Get away from Christmas card sentimentality and some troubling questions come up. What kind of a God would get his own kid out of harm’s way while leaving so many other children so exposed? Why didn’t God give all the parents dreams? Or, more elegantly, why didn’t he send Herod a nice heart attack? On reflection, that turns out to be a new and very sharp way of asking one of the most basic questions that people quite justifiably ask about God: what kind of God could allow such evil and catastrophic things to happen? Why are innocents slaughtered and oppressed anywhere? If God is so powerful and he loves us so much, why are the historical records, and our daily newspapers, so full of violence, evil and oppression?
The classic Christian answer to this question, and here again standard Christianity makes a lot of sense to me personally, has two parts. The first is that God made us free; he did not want a universe of sock puppets praising and obeying him. He wanted a world, not a computer simulation; he has given us the freedom to be co-creators with him of the world we live in. But having given us real freedom, he and we are stuck with the consequences. Our choices are real, and they have real consequences for ourselves and for those around us. If God is serious about our freedom, he must abide by the choices we make.
But if God must take our choices seriously, he did not and does not have to let it end there. God, Christians believe, did not abandon us to the consequences of the choices that we and other human beings have made. Instead he determined to engage with us even more deeply; to enter history himself and to transform it from within. Christians believe that God launched a complex, multi-generational rescue operation, one that is still going on today. He will not renege on his commitment to make us free and intelligent co-creators of the world, but he will not let evil and ignorance have the last word; he will not allow our mistakes and shortcomings to separate us from his love.
The Christmas story is the moment when the rescue operation shifts into high gear. God leaves his throne, leaves heaven, and enters the world as a baby, entering the historical process himself as a human being to be shaped by human culture with all its shortcomings and limits; to share the joys, sorrows and temptations of human life in all their bewildering complexity; and to share the vulnerability of humans to betrayal, injustice, torment and finally death.
God gave up everything that he had to rescue us. He ran into the burning building to pull us out. He gave up his seat in the lifeboat to make room for someone else. That is what we are celebrating at Christmas, and that is what this story is about.
From the very beginning Jesus was subject to the same kind of contingencies that affect us all. His parents traveled in a peak season; he was born in a manger. And if he was rescued from Herod, it wasn’t to live happily ever after. Years later, as an adult, Jesus would walk, purposefully and with full knowledge of what he did, toward a fate as bloody and as cruel as the one that overtook the babies of Bethlehem at Herod’s command.
God became man and dwelt among us in order that in the fullness of time we can become like gods ourselves and go live with him. This is the shock of Christmas; this idea is why, thousands of years after it first happened, people are still locked up and killed because they believe in it.
The first verse of the famous Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” ends with these words: “The hopes and fears of all the years/Are met in thee tonight.”
The baby in the manger, the soldiers in the streets: hopes and fears clash in mysterious ways. That is what Christmas is about; in the next few posts we will try to think about what it means.
– Walter Russell Mead, “Yule Blog 2011-2012: The Hinge of Fate”
[HT: Ben Domenech]
Dear Mr. Mead,
What can I add to your Christmas season meditation other than bravo! Such a rare delight to read an old-fashioned liberal who takes religion seriously and also has such deep respect for history and common-sense social goods like middle-class values. You are a remarkable writer and every time I read your blog I learn something. Keep up the good work.