|Fr Henry Charles
Among Christmas cards depicting the Madonna and Child, there’s one basic differentiation. Some are definably modern or contemporary, with babies that look like babies we know.
Others are more stylised, with a background of burnished gold, for instance, where the child is not so much a child as a diminutive Lord of the Universe, with all-seeing eyes, and a little index finger authoritatively raised in blessing.
At its best, in the work of great artists like Giotto or Fra Angelico, the two forms of representation are mysteriously combined. In Fra Angelico’s “Virgin of humility”, for instance, the baby, clearly divine, caresses Mary’s cheek with the tenderness of a lover.
Through the combination, what Fr Angelico and others tried to capture was the essence of the Incarnation: Jesus Christ, fully human, fully divine.
Some of it nonetheless can feel strange to our sensibilities. The otherworldly self-possession of the baby Jesus in some representations suggests less a child than a minor version of the majestic Lord. Jesus, it seems to say, only appeared to have had human form. One gets the same impression at times in the Gospels.
They were written, we must remind ourselves, not as biography but as testimony. They imagine Jesus at times as completely knowledgeable about his identity, purpose and fate. But the point is not to show the equivalence between his humanity and ours; it is to underwrite the experience of faith after the Resurrection.
At Christmas, however, in the Infancy Narratives (the early chapters of Matthew and Luke), we are clearly in the realm of the human, the sphere of human identification. We have a baby, delicate and utterly vulnerable, with humble parents, humble onlookers, and very domestic animals.
Like us, the baby will go on to “advance,” not just physically, but “in wisdom and grace.” Along the way, he will discover his purpose and vocation, and proceed in openness and hope. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us, God-like-us, in the fragile fullness of our humanity.
The early chapters of Matthew and Luke in fact introduce us to paradox as a basic feature of revelation. Revelation occurs through many forms and devices (“genres,” the experts call them): not just prose, but poetry, history, prophecy, and miracle.
But paradox, I think, comes close to being its defining mode. It’s the way you talk about the infinite, through human language; the way you speak of eternity from within the limitations of time; the way you describe divine mysteries by pressing into service deep human mysteries.
In all religious traditions, paradox is the natural language of spiritual wisdom, the special mode of spiritual understanding, and Biblical religion is no exception. It is the lame who enter the Kingdom first, not those with complete use of their legs. It is the meek who inherit the earth, not “the movers and the shakers”.
Here pure spirit assumes the form of corruptible flesh; He who lives in the freedom of eternity binds himself to time and place; the Lord of history enters history as a footnote; and the God of power and might, as many an introductory prayer puts it, enters the world of his making as a helpless baby.
Christmas is thus the supreme paradox. The God who made humankind and the world, comes into the world as a helpless infant. GK Chesterton, the famous English Catholic writer, expressed it in a memorable idea and a rhyme: “And on that sacred jest/the whole of Christianity doth rest.”
A joke or a jest, like a game, is never necessary in the strict sense. We can live without it, in a way we can’t live without food or water. Even though it’s not strictly necessary, a good joke is a good thing.
The Wisdom literature in the Bible refers to the creation of the world itself as something God did in a moment of play. It wasn’t necessary to create it, but he did, and he found it good. God didn’t have to become a baby, but he did, and if we see the “sacred jest” in it, we will find it good too.
There is a place for high theologies of the Incarnation. Tradition is full of that; high theorising about the meanings of “nature” and “person,” how Jesus had two of the former and only one of the latter. But the Incarnation is also a celebration of the prosaic and the ordinary.
That’s why the story includes straw, a feeding trough, domestic animals - and shepherds, plucked from their daily routine of minding sheep. However one reads this, one can never read into it the spiritual as the special or the refined. Artists from Dostoievksy to Naipaul, however, tell us that humans prefer miracle and excitement. The plain leaves us flat.
That‘s why more often than not Jesus remains incognito. That’s why in the account of the final judgment in Matthew’s twenty-fifth chapter, the basic element is surprise.
The just are surprised to find that when they were only helping the needy, they were serving the Lord in disguise; and the wicked are shocked to learn that when they passed the needy by, they bypassed the Lord himself. If only we had known, one can imagine them saying, how could we have failed to do this and that etc.
The import of Matthew 25 is a permanent commentary on what Christmas means, on how it is ceaselessly played out, on what we see, and, unfortunately, what also passes us by.