The reason and reality of the Nativity

Eventually, when the Incarnation of the Son of Man is rejected, the rejection of man inevitably follows. This abolition of man is what we are seeing all about us.

Detail from "Nativity" (1732) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo [WikiArt.org]

The Nativity of the Lord follows the Incarnation of the same Lord. The latter, in its turn, recalls the announcement nine months previously to Mary, if she accepted it, that a Son was to be born of her. She would call Him Emmanuel, “God with us”. And before the Incarnation, we read of prophets and kings who longed for a Savior, who longed to see God, and who expected Him to come to them in some fashion.

In many ways, we do everything possible to celebrate Christmas except to acknowledge why it is worth celebrating. It is almost as if we celebrate Christmas in order to avoid celebrating what it is in the history of the world. Indeed, we insist on celebrating just to be celebrating, an aberration if there ever was one. But in no case will we acknowledge that some event of the past is still present among us and is the foundation of our celebrating. We stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that what happened did happen. We suspect that if were we to do so it would make demands on us that we would not like to follow.

Something odd and curious surrounds this careful and systematic effort to avert our eyes and minds from the central fact of the Nativity. The Nativity is more difficult to explain away than the Incarnation. When a child is born in this world, we cannot deny it is there. We can ask, with the carol, “What Child is this?” It is a question that requires an answer. What is claimed for this Child transcends even the world itself. “In the beginning was the Word”—this was the Word that took flesh and dwelt amongst us, at least for a time. But  He was with us long enough for us to be certain that He actually did exist in places in this world: Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee, and Jerusalem.

The Muslims are more straightforward. They deny anything unusual here; they do everything possible to forbid any affirmation of Jesus Christ except as a nice man. A similar position was arrived at in much modern biblical research. Jesus could be studied as a normal man. He was a model of a good man, nothing more. What He said of Himself, however, did not meet either of these two limiting criteria.

Looking at the evidence, Catholic apologists such as G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis used to say that Christ was either a madman or the Son of God. But there was no real evidence that He was a madman, except in the minds of those who desperately think that His claims must be rejected at all costs. The madman thesis is a desperate last chance to avoid the contrary evidence with all its implications if Christ was in fact God, as He claimed to be.

Those who think about the Nativity of the Lord often wonder: “Why did God not make His presence in Christ more incontrovertible? Why the complicated Trinity as the ultimate origin of the event of the Nativity? In ages past, why did God not explain more clearly what was going on so that no room was left for doubt?” The tendency of such thinking, be it noted, is to cast the burden of proof on God. He was at fault for not anticipating the bickering and controversies about who He was.  It only confused people to send His only-begotten Son into the world via an Incarnation and a Nativity in, of all places, Roman Palestine.

God probably does not mind us human beings questioning why He did things in the way He did. In fact, God’s revelation to us was in part designed to make us think correctly about reality, including the divine reality. If the Godhead is directly or indirectly pictured as “triune” in the narratives of Christ’s life, we are not supposed to throw up our arms and shout “gibberish” or “blasphemy”. Rather, we are supposed to inquire how this might be the proper way of understanding what God is. If a Plato or an Aristotle can help us in some way in this endeavor, as they can, well and good.

In the famous doxology, the Te Deum, we read that the Christ who was to be born into this world “did not disdain the Virgin’s womb.” That is, it seems suspicious that a higher level of being would associate itself with a lower one. And that would be a legitimate worry were it not for the fact that becoming a human being is not a bad thing in itself. So it is something God could do if there were reason for it. The issue then becomes: Was there reason for it?

Notice that we always assume that God does have a reason for things that proceed out of His knowledge and will, things like creation itself. We thus can figure that God wanted the world to exist. But He did not have to create it. Nor did He evidently create the cosmos just to let it sit there while He enjoyed its sundry sunrises, sunsets, and other explosions that seem to dot the skies.  He created the world in order that there could be in existence other beings with the innate capacity, if invited, to love Him face to face, and He them—and all of them for one another.

But if God is going to make this community possible, He has to make certain beings within the universe to have free wills. Even God cannot automatically create creatures in His image and then force them to love Him. To blame God for creating a world in which the salvation of absolutely everyone, no matter what, was assured—even against the wills of the creatures—is to wish a world in which love is impossible. So God Himself is limited by the reality of things; that is, He cannot contradict Himself. What God decided with His inner-Trinitarian decision to pursue Incarnation and Nativity was that it was better to have a world in which sin and evil were possible than to have one in which there was no real freedom.

It is possible to imagine with C. S. Lewis a race of rational creatures which, in their beginning, did choose God and were confirmed in their choice. Whether there is such a race, we do not know. What we do know is that our race, our kind, did leave the possibility of accepting or rejecting God at the level of each human life. This fundamental choice of one’s own final love is what goes on in the lives of those who live in the world as we know it. Christ, in one of His parables, spoke of more joy being in heaven over one who repents than over ninety-nine who do not need to repent (Lk 15:7). This parable was not intended to knock those who freely obeyed the law. It just showed how dangerous it is to reject what our fundamental being is about in our actual lives.

The Nativity, the event we call Christmas, makes a demand on our intelligence as well as on our emotions and sentiments. All the surrounding trappings and customs we associate with Christmas—which are often lovely and captivating—mean nothing if the central event is not what it said it was, namely the coming into this world of the Son of God according to a divine plan operative from the beginning.

We see a world about us, indeed we live in a world that takes particular pains not to acknowledge or understand what has happened to it when God has dwelt amongst us. Things happen when truth is rejected. Eventually, when the Incarnation of the Son of Man is rejected, the rejection of man inevitably follows. This abolition of man is what we are seeing all about us. The reason we will not admit that it is a final declination from the good is because we refuse to affirm what in fact happened at the Nativity

About James V. Schall, S.J. 167 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.

5 Comments

  1. “The Muslims are more straightforward. They deny anything unusual here; they do everything possible to forbid any affirmation of Jesus Christ except as a nice man.”
    Setting aside the virgin birth, which Muslims also accept, the Islamic Jesus, Issa, is only a prophet and one who stands in relation to Mohammed as John the Baptist does to the Biblical Yehoshua, the crucifixion (or “crucifiction” as many Muslims call it) never happened, ergo Jesus did not rise from the dead and there is no atonement.
    Given that Muslims thus to thoroughly reject one on the persons of the Trinity, how can ANY Christian, from Pope to peasant (the latter more forgivably of course), believe that Muslims and Christians worship the same god?

    • The God of gods Lord of lords is the Christian meaning of God. The god of Islam is more likened to the Jewish concept of God of the Old Testament.

  2. It was the same sense of a foreign universe. Home after home with abundant even bizarre displays of lights, playful, childish decor, one with a gigantic pizza man pizza extended. Twas the last year of Benedict XVI’s reign of happy memory that nativity scenes began to reappear. This morning not a trace. Fr Schall’s message is one of frustrated anguish over the virtual complete loss of the meaning of Christ’s birth. The continual theme from Rome is social justice indistinguishable from Media harangue. Except for an occasional sentence on sanctity in the Apostolic sense and things that matter beyond Marxist socialism. Sandro Magister thinks it’s done to give the impression it’s all optional. I agree. Although it goes much farther. That the birth of Christ is as Schall notes an item of happy sentiment rather than appeal to the intellect as the sole means of salvation.

    • As an addendum Christmas deserves a note of joy. As in the past when I arrived at the Parish I serve Christ’s image, the Nativity scene was lighted. A warm welcome. As was the faith of the wonderful faithful who attend that parish in Western NYS. Christ remains our true Light, and that of our world. Revealing our mission to dispel the darkness.

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