What follows is either ruinous heresy or a rare act of orthodox rebellion against it. I of course am staking my soul that it is not heresy, after all, but it is neither I nor my reader who will ultimately judge this question.
I cannot predict who will hate it more — Christians or Atheists. Perhaps I can hope for a tie.
In our time of conflict and acrimony, in the face of the utter destruction of an ancient nation, on the verge of the transformation of the world order and all of its incumbent uncertainty, we would do well to reconsider the Advent and Christmas messages in an old light — the old light of the humble candles that undarkened the dim vigils of our ancestors, an age so far away from our glittering colored lights and even farther away from the hackneyed and meaningless odes to consumerism playing at every Starbucks and shopping mall in the West today.
Before we get into the message itself, I must explain why this essay was necessary to write in the first place. I submit that Santa Claus and Christmas lights, obscene gift exchange and obnoxious green & red sweaters are the result of a stumbling block in the story itself. It was not a stumbling block for the first seventeen centuries of Christianity, but it has become one in the past two or three. That stumbling block is what amounts to the 1st Century (well, more likely the 2nd or 3rd) version of clickbaiting.
“Messiah born of a Virgin in Asia Minor.”
It is a headline that buries the lead — for one can easily see that the Atheist can’t get past the magic of the headline, and the Christian can’t get over it. It is meant for either rapturous embrace by the imaginative or the mocking scorn of the cynic. Most importantly, it simply can’t be ignored — you have no choice but to click through.
But the Virgin Birth is hardly the miracle. The Virgin Birth may be true, and if it is true, it proves that magic is true. If it is false, it proves nothing new at all, like observing that a blade of grass is green proves nothing new about grass. “Baby born of a woman who had premarital sex” hardly qualifies as a press-stopping story — but it wouldn’t make Jesus any less Emmanuel.
Proving that Jesus wasn’t born of a Virgin doesn’t prove he wasn’t the Messiah, it only proves one of the core doctrines of historic Christianity was true — namely, that Jesus was fully human, and it is in Jesus’s full humanity that we find the real miracle. If Jesus had been born of a donkey and yet was still fully human, that would have been quite magical. That Jesus was born of a woman, just as you and I were born of a woman, and until recently there was no conceivable way for any human to have been born otherwise gives all the less importance to the circumstances of his birth and more credibility to the miracle of Jesus’s humanity in the circumstances of his thoughts and actions.
Yet I can find no reason to object to the celebration of the Blessed Maria as a Virgin, for she certainly was one at some point. The celebration of Virginity is a proxy war for the celebration of Purity, and we can be certain that many an impure and foul person remained a virgin for the totality of their life — it was indeed probably their foulness that sealed them such a fate.
But a wife of a man and mother of boys who could manage, somehow, to raise up her first son to channel his masculine strength and forcefulness into the love of others, the compassion for their plight, the protection of the weak and vulnerable, the defense of the marginalized, who could keep company with the outcasts and yet dominate the intellectual and propertied elite in any argument, a young man who could abandon material pursuits in the name of his ideals and ultimately when faced with the choice between saving his life or saving his principles, bravely chose to save his principles — such a mother deserves to be venerated with society’s highest honor, and a new one should be created for her on top of that, reserved for all history just and only for her.
As the Proverbs admonish, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is older, he will not depart from it.” What a dear, precious mother, a deep and caring, selfless, gentle, patient, sensitive spirit who could raise up Christ the adult man!
It is for this that she has been granted the status of permanent Virginity by the Church (for we know that Jesus also had brothers, so even if she had been a Virgin when he was born, she certainly did not remain one thereafter), and why all professing Christians for two millennia have had no qualms of stipulating for the record, each time they recite the Creed, not that Jesus was born of a virgin, but that he was born of the Virgin Mary.
If now we described the situation adequately for both parties and can leave aside the magic of the Virgin Birth for the moment, and focus more on the real miracle — the miracle of the Marian upbringing and the Godly adult living of the man Christ — then we can proceed to the extraordinary timeliness of the Christmas message to our world today, and our own longing for a miracle.
One way of thinking about the miracle is this:
Chesterton said he became a Catholic because only the Catholic Church had produced a Thomas Aquinas and a Francis of Assisi, but he neglected to observe that though the Catholic Church had produced an Aquinas and an Assisi, the Catholic Church had not produced a Christ. The Catholic Church did not even produce a Chesterton. Indeed, it was a violent Roman Empire and a corrupt and decadent Judaism that produced a Christ, just as it was an unjust and pernicious Hindu caste system that produced a Buddha.
The miracle of Christ is that he wasn’t produced by a virtuous Church, but by a vicious one, and that somehow the virtuous Church he produced lost merely 90% of his virtues rather than all of them. Hollow as Christian faith and practice have become in our time, that there is still such a faith, and that more than a billion people still use its name (even if they use nothing else) is a testament to the virtuous aspirations this fully human man, born of a woman two millennia ago, continues to evoke.
