Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).Matthew 1:20-23
We sometimes ask a lot of our skeptical, non-Christian friends. We typically invite them to two services each year: Easter, celebrating a dead man rising, and Christmas, celebrating God being born of a virgin (and by the way, the God who was born is the man who died). Peter T. Oakes helpfully describes just how large this pill is to swallow:
If theology is ultimately faith seeking understanding, what is faith called upon to understand? Nothing less than this: an infinite God who is a finite man, a virgin who is a mother, a God who dies, a dead man who lives, a baby born into the very world it made, a prince who is a pauper, in short, infinity dwindled to infancy.[i]
Infinity dwindled to infancy. Just try wrapping your head around that.Hans Urs von Balthasar is famous for explaining that “Christmas is not an event within history but is rather the invasion of time by eternity.” Concepts like these might as well be referred to as an invasion of our rationality and imaginations as well, as if God meant to conquer our hearts and minds just as Israel conquered Canaan. And this he does not with irrationality, but by that which transcends and beatifies our rational minds and sequestered imaginations.
In many non-Christians’ minds, the combined strangeness of the day and perceived familiarity with the Christmas message make it a day of confusion and indifference—they don’t know what it means, and it does not matter enough to figure it out. And perhaps they’ve seen enough of Christians falling and dividing to avoid darkening a church’s entrance for Christmas services. After all, most people have their hands full with their own dysfunctional families at Christmas, so why go out of the way to seek another?
And yet, there is a peculiar drawing of others to Jesus. In a conversation with atheist comedian Bill Maher, “Iron” Mike Tyson pushed backed on Maher’s lazy dismissal of Jesus by asking, “Then why is Jesus so embedded in our brains?”[ii] (Maher gives an unconvincing answer that appeals to nebulous “scholarship,” but I digress). And he is not just embedded in brains, but in our hearts. I once heard that when country music legend Travis Tritt was just starting out playing in honky-tonk bars, he would calm the quarrelsome patrons with a rendition of “Silent Night.” That would cause grown, pugnacious men to stop fighting and sob uncontrollably. This is the John 12:32 energy that Jesus told us about.
The task for us then, especially as the social surge of a post-Christian world lumbers on, is to remind others time and again what Christmas is all about. And truthfully, it is many things. For one, it celebrates Christ’s incarnation, which is a Latin term that simply means enfleshment, when God wrapped himself in human flesh. But I’ve noticed something the past few years: Christians are often confused about what this really means, too! This will naturally make it difficult to explain to others.
There are many lessons one can learn about the true meaning of Christmas. I’ll write more about this in January, but for now, let us focus on one aspect: paradox.
A few years ago, someone I loved replaced all the light in my life with darkness. Afterward, I spiraled into a year-long ordeal with severe depression and anxiety, the aftershocks of which, to mix metaphors, still feel like shrapnel in an old wound. Depression is sort of like Dostoyevsky’s description of hell—“the suffering of being no longer able to love”—but with the inability to feel loved, or hopeful, or safe. I was in a prison of my own mind, and I felt it every second of every day. I was frightened, always.
And then somewhere along the way, I was reintroduced to German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I had known the sketches of his life but had spent very little time on his actual writings. A small Advent devotional landed in my lap and it spurred me on to learn more. Bonhoeffer is famous for being a German pastor who refused to give in to the Nazi regime’s demands upon the Christian church. He fought against them in his work and his writing, eventually becoming a facilitator between parties seeking to overthrow the Nazi government and end their reign of terror. It is for this latter work that he would be executed by hanging on the morning of April 9, 1945.
As I read his words and studied his life, I felt a kinship with him, especially when I learned that he had also lost his older brother when he was a young boy, just as I had, and on the same day, April 28, though seventy years apart. But it was his time in prison that I found peculiarly intriguing. Like Paul, Bonhoeffer was allowed to write correspondence while in prison. And something about the incarnation spoke to him in his time of darkness and defeat.
On one frozen December morning in 2016, I read these words Bonhoeffer wrote from prison to his fiancée, Maria, whom he would never have the chance to marry:
And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.[iii]
I shook like a holy fool at these words. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God,”[iv] and I felt as if I had my finger on the live wire of that grandeur.
God’s transcendent otherness is staggering, like standing before the roar of a great waterfall whose mere existence is a power felt deeply in the bones. Yet it was God’s willingness to become small and fragile, like porcelain, like me, that rocked my world. And it rocked Bonhoeffer’s world too. For it means one major thing to those who are suffering: what looks like defeat may be the catalyst to ultimate victory, just as what looks like a baby in a crib is actually Immanuel, God with us, and Jesus (which means “Yahweh saves”), God for us. The name Jesus is the English version of the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua. Yes, that Joshua! Just as Joshua defeated the lingering giants in Canaan and led Israel into the Promised Land, this infant Jesus was going to defeat our giants and lead us into that great Promised Land where pain and suffering will be no more (Revelation 21:4).
