This weekend, Christians celebrated the Epiphany, the story of the magi’s visit to the manger, which ends the Christmas season. And with the end of the Christmas season, we might imagine, along with the narrator of Auden’s poem “For the Time Being,”
Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –
some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
and the children got ready for school. There are enough
left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week –
not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully –
to love all of our relatives, and in general
grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
as in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
to do more than entertain it as an agreeable
“An agreeable possibility.” Indeed, at the heart of the Christmas celebration is a lovely story — but what if it’s only a story?
And how, we may ask, can it be otherwise? We live in a scientific age, beyond belief in virgin births or God-men or miracles, and we may look at those vestigial beliefs as the mythic remnants of a time of superstition. The commercialism and jingoism that have, for all intents and purposes, won the “war on Christmas” may not be as beautiful as the Christian story, but at least they aren’t superstition — right?
I think of supposedly superstitious ages. I think of the medievals, who considered the material world “the Book of Nature,” on whose pages God had transcribed the secrets of reality: the golden ratio and symmetry in nature indicated cosmic order; the laws of cause and effect implied a first cause and prime mover; birdsong was proof of the self-evident rightness of religious praise.
Our understanding is now more advanced (as is our capacity to destroy the world we believe we’ve come to master). I wonder, though, if this is any reason to reject the grounding metaphor of the Book of Nature itself, and with it, the all-important secret the medievals grasped better than we do: the secret of the fabular nature of all reality? In other words, is scientific fact the ground of reality, that beyond which there is nothing; or is science the language for an empirical description of the physical manifestation of the true ground of being, which meets us — encounters us — in the only way it can: in a mediated way, a way mediated by matter, by things?
The Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin always said that he was “in love with matter.” Yet I think he would agree that one can remain a perfectly scientific person and say that meaning holds a greater claim to ultimacy than the laws of science do. Marx pointed out that each generation only asks those questions which it already knows how to answer; we may pretend that science can answer our ultimate questions of meaning because the thought of facing realities that are not empirical is so utterly terrifying and leaves us feeling so vulnerable, so unequipped.
Perhaps there will be a moment, after death, when we will know whether the Christian story was only a fable. At that moment, faced with ultimate Reality, the quite contingent reality of our own human experience will itself be revealed as fabular. In the face of what is ultimate, we are not much more real than a character in any book. “Life’s but a walking shadow,” Macbeth observed, “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage.” The playwright Calderón entitled one of his works, “Life Is a Dream.” Certain physicists have recently proposed that all empirical reality is ultimately information, and that consciousness (which receives the revelation of information) is more primary in the scheme of reality than matter (the contingent form of the revelation) itself.
We asked: What if the story of Christmas is only a story, only a fable? This question may seem less threatening to believers just as soon as we grasp (and it takes something like a mystical consciousness to do so) that what we take to be reality — the empirical world, and with it, each of our lives — is also only a fable: a vessel of meaning, and not its source; a question, not an answer; a spiritual journey that isn’t ending but beginning; an index pointing to what is truly Real.
We have to get this right: everything that is empirically “real” unfolds as a story about what is ultimately, eternally “Real.” This is the direction our knowledge must tend. Ultimate, or divine, Reality is not subservient to scientific reality; by definition, it cannot be. Scientific reality clarifies the meaning of the divine Reality.
We haven’t yet entered the fullness of the divine Reality; the other bookend of the Christian mystery, the Resurrection of Easter, will have something powerful to say about this. Meanwhile, we only know that we long for it, whether we are aware of our longing or not, whether we name it as others do or differently. We long for eternity, for ultimacy, for enlightenment, for an infinite love. And it eludes our grasp.
The Christmas tale is a story of how this love, whose shelter we feel estranged from, approaches us on our own turf. The Word becomes flesh and pitches its tent among us. Ultimate Reality contracts itself into contingent historical reality…although inevitably it will seem not to belong here. It will seem fictitious, superstitious, scandalous: we may not even believe in God in the first place, but we *certainly* don’t believe that “God” (whatever that means) belongs here, with us, like this, stripped of the dignity of transcendence by being made to look like a character in an anthropocentric fairy tale.
The founder of the Redemptorists, St. Alphonsus Liguori, suggests that this odd story captures the profoundest of truths about God: although we long for paradise with God, Liguori says, “for God, paradise is the human heart.”
For God, paradise is the human heart: regardless whether the Christian story is “real,” this is its meaning: the divine is drawn to us, wants to be among us, desires to be embodied in matter, even though it’s within its rights to abscond. If we take the notion of God seriously (and this is our choice), and if we believe that God is love, then we must take the Incarnation seriously as well; for love is not love that remains at a distance. I don’t think that the story of the Christian Incarnation is the only way to reckon with the basic necessity of God’s presence among creation, but it’s a way many have found compelling.
