[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
The passage from the New Testament which always hear this time of year includes these important, well-known lines:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field , keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo , the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold , I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
The phrase “sore afraid” is a translation of the Greek word phobeō; it communicates the idea of, not just fear, but of taking alarm, and of sudden surprise. The shepherds, in other words, were terrified–not because, or at least not solely because, the appearance of the angel was a terrifying vision, but also because it was unexpected, and shocking. This was not something they ever could have been prepared for.
So much of the Christmas story can be described–and should be described–in those terms, I think. We were speaking with some friends a few days ago, discussing the religious rituals and devotional practices that our daughter Megan has seen in India–including, for example, the symbolic marriage of two basil plants–and how strange they seem to us. But of course, the things we Christians affirm this time of year are pretty strange as well.That God Almighty could become one of us, and be born humbly among us, to a poor couple in a small town in a nondescript manger for farm animals–that’s pretty surprising too. To draw upon a story from Mormon scripture, we can and should be properly conscious of what Nephi was told about Mary and the “condescension of God“–and yet, like Nephi, we very likely will not be able to understand the meaning of the whole mysterious, unexpected thing. We can only receive it, like the wonderful gift it is.
C.S. Lewis is well-known and much loved for his ability to put in layman’s terms the fundamental claims of the Christian faith; perhaps the most important part of his ability of his was the fact that he never denied the strangeness of what he was doing. As he put it once:
[R]eality, in my experience, is usually odd. It is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect. For instance, when you have grasped that the earth and the other planets all go round the sun, you would naturally expect that all the planets were made to match–all at equal distances from each other, say, or distances that regularly increased, or all the same size, or else getting bigger or smaller as you go further from the sun. In fact, you find no rhyme or reason (that we can see) about either the sizes or the distances; and some of them have one moon, one has four, one has two, some have none, and one has a ring. Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity [Macmillan Publishing Company, 1952], pp. 47-48)
One of the truest lessons of this queerness is the fact that God, in providing us with this great gift, a divine Savior who is born as, and would go one to live as, and the die as, an ordinary man, prompts us to think about how it may be that our own ordinariness can be, in its own small way, also very much a surprise, also always something new, something which could not have been anticipated or made up. We can, in fact, repent and learn and become someone unexpected and better and new. There is, for all of us, as Jesus taught, the promise of being born again.
Decades ago the philosopher Hannah Arendt, a brilliant non-believer who had fled Nazi Germany and came to the United States, found herself thinking carefully about the human condition, and about just what makes our ability to make choices possible. Her conclusion, surprisingly enough, was that it finds its root in the fact of our beginnings–the way we all are, in so many ways, always unexpected arrivals. Let me quote two passages from her work:
God created man in order to introduce into the world the faculty of beginning….[T]he human capacity which corresponds to this power, which, in the words of the Gospel, is capable of removing mountains, is not will but faith. The work of faith, actually its product, is what the gospels called “miracles”…. (Arendt, “What is Freedom,” Between Past and Future, 1993, p. 167)….The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, “natural” ruin, is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted….Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs the faith and hope….that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in those few words which the Gospels announced their “glad tidings”: “A child has been born unto us.” (Arendt, The Human Condition, p.247)
In a couple of days, it will be Christmas morning, and a time for being surprised by presents–and of course, this whole season invites us to surprise one another, and be surprised by, the kindness and generosity of others. The birth of our Lord and Savior, so long ago, so thoroughly wrapped in centuries of story-telling and song, remains not just the greatest and most unexpected gift that humankind has ever experienced, but a model to us all–a model of birth and rebirth, of unanticipated change and surprising charity, and of renewed (and renewing) action, each and every day. That this thought–the constant possibility that God may work through beautiful, terrifying, life-changing, and utterly ordinary and thereby unexpected surprises–can be with us this Christmas is my prayer.