The incarnation is entirely unique in the history of ideas because, simply put, it made no sense then, just as it makes no sense now! The ancients believed that gods ruled in power, through brute force, often unfeeling. They used weak humans, who they typically loathed, as pawns in their games of political chess. And still today, Christians and non-Christians alike jockey for power, afraid to concede it in our cultural chess matches. So, when Jesus arrived as a human, it was quite confounding. A god, so the thinking went, should rule with the sword, and yet here was an infant ruling from a manger in humility and vulnerability. This is why all of our earliest heresies had no concern with the fact that Jesus is God, but they were horrified at the thought that Jesus might have actually been a man. They had to learn, as we do today, that real strength comes from a humble heart, and that it is not the overbearing who will inherit the earth but the meek (Matthew 5:5).
Though I continued to struggle with the pain of depression, I felt changed. Both my burden and compassion for my fellow creatures increased like the Grinch’s heart. The whole world sounded like one large, crying violin, beautifully melodic and melancholic. I saw a new purpose in life and a light to follow along the way. No despair of depression could befall me, and it could not help but serve the God who was strangely revealed to me as love and the ruler of the world and my life.
It has been such a privilege since my own “dark ages” to have the honor to speak into the lives of so many broken people like myself who, for one reason or another, live the daily struggle that is mental illness. Sometimes when you feel like you are living in the dark, you simply want to know that someone can still see you.
And that is my challenge to us all this Christmas. When I hear the phrase, “Keep Christ in Christmas,” I sometimes recoil because of how it has been used in the past. It is often fueled by anger, no doubt triggered by fear, that our country is changing for the worse. And sometimes the response is a demand that Christ’s name be declared, without a concern for who is saying it, why they are saying it, or the pain or confusion that may be stopping them from saying it. It begins to seem less like a concern for the hearts and minds of our nation and more an anxiety over losing social capital.
Instead, what if we began to view this cultural shift away from saying Merry Christmas not as a defeat and saw it as the opportunity for a great victory to teach the world again about Christmas, not simply through words, but through humility and vulnerability? What if they learned that meekness of heart and serving others was one of the main lessons of Christmas? What if we gave up our calls for cultural clout and instead accepted that we must approach everyone from the manger? What if we really believed that the power of God is made perfect in our weakness, and that when we are weak, we are strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)? When we look back upon history, we see that those Christian heroes we most admire typically lived life from the bottom up rather than the top down. As the Valley of Vision states, “Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high.”[v] Perhaps from the manger they would finally see the beauty of God the Son as Immanuel and Jesus, God with and for us.
A pleasant surprise presented itself recently when I looked up local churches close to my new home and found a ministry called “Keep Christ in Christmas.” I clicked the link expecting the worst, but it said that if we were concerned about keeping Christ in Christmas, we should feed and clothe the poor, visit the sick and the imprisoned, volunteer at crisis pregnancy centers, clean the waterways, walk dogs at the local shelter, and so on. In essence, help to shoulder others’ burdens. To become strength to the weak, family to the abandoned, and healing to the hurting. Yes
The incarnation is about the miraculous paradox of God’s approach, the utterly strange and beautiful way he came and “tabernacled” among us (John 1:14). He came as a king who lived among his people, as God who lived among his creation. He gave his life to and for us. What doesn’t make logical sense in our economy makes perfect paradoxical sense in God’s. As we prepare for the coming of the Lord this Christmas, may we all remember the lessons the incarnation has to teach us, that Jesus did not just come to die, but he came to teach us how to live, in hope and in strong weakness, in victory despite any appearances of defeat. We will suffer, yes, but not as those without hope. God is indeed in the manger. Rejoice! For “the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people” (Titus 2:11).
Sometimes the smallest gestures can have the largest significance. Many times, the people who look like Jesus to us are simply those who are kind and present when others are harsh and absent. When you think back to times in your life when people looked the most like Jesus, what did they do? How does it inspire you? Spend a few moments in thankfulness to Jesus for sending people who look like him into your life.
[i] Edward T. Oakes, SJ, Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic and Evangelical Christology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 6.
[ii] Hotboxin’ with Mike Tyson Clips, “Jesus is obviously an ancient myth,” YouTube video, 7:39, July 12, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=58oBjPnI4-w.
[iii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maria Von Wedemeyer, Love Letters from Cell 92 (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), 109.
[iv] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” in God’s Grandeur and Other Poems (New York: Dover Publications, 1995), 15.
[v] Arthur Bennett, “The Valley of Vision” in The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), xv.