Some years ago I found myself at a fashionable dinner party in Los Angeles where the lamb was roasted to perfection, and the deep, rich red Australian wine complimented it to a tee. The conversation around the dinner table was likewise high-minded and it did not take this largely secular gathering very long to turn their attention to the Christian sitting in their midst. With all the graciousness and condescension she could muster, my dining companion turned to me and said, “I am not a believer, of course, but I have long admired your Church’s care for the poor and suffering and the generosity and effectiveness of your social agencies who tend to human needs without regard to the belief or non-belief of the recipient.”
Had she stopped there I would have humbly received her acknowledgement and we might have moved on to the dessert in the same spirit of conviviality we had begun. It was when she smiled, drew a breath and said, “Yet -- ” that I knew all had not been said that needed saying from her perspective.
“Yet,” she continued, “how is it that Christianity, whose priests invented the scientific method, and who built the institutions of the hospital and university, can hold to the idea of such a small God?”
The pugnacious New Yorker in me wanted to reply to the effect that, “Well even a small God is bigger than no god.” But I knew that would not go down well, and that the issue was not about “size” after all, but about meaning and, ultimately, Truth.
Feeling something like I imagined Flannery O’Connor did when confronted with collapsed-Catholic Mary McCarthy’s observation about the Eucharist as a impressive symbol, O’Connor retorted, “Well, if it’s just a symbol, I say to hell with it.”
Instead I swirled my shiraz and asked, “Whatever do you mean?”
She responded: “Well, all this stuff about God being born as a baby. This business about the ineffable inhabiting time and space. It just seems so small, so concrete, so … improbable.”
The lady had it right, or more precisely, she had it half right. The doctrine of the Incarnation is indeed a scandal, not to say improbable, to the modern mind that does not yet grasp the immensity of the concept or the enormity of its impact on all that would follow from it throughout history from that first Christmas to this one.
That the eternal God should deign to co-mingle in time and space with humanity does tell us something, not about the ‘smallness’ of God, but about the inestimable dignity of the human person who is created in the image of the Lord of History. Thus it tells us about the importance of human history to eternity; of the relation of the visible world to the invisible one; and of the way the mortal life we each live here and now determines our immortal destiny.
This season, which pulsates with nostalgia, memory, sadness as well as with a deep and abiding sense of profound joy and human meaning – and does it all at once – is a season prompted by the very Incarnation of God’s Love, a love that goes beyond words, but rather is a Word – the Logos – that became flesh.
It is for this very reason that the Christian faith which emerges from this proclamation about God’s entrance into the human condition, could build institutions and cultures aimed at concretely reverencing each and every human person from the very first moment of their existence in the womb, in all their vulnerability and potential, without regard to their ethnicity or some other accidental factor. It is the belief stipulated in that memorable passage from Ecclesiastes (3:11): “He has … set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
This idea can easily be dismissed by armchair sociologists and village atheists as the ranting of a Christian who presumes his message of the enfleshment of God to be true and therefore universally appealing.
But more than appealing it is compelling. As it was to my non-believing dinner companion who, in admiring the social consequences of institutional Christianity (from the university education she received that enabled her to articulate her critique in the first place, to the transforming of personal almsgiving into the massive worldwide network of social care and education, and even to the moral and justifiable denunciations against Christians for their failures to live up to the demands of the Gospel) she was in some inchoate way acknowledging the core idea of Christmas: that in the fullness of time, Heaven came down to earth to reveal man to himself and invite him to the simple, discrete yet world-changing concept of love.