Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity!
That is a remarkable line. What I have also found remarkable over the years is how many people (saints and pagans alike) will sing that line without blinking an eye, without pause, without any realization whatsoever of the profundity of what just exited their mouths. Similarly, has it struck you how oddly normal a nativity scene is, as if the truth that “the Word becoming flesh” is as normal as the Christmas tree in my living room? For far too many, these are just things we see and sing this time of year.
Chesterton once observed that as Westerners we are much too familiar with Christianity for our own good. The astounding claims and mysteries of the faith are not met with jaw-dropping awe but placid indifference. Collectively, we yawn and carry on with our lives.
But maybe the Incarnation is an easier pill to swallow because it’s too easy for the doctrine to remain “out there,” like an impersonal myth that is interesting, maybe even inspiring, but one that makes no obvious demands on our lives. For such distant observers, the religious backbone of Christmas amounts to little more than showing kindness to others because, after all, that’s what God did to us by sending Jesus. God sent Jesus to show love (so the argument goes) so that we might be loving and kind to others. “That’s what Christmas is all about,” we often hear. In short, Jesus may or may not be God, but the important thing is that he is inspirational. This is the true “reason for the season.” And who couldn’t get on board with that?
Well, for one thing, there is something downright scandalous about Christmas, and it has little to do with presents or Santa Claus or the Hallmarkish sentimentalizing of the holiday. No doubt, leaving Christmas to just these things is a terrible mistake. But what else could we expect from an unbelieving world? The real tragedy is when we as Christians make this mistake.
What mistake? As Christians, the Advent season is our opportunity to remind the world of the most scandalous of all truths—most scandalous because it is the truth that the unbelieving world is least inclined to accept, and most likely to reject with deep and intense passion. It is a truth that the broken world cannot keep at a safe distance (it’s too easy to do that with doctrine). It is a truth that draws an immediate reaction—it cannot help but draw an immediate reaction—because it is a deeply personal truth. It is the truth that new birth is necessary, and this necessary new birth is exactly “the reason for the season.”
Christmas without kindness is truly unfortunate, but Christmas without the message of new birth is simply not Christmas. And I do not just mean the new birth of Jesus. I mean your need for new birth, my need for new birth, everyone’s need for new birth, which is the exact reason why Jesus’s birth was necessary in the first place. The Son of God took on flesh and bone and blood so that the Spirit of God could enter into your own flesh and bone and blood, to the deepest chambers of your heart, to bring about new life. You must have it. You need new life. Nothing else matters, and no amount of effort, planning, good advice, education, money, friends, or anything else will do. You need to be born again, and this the world decidedly does not want to hear.
And therein lies the scandal. That I ought to be kind, I can accept. That I ought to “put others first,” I can handle. That I ought to think more in terms of giving than receiving . . . sure, that sounds about right. Notice, however, that all of these leave change in my own power. My hope lies in my own ability to change myself and to make for a better world—and that is comforting. That’s what I want to hear, and all too often during Advent that’s all that I hear.
Christmas ought to tell you that you are weak. That you are powerless, helpless and hopeless in yourself. That you cannot save yourself by “following your heart” or trusting in “the better angels of your nature.” That it’s about time you give up your plans and schemes and false hopes. That your “you do you” ethic has not left you healthy and strong, but (if you would be honest) feeble and desperate.
Jesus did not come so that we could comfort and save ourselves. He came to be our comfort and our salvation. Only when God breaks into the world with divine light and the angelic symphony can there really be “peace on earth and goodwill among men.” And only when God breaks into our hearts with saving and healing grace can there really be peace in our souls.
Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give us second birth, Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”