The stunning pictures from the James Webb Space Telescope have provided a glimpse into the unimaginable. How do we grasp the reality of a universe holding billions upon billions of stars, clustered in billions of galaxies, and bursting forth billions of years ago? This is not only hard to imagine; it is stranger than imagination itself.
When the biblical writers penned words about the “creator of the heavens and the earth,” they didn’t have the faintest idea of what they were really saying. Yet Christian faith asserts the power that created galaxies full of black holes and dark energy is the same power that became mysteriously embedded in the uterus of a poor teenage girl in a forsaken village in Palestine. The first chapter of the gospel of John describes Jesus’ arrival this way: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (1:3). That defies all boundaries of rationality.
Even more, the story portrays this unwed girl — now subject to scorn and rejection, living in a remote community regularly overrun by marauding Roman soldiers — as the portal where the uncontainable creator of the universe takes on human flesh. And the story’s trajectory continues downward, with the gestating child becoming the victim of imperial whims even while in his mother’s womb, eventually finding hospitality fit for the homeless at his birth. His socially ostracized parents were then made refugees by a king’s paranoid and ruthless defense of power before the child could barely walk. That this should be how a hoped for “king of kings” enters the world is nonsensical.
To my mind, the bedrock assertion of Christian faith, celebrated at Christmas, is irrational. Perhaps that is why it is conveyed better by song than by words:
“King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heav’nly food.”
—“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”
Music is the language of the soul. The power of poetry put to melody and voice offers a better chance for the heart to grasp what the mind cannot comprehend.
Of course, our creeds and confessions try to cloak the incarnation in rational language. Theologians offer torturous explanations of how this miraculous birth occurred. But ultimately, all logic fails. Every attempt to describe how the creator of the cosmos became fully human while still, the scriptures declare, being the one through whom the whole creation came into being and who holds all things together, seems futile.
Through this mystery of the unimaginable, Christmas should deconstruct our confidence in systems of rational belief. Christianity, particularly in its dominant Western expressions forged during the Enlightenment, has been imprisoned by a compulsion to think our way into faith. Particularly following the Reformation, rationally constructed confessions of faith that went well beyond the ancient historic creeds became a litmus test that defined religious convictions. Mental assent to theological formulations was equated with professing faith. Christians came to believe in beliefs.
But the lack of intellectual consensus around particular confessions caused others to be written, spawning distinctive Christian traditions. Between 1520 and 1650, around 40-50 “definitive” confessions were drafted, each intending to formulate the right way to think about God and the church. This search for pure doctrine spilled over into conflict and violence: Christians killed one another over words. Religious wars in France are estimated to have killed at least 2 million victims. And the 30 Years War in central Europe, instigated by religious and political divisions between Protestant and Catholic Christians, killed an estimated 8 million. All this was a long distance in the wrong direction from the advent of God as a vulnerable infant, whose life would show that truth is revealed in sacrificial love rather than dogmatic formulas.
We should honor the gifts of the mind to understand and make sense of religious experience. A framework of convictions provides a circumference for the practice of faith. For instance, I’ll sign on to a declaration proclaiming God is the Creator, Jesus is the Christ, and the Spirit is the Giver of Life. But too often Western Christianity has compressed faith into rational formulas capable of consent without consequence, partitioned from emotive experience, and devoid of mystery. That’s no way to celebrate Christmas.
To say that the Creator “took on flesh,” is the most powerful reminder that each human person bears the image of God, buried at the core of their being. God is with us. St. Athanasius the Great, in fourth century Egypt, put it this way: “God became man so that man might become divine.” Reformed theologians may quibble and fret over those words, but they bring us to the heart of Christmas.
The manger, intended for animal feed, holds the Creator of the cosmos, whose presence is embedded in the material world, in flesh and blood, in rivers and rocks, in bread and wine, and at the core of every human life. This is incomprehensible. But let it sing, touching our soul, and bringing joy to the world.