrageous thing because it is what we need in order to have hope that our deepest longing is not a lie, and it has a real destination? Could or would the universe’s source and sustenance do such a thing? For us? Really?
This is the Christmas conundrum.
Before dismissing it all as nonsense, consider this: Ancient and modern human beings alike, all human beings of all times and all places, have the innate yearning for communion with the eternal; that which exists beyond space and time. No matter how simple or how smart, ancient or modern, every human being contains a spark of the eternal and yearns toward it, willingly or blindly. This is the most essential and unique feature among all the unique features of human beings; Homo religiousus. No other living thing is drawn and driven in the same way by this yearning. Only us.
“Whether you believe or do not believe, you date your letters and checks and income tax forms with a number representing how many years have gone by since what happened happened.” – Frederick Buechner
Consider this, also: Would we divide human history over the birth of one person arbitrarily, or would there have to be something utterly unique about that life? A specific person was born in a specific time and at a specific place, from eternity into time, and history was divided in two. What we make of this now is up to us.
It may be wise to remember that a God who is everywhere and nowhere in particular easily becomes a God who is nowhere at all. Where would that leave us and our holy longing?