Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Telling the Christmas story

Recently, Jeff Miller (aka the Curt Jester) posted a somewhat-lengthy discussion of the Christmas movies he’s been watching. Along the way, he noted just how many of them hit the same themes over and over: 1) Family is important; 2) Materialism is bad; and 3) Santa Claus is real. On the other hand, the only other option seems to be watching some iteration or other of the Nativity story, the most recent of which Taylor Marshall blasted as “blasphemous and sacrilegious” for its depiction of the Blessed Virgin consulting a palm reader (Gottenyu! Not something a pious Jewish girl would do) and for depicting her as suffering labor pains.[1]  Couldn’t somebody, Miller wondered aloud, manage to write a story that would hit the Nativity themes without being a Nativity movie?

It sounds like an interesting idea. At least, until you ask yourself: How do you separate the Nativity from the birth of Jesus?

Let me set the scene:

For thousands of years, in the midst of the toil and heartache of survival, humans have been wrestling with the apparent indifference of the universe to their existence. They’ve watched children come into the world and loved ones depart their bodies, and learned that the strange phenomenon called life is ephemeral—brought forth in pain, yet destroyed so easily. “Why,” they’ve asked the remote, abstracted heavens, “why all this pleasure and suffering and joy and sorrow and health and sickness and war and wedding, if it all comes to nothing at the end of our days? Is there a purpose to all of this? Do we matter at all in the grand scheme of the cosmos? Is there nothing about our scratching to survive and fighting to love that inflames some greater being to pity?”

Every culture has had some suspicion that there were greater beings who lived in a manner different from the humans and animals of the earth. But for the most part, they too were largely indifferent to the plight of humanity: demanding worship, sacrifice and occasionally some form of behavior pleasing to them, and occasionally acquiescing to the pleas of their supplicants, but otherwise as remote as the mountain tops on which they resided. Here and there a hero would intervene on behalf of the mortals, often coming to grief, like Prometheus chained to his rock for his gift to men of stolen fire. Occasionally a poet would claim the interference of the gods in human affairs; but as often as not it was for motives having nothing to do with the creatures they played with like dice (as the Greek aphorism put it), and everything to do with their own internecine rivalries and petty squabbles.

Here and there, tribes suspected that there was a God behind the gods. The gods they worshipped were as much creations of the universe as they were, whether they were merely immortal super-humans or wildly fantastic monsters. Yet behind the grinning, goggling visages of the monsters, the stern aspects of the titans and the nebulous shadows of the kami, beyond the murderous Kali and the duplicitous Loki and the baby-stealing bean sidhe, there flitted a Presence almost forgotten, almost unknown. Oh, a couple of Greek philosophers—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle—believed they’d logically proven that He existed; a couple of Greek poets here and there suspected His presence, and gave His attributes to Zeus. But if the gods were remote and aloof, this ur-God was a mere hint of Himself.

That is, He was a mere hint except for a desert people on the remote fringes of the Mediterranean, a culture so withdrawn and insular that they barely troubled the consciousnesses of the larger nations around them, a people shuffled from Babylon to Egypt to Persia long after they’d given up wandering of their own accord, a mere pawn in Near Eastern politics. Long after they’d been robbed of national treasures and national autonomy, they still zealously kept their God and their laws like a miser hoarding cash in a safe.

Their God wasn’t distant and disinterested. He was an active player in their history, not just for His own ends but for theirs as well; His meddling was not a poetic metaphor but an historic fact. Moreover, He cared about His people, alternately commanding and pleading with them for their compliance, alternately protecting and punishing according to their deserts, demanding that they not only do justice by Him but by each other as well. And, in return, His people not only prayed to Him but sang wondrous hymns, alternating grief and joy, triumph and repentance. And when they grew slack, along would come a holy man, speaking words of fire and swords, and yet also of promises to be fulfilled, to call His people back to the Temple.

But the rest of the world knew Him not. And eventually their material gods, with their super-sized egos and petty grievances and lurid escapades, grew stale and tiresome. Some even said they didn’t exist, and that all things were mere composites, that man had best forget about some greater meaning in life and pursue virtue for its own sake, or indulge in pleasures that only this life could offer. But even the full-speed pursuit of Bacchic delights was a mere flight from the despair that pursued them. And some still strained to see the Face hidden among the thronging divines.

And then a Virgin conceived and bore a son, whose name in the prophecies was Emmanuel: “God with us”.

He wasn’t born in a storybook “once upon a time”, but during the local reign of an Idumean tyrant in the empire of Augustus Caesar. He came into the world not by springing from rock, or from a god’s head fully formed, but in the way of all humans. He wasn’t born in some mythical land beyond the horizons of the known world, but in a small town just a few miles outside of Jerusalem. He wasn’t begotten in a spate of divine lust; indeed, the God who sired him had no need of such sordid antics. The more one tries to compare the story of the Child born in a stable in Judea to the genesis of other gods, the less alike they appear.

And so God entered human history in a way even He had not done before, in a way no Jew or Gentile expected.

Do you begin to see now the overwhelming magnitude of the challenge?

Apologist Steve Ray tells Protestants that the Catholic crucifix is the graphic representation of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He sent his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” In Christian theology, the Nativity is but the beginning of the road to Golgotha and that terrible Friday when God hung from a cross as a sacrificial offering to Himself. But the crèche is also a picture of that blazing declaration, that pennant truth of our faith. And I submit that it’s this image which turned the ancient world upside down, which seized the imaginations of a people wandering forsaken in the world.

For in the ancient cry, “O come, O come Emmanuel,” we are all “captive Israel”, Jew and Gentile alike, mourning in lonely exile from Gan Eden. The world outside Judea may never have had the story of Adam and Eve, but it knew that we are fallen creatures, more than animal yet less than angel, capable of great good yet prone to great evil. And finally they had their answer: Someone did care; they did matter; the hostility of the universe was not the whole of reality. Tertullian may never have said, “Credo quia impossible,” but it was true for generations and centuries of people like you and me: No one could imagine a god emptying himself of his divinity and coming in the likeness of man (Phil 2:7), let alone as a child sleeping in a manger surrounded by livestock. “A mass of literature, which increases and will never end, has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle.”[2]

How do you explain all that in a movie? You can tell any number of stories set at Christmastime; you can reveal in a hundred or so different fashions that the “true meaning of Christmas” is some minor truism like family is important, and materialism is bad, and we should all treat one another with kindness and respect. Yes, these are all true, so far as they go; but they’re not the whole meaning of Christmas, even lumped together.

The true meaning of Christmas is that, ultimately, we’re not alone. Someone knows us, and that Someone loves us as His children. And that’s why Christmas is a celebration of childhood: “For we are his children too.”[3]

[1] Labor pains are part of the package deal called “original sin” (Gn 3:16), which the Church teaches Mary was spared due to her immaculate conception. Also, the Church Fathers cite Isaiah 66:7 as referring to the Virgin Birth: “Before she was in labor, she gave birth; before her pain came upon her, she was delivered of a son.”
[2] G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p. 169.
[3] Aratus, Phaenomena 5, cf. Ac 17:28.