Compelling — not certain. I’ve lived too long, experienced too much, to think that certainty is healthy in a life of faith, in a world of such mystery and ambiguity. I am not blind to the strangeness, even the implausibility, of the whole story. Perhaps what it means for me, personally, to say that I “believe” is to say that Christ is the morning star in whom I place my deepest, most fragile hopes.
Faith itself, in other words, is vulnerable. And we still have so much left to say about vulnerability.
Johann Baptist Metz is a priest and theologian who has written about poverty of spirit. Before he prescribes it for us, he suggests it is the basic attitude of God toward us. For God to love what is small, like we are, must mean self-emptying and vulnerability. God’s spirit becomes contracted by and into poverty, that poverty which so deeply and unavoidably characterizes not only human beings (groping blindly for meaning, fated to die) but the earth itself (pollutable, choking, likewise doomed someday to a cosmic end). Jesus can only have been born into a manger, in a lowly backwater of a powerful empire, attended by shepherds heavy with the smell of sheep, by the homeless wanderers who were the only ones in Bethlehem still wide awake in the middle of the night.
The temptation in the desert, Metz suggests, is best understood from this perspective. When Satan tempts Jesus with ego, power, satisfaction, he is not saying, “Worship me rather than God,” so much as, “remain God rather than becoming human.” It is not Jesus’ divinity that Satan fears; it is his humanity. Why? Because Satan knows that the privileged place for God’s encounter with humanity is our vulnerability. God can only meet us in the gateway of human vulnerability. If we doubt this, we have only to ask ourselves whether we, too, have felt closest to God or to ultimate meaning in the context of our pride and self-sufficiency, or in moments when we’ve been broken open by joy or sorrow and made completely vulnerable to our own need for another person’s love.
Vulnerability is the locus of our encounter with God. I think it may be the central reality of Christmas, of this story of a child born to an immigrant family, a poor family, an unwanted family; of a child who would grow up living the hard life of a day-laborer before suffering a painful, unjust, and premature death.
“Emmanuel” — the name of the awaited one in Isaiah, the name associated with Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew — means “God is with us.” Again, I suppose that God could be with us in many ways, and God’s being with us in Jesus is only one among these many; but Jesus could only be identified as Emmanuel, could only be a sign of God’s abiding with us.
Even in this world of horror. Even in this world of incomprehensible suffering. Even in this world in which hatred and injustice so often take the upper hand. Even in this world which is dying. Even in this world in which — Jules Renard once suggested — it would be better for God’s reputation if God didn’t exist.
Even in this world in which I, small person that I am, go to work at the hospital and see a two-year-old dead of a gunshot wound. See his grandmother collapse on the floor of the ER, her wails resounding down the hall. Personalized agonies. And others have known even worse.
Somehow we are invited to believe that this world is partly hell and partly paradise. Hell for reasons that are obvious, and which no religious language can prettify. Paradise not because love exists abundantly enough that we can say (barely), and mean it (basically), that love is greater than death — though perhaps it is — but paradise simply because God is here. In fact, God would be nowhere else despite how weak love really seems to be in the face of all that threatens it. The very world we bemoan when we read the newspapers is a world God has not abandoned to itself, but rushed headlong into. It’s not that the world isn’t broken. It’s that the world is loved with a generosity that bears the weight of that pain. (Likewise, I’ve known people — we can call them mystics — whose lives are similarly infused with longing and insanity and mercy: they love God, and they love the world, not because it’s easy, but because true love doesn’t scoff at the challenge or await the permission of logic or the assurance that it will win.) God saves the world not by altering its stubborn and intractable nature but by loving that nature, forgiving it, even taking it on. God saves the world by working vulnerability not into power but into intimacy, into companionship.
And yes: promising resurrection from death, and not only after death, yet somehow, mysteriously, even now, through transformation in the midst of what is bleakest. Through the promise (which Mary of Nazareth once proclaimed) that the tyrants will be thrown from their thrones, and the poor will be exalted and saved. But of course, it’s always only a partial transformation, because what characterizes us as created beings is not the whole, but the fragment. Not the ultimate, but the incipient.
This is a story not of endings, but of beginnings.
Recently, a young mother in the hospital here in Philadelphia asked me if I would go to the Neonatal ICU, where her newborn child was struggling for life and where she wasn’t allowed to go because she herself was sick. She wanted me to go and say a prayer for her son.
I went down to the NICU and stood over the bassinet staring down at this small child flexing his tiny fingers and opening his silent eyes. I prayed, of course, that the child might live. But my prayer was more than that: it did not issue forth from me so much as draw me into itself, into a spirit of contemplation. I looked at this baby and wondered what streets, what faces, what skies his eyes would see, however long or short, happy or sad, his life. What untold stories awaited. How he would never remember, nor ever know, that already his little life had intersected another’s, mine…. though I would know and remember.
