As each year passes, I am struck more and more by the strangeness of the Christmas story in our culture. Not by the romantic Victorian accretions which have become, for some, either indistinguishable from its celebration or a barrier to receiving it, but by the core Gospel message in all its gratifying inhospitality towards our ‘natural religious sensibilities’.
The God who is portrayed in the Gospel stories about the birth of Jesus is indeed a stranger to dominant ideas about divinity – including those which, according to recent research, may be hardwired into our infancy. (I doubt it, but biology as destiny is popular at the moment, with pontiffs as well as scientists it seems.)
When human beings go about making gods to worship, they are able to do so only as projections of their own image. This is particularly true of the infantilising cosmic tyrant who haunts the imagination of those who would use faith as a self-asserting weapon, and those (like Richard Dawkins) who see this kind of false deity as the be-all and end-all of God-talk.
The god of human imagining is, as someone once put it in my hearing, “a person like us, only much bigger and able to do anything at all.” In contrast to such fantasy, the God whose nature and purpose is disclosed in the flesh of Jesus is neither a metaphysical proposition, nor a cosmic being nor an unassailable entity. God is, rather, unconditioned and unconditional love – a reality beyond definition, description and specification, but revealed in the truth of self-giving.
As recent tragic events in Britain have confirmed, a small child is dependent and defenceless. The story of Jesus is of a birth into obscurity at the edge of Empire in debatable circumstances and of dubious parentage.
Moreover, this child grows up to become someone who defies the attempts of religious and political authorities to capture God for their own purposes. For them, unbounded grace and healing for the ‘impure’ is too much to bear. He is subjected to a criminal’s death and his vindication is not by might but by the gift of life beyond captivity.
There is no way that this picture of God can ever ‘fit’ in with our conventional expectations, religious or otherwise. The god of human construction operates through inviolable fiats, inerrant texts, incomprehensible commands and unquestionable manipulations. This is a god who says, “in order for me to be more you must become less”.
The God of Jesus is nothing like this. Here is God beyond all our concepts of ‘god-ness’, being found not as an alien intruder, a competitor or a member of a class of things called ‘gods’, but as unfathomable life encountered in and through our vulnerability – not over and against it.
When we get to the heart of the Christmas story we find ourselves challenged to become more, not less human. We are asked to stop treating each other, and God, as ‘objects’ to be contemplated, traded, argued about and disposed… but instead as “mysteries to be loved”, as T. S Eliot once beautifully put it.
The Word becomes Flesh not in order to be turned into words once more, or to encourage us to speculate about the essence of divinity beyond the only world we can see with the only eyes we have, but precisely to tell us that this is neither necessary nor desirable.
It is in welcoming a poor child into the world and into our hearts that we begin to meet a love that cannot be contained or used as a pawn in any war of position. Yet the paradox is this: only God’s love is like that, because only God has no need to compete with us or with anything.