If Emerson is right, writing in Self Reliance, that “history easily resolves itself into the biographies of a few stout and earnest persons,” then surely the Christ stands among the stoutest and most earnest.
All of this is true about the miracle, but we still haven’t gotten to the nature of the miracle itself. We haven’t cracked its outer shell — and even when we are finished, we will not have cracked its inner one. The nature of miracles is eternally obscure, eternally protected. “Seeing, they do not see. Hearing, they do not hear.” We cannot gaze upon the face of God, but we may at least rid ourselves of the curtains blocking out the Light, eliminating what Huxley calls “God-eclipsing delusions.”
The miracle of Advent, of Christmas, of the Incarnation itself, is that one caring mother produced one virtuous man who by his words and example, put the (only) universal principle of love above personal gain, and acting alone, in a moment when he was abandoned by his friends, that one man made a difference — not merely a small difference, but an earth-shattering one.
The Christian miracle is this — with no agreement, no collaboration, no constitution, no law, no army, no arms, one person can make the world a better place. One person can improve the human condition, or as Emerson puts it, one person can “restore the life of man to splendour.”
This miracle of Christmas is the material indication that it at least can be done. It is in the realm of possibility. It does not prove that it can be done again, but such a proposition has not yet been, and indeed cannot be disproven.
The miracle of Christmas is relevant today because in a world where so many people feel that they have been robbed of their agency; when so many of us see a world gone completely mad; when so many believe that they have been deprived of the chance to make a difference by the wills and actions of others; when so many think that only through elections and mass movements and protests can anything be changed; and on the eve of a day in which these people increasingly believe that other people’s blood may be required to rescue the human project — in such a time, more than ever, it is imperative to see that I can improve the world, regardless of what other people do.
Acting alone, and not concerned about my own personal gain, or even my personal safety or well-being, can, if I choose, love my neighbor as myself and do unto others as I would have them do unto me. Through this simplicity alone, I can remove evil from the world. And you can do it too. Perhaps we can do more than this. But we cannot permit ourselves to do any less.
In the face of ugliness, the lone individual can be a force for beauty. In the face of violence, the lone individual can be a force for healing. In the face of discord, the lone individual can be a force for unity. In the face of all manner and form of war, the lone individual can be a force for peace.
If Jesus was the Son of God, it was because he understood what was required to be called a Child of God, and he told us too:
“Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called Children of God.”
What is more miraculous?
A magic superbeing taking human flesh by the predestined order of things, doing something that could not have happened otherwise by some strange statute of the cosmic law, and then magically defying the laws of physics?
Or a fully human man, recognizing that he was inextricably connected to and part of the Divine, and recognizing that every other person was equally inextricably connected to and part of the Divine, had the courage to declare himself as such, to actually behave as such by sacrificing himself rather than his principles, and to inspire humans for 2,000 years after his death to attempt to do likewise?
Christ had the willingness to expose his Divinity, indeed he “thought it not robbery” to do so (St Paul’s words) while we are all busy covering ours with private concerns, political ideologies, religious trappings, and general distractions. To overcome all of the inertia pulling us into these pits is not just God-like, it is Godly. And it was inherent in the nature of God, and Creation, that such would inevitably be manifest. The Christ nature lay hidden in humans, a dormant remnant of being created in the image of God, begotten before all worlds, very God of Very God, begotten and not made, until one man recognized the Light in himself, seized, it, and altered the course of human history as a result.
No magic required.
I can do the same, and so can you.
The same Light resides inside each of us, the same ability to choose a destiny of Love instead of a destiny of Calculation.
But it certainly requires faith. Not faith as it is commonly misunderstood today, thanks to the conflation of faith and belief. Faith has nothing to do with truth or falsehood. It is not the belief that something is true. It is instead the willingness to suspend disbelief, to take action as if something were true, and hope that in the end it works out accordingly, but accepting the outcome even if it does not. It is the willingness to give your life for your friends, out of genuine love, hoping perhaps that you will be somehow rewarded for it, but knowing that it is worth it even if you are not.
This is the Christian faith, because it is the imitative faith of the Christ. Anything else that is added on top of this is a superfluous, God-eclipsing delusion. The implications of this faith are legion. There is much to learn from scripture and tradition on this matter, but scripture and tradition do not excuse us from St Paul’s exhortation that “each person must work out his own faith with fear and trembling.”
I shall close with the words of the most haunting of all the Christmas hymns, which dates back to the 12th Century and was originally written in Latin with the title “Veni, veni, Emmanuel.”
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee O Israel.
If you will permit me to editorialize the hymn for better understanding,
O Come, O Come, God who is within us
And rescue those who struggle with God, those who strive for the Good but run into difficulty,
We who are where we don’t belong, Divine creations of the immortal, invisible, immaterial God living material lives as carbon-based animals on an insignificant rock in a vast universe,
Until somewhere inside of us, our best possible self, a true Child of God, shall take over command and direct the course of our ship,
Be joyful, for the God who made you is with you and in you and shall come to aid you in your struggle to pursue The Good and be at peace.
Merry Christmas and Kyrie Eleison.