I felt like one of the three kings at the manger. “O come let us adore him.” It was a sacred moment. To gaze upon the beginning of a life is to gaze upon the beginning of a world. Breathing through the birth-pains of creation.
Not because of my prayer, I think, but because it was required for some mysterious cosmic story, I learned a few days later that the baby had left the NICU, left the hospital. The child would live.
Christmas: the vulnerability of a God for whom this life of suffering and exile becomes paradise. The solidarity of a God who is with us in pain and works a terrible beauty out of that chiaroscuro of agony and love.
And somehow God does this not out of pity or obligation, but out of love and even delight. For God, paradise is the human heart. A Jesuit mentor of mine reminded me recently that as difficult as it may be for us to believe, God delights in us. And one of the most startling signs of the resilience of the human spirit, made in the image of God, is a capacity for joy in the midst of sorrow. It may seem too good to be true, but this is simply to be aware of how radical it is — and how strange, how uncanny, are so many moments in history and in our personal experiences when happiness asserts itself against evil. At the hospital once, a family in the process of losing their father called me over in order to point out that an “abstract” painting they’d seen every day in the waiting room was actually a painting of trees hung upside down. We all laughed and laughed. Legend has it that the deacon St. Lawrence, an early Christian martyr roasted on a spit, called out to his tormentors from the flames, “It’s time to turn me over; this side of me is done.” And some Jews sang in the latrines at Auschwitz.
Christmas: a command. We cannot know God unless we embrace our own poverty and vulnerability — and embrace the poor and vulnerable who are God’s icons. That is, we cannot see God at work in the world unless we renounce the diabolic temptation to power, self-sufficiency, and strength and go out to the margins where God finds an aperture into our condition. (As Bernadette Farrell writes in one of her most beloved hymns: “Lord Jesus Christ, you call us to your feast, / at which the rich and powerful have become the least. / Where we survive on others in our human greed, / you walk among us, begging for your every need.”)
The message for our broken world is striking: just when we think things have gotten so bad that God is nowhere to be found, God is ever more abundantly present. But we must see God in the right light. Not that there isn’t an image of God that must die: the God of power, the God of nationalism, the God of the rich, and above all the puppet-master God who makes sure that only good things happen to good people — this God must die in order for the God of love to live. The God of love is not the fairy-tale God who lets us keep everything, as though human beings were gods rather than creatures hemmed in by finitude; but the God of love is the one who, in the words of a friend of mine who’s a priest in Haiti, lets us keep something. The three undying gifts of this God are not gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but faith, hope, and love. The God who gives these gifts is the God of the poor — of my patients, for instance, whom I have heard say, over and over again, “I have only God now.” I will ask them, “What keeps you going?”, and the response is almost always the same: “Only God.”
We must (our souls depend on it) participate in the work of justice, so that the poor bearers of God can be eaters of bread as well. So that they may be housed. But it seems to me that it is no gift, and no homage to the God who dwells among them, to judge them, as we judge the medievals, for their lack of theological sophistication or education. Their faith, born of struggle, is a gift they bear us in calloused hands.
As I said, the message for our broken world is striking, paradoxical: if we want God to save us from the chaos, we must draw even closer to the chaos, because God can only meet us there: in our vulnerability, in our poverty of spirit, in our wounds.
Christmas: a story, just like each of our lives, which are no more and no less than fables, words spoken by the great Teller.
And yet a story that illuminates what is of ultimate importance, ultimate meaning: the relationship of love between God and the world.
Christmas: a strange page in the Book of Nature. Many ancient myths were devised to answer questions about our baffling world: Why is there night and day? Why does lightning spring forth, and rain? The “myth” of Jesus is different. His birth, his death, the odd miracles, do not answer questions, but create new ones; they do not present belief as a rational answer but as a dramatic problem and challenge to rationality.
Unless, of course, we understand this dramatic intrusion into our world of settled interpretations as an answer to the deepest questions of all.
The Book of Nature speaks paradoxes at Christmas. Look at the account in the Gospel of Luke. The shepherds who lived in the fields and kept the night watch over their flock were terrified; yet the angels insisted that they be not afraid. The sign that was proclaimed to them was a lowly child wrapped in swaddling cloths; yet the angels’ way of reading this sign was not to bemoan the creature doomed to dust, but to sing, “Glory to God in the highest — and on earth peace to people of good will.”
I can’t say that my interpretation of reality is correct. I can only say that the sum total of my own small life — my experiences of love and pain and personal disappointment, my encounters in ministry with people whose stories tell of resilience, loss, tragedy, and hope — is that somehow I can still say authentically that I believe. On Christmas Eve, I went to midnight mass at a small and luminous parish in Central Massachusetts, and it was beautiful to hear the words (I’m re-arranging the punctuation here), “Be not afraid. Glory to God in the highest — and on earth. Peace to people of good will.”
Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!