The Transcendent Thriller Of Christ’s Nativity

Ted: Detail Of The Nativity of Christ / flickr

Christ is Born!

We have become so accustomed to hearing the story of Christ’s birth, telling it again and again, listening to it year after year, reflecting upon the same things over and over again, it almost feels as if there is nothing more to say. All its mystery has been taken away. That is because we come the story looking merely for facts which we can recite instead of trying to find a way to integrate ourselves into the story. To do that, we must go beyond the mere facts and open ourselves to the transcendent mystery which is being presented in it.

Most of us deal with the nativity of Christ in a matter of fact manner, whittling it down in such a way that it is stripped of all its grandeur. We have confused facts with truth, and so ignore the greater mysteries which are had by those who see after truth rather than facts. Indeed, we have betrayed the truth by trying to limit it to mere facts. This is not to say there is no value in discerning such facts and mentioning them. We will do so, especially when dealing with Christ’s birth. But they represent the most simplistic engagement and apprehension of it possible. We should engage facts, not as the end product of our apprehension, but as the starting point, looking to what they point to which lies beyond themselves and their recital. If we treat them in this fashion, we will be able to better engage the great mystery which reveals itself to us in Christ’s nativity. If we don’t, we will find the few facts which we have ascertained and memorized will not satisfy us spiritually; they will begin to appear more and more mundane, having little to no application to our lives, until at last, we find our spirit growing cold to the story of Christ’s birth.

Paul tells us Christ came at the right time in history. “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons”  (Gal. 4:4-7 RSV). When we read these words, we can, if we want, distill several facts from them, such as Christ is the Son of God, Christ’s birth helps serve the salvation of those “under the law,” and that Christ was born at the right time in human history. But what does all of this means? Historically, when Christians explored these issues, they began to see that they should only be starting points to our realization of the radical, transcendent truth revealed to us in and through Jesus Christ.

What we have been given is the revelation of truth, the truth of the transcendent God, the God who is not only absolute one, but also Triune. No matter how we express it, the truth of the Trinity will always transcend our words, as it transcends our comprehension. Whatever facts we can and will discern will always be less than the truth itself. Behind every presentation of the Trinity is a greater mystery for us to approach, to experience,  indeed, to engage. Our engagement  with the  truth should not have us stand back and merely present the same statements over and over again. Instead we should allow ourselves to be drawn in to the experience of the truth itself. The more we are drawn in, the more we will realize its transcendence, and find ourselves transfixed upon it with wonder. That will then have us open ourselves up even more to the truth, to receive in ourselves, as best we can, the glory which God is willing to share with us.

It’s not just the Trinity which presents to us a great mystery. Paul’s mention of the “law” raises many questions, showing that behind his words, lies another great mystery. What, then, is the law? Was Paul talking about the Law of Moses? But Christ came to save the whole world, and not just the people of Israel. The Law of Moses was for the people of Israel. Therefore, though there is a connection between the Law of Moses to the law mentioned by Paul, the law Paul referred to had to be seen as some universal law which, by itself, could and would encourage us to do good,  but could not, of itself, bring us to salvation. But, it can be asked, if God is to redeem those who have been under the law, and could not be saved by the law, why was the law ever established? Christians have long been asking themselves this, and different Christians have come to different conclusions, but it seems none completely satisfy. It is as if we were taking on a hydra; every time we provide a solution, it is as if we cut off a head from the hydra, finding more questions, more heads, emerging as a result. And yet, if we try to just avoid the question, and say, we simply believe it is true, that does not satisfy either, and we find ourselves once again stuck in a rut, eventually finding our spirituality in decline.

Similarly, it can be asked, what exactly does it mean to say “the time had fully come.” Are we talking about the end of the world, so that the end of time had come? If so, why, then, does time seem to continue onward? Is it because the time, in question, is cosmic time, so that even a few thousand years is as nothing comparison to the billions which came before? Or does the incarnation take place in the middle of cosmic history, so that there is more or less equal time before the incarnation as after, suggesting there are billions of years of time left to come? Or is it all a reflection of human history and human time, so that the time of the incarnation takes place at the center of human history, not cosmic history? We really do not know, but the more Christians have reflected upon the meaning and timing of the incarnation, the more our preconceived notions prove to be false, leaving us wondering what exactly was the reason for God choosing when Christ was to be born. It is this which we should learn to accept, for then, once again, we will find ourselves embracing the wonder we need for us to be drawn in further to the transcendent truth.

Thus, what St Hilary of Poitiers tells us of the eternal begetting of the Son in the Trinity, can also be said to be true in regards the birth of Christ in history. “But, the birth of God is not to be judged according to the emanations of human births. Where one is born from one, and God is born from God, an earthly birth only hints at the meaning.” [1] We should look at all that is said, all that we apprehend, all the facts we can and do make up surrounding the birth of Christ, and look at them all as hinting at greater truths, greater realities. We should not try to comprehend the truth through human apprehensions, because all we will do is limit the truth and diminish the wonder which we should find when we realize it represents a transcendent mystery to us.

God assumed human nature and became the God-man, Jesus Christ. Through him, we can apprehend the divine nature for ourselves. We encounter the great mystery of God through the revelation of God given to us in and through the person of Jesus Christ. If we do not turn the incarnation, and with it, the birth of Christ, into just another historical narrative, into another mere fact among many, we will be able to get much out of the story of Christ’s birth. We must accept that everything shown to us and revealed to us in Christ points to greater and greater truths. We should apprehend the truth as much as we can, learn from it, and then, having grown from that apprehension, take what we know as a pointer to some greater truth, leading us to another, greater apprehension for us to experience and examine. This means, of course, we should be willing to ask questions, and give speculative answers, realizing, of course, the limitation, not only of our answers, but also in the way we can and do make our questions. What is important is for us to be open to the greater, transcendent truth. And this is something which we are called to do today as we reflect upon and experience the birth of Christ. If we don’t, we risk missing the point of Christmas; then we will turn it into just another annual celebration which ultimately means nothing to us and our lives.

[1] St. Hilary of Poitiers, The Trinity. Trans. Stephen McKenna, CSSR (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1954), 176.


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