In one of the Catholic prayers for the Advent season, we read about “the plan you formed long ago which opened for us the way to eternal salvation”. A plan may include, but it is not, as such, chance. A plan implies a planner. A way to salvation has been opened for us through this plan.
The notion of a plan is an exact one. It implies intelligence and scope. What happened at the first Christmas was not a myth. It was part of a longer story of which this birth in Bethlehem was a central feature. Once this birth took place, because of who it was that was born, nothing remained quite the same.
Christians do not believe in something that never happened. The evidence for and against the factual truth of Christ’s birth has been worked over like no other fact in human history. Many seem desperate to prove it false, as if its presumed truth might directly affect them, and, of course, it would.
If the plan never happened, we need not pay much attention to it. If no compelling and solid evidence for its truth could be found, no Christian would insist that it be taken seriously.
Lacking evidence, Christmas at best is a pious sentiment. It claims to be the actual birth of a human child who was, at the same time, divine. So the first thing to note about Christmas is the claim that it happened pretty much as the Gospels recount it.
We should, to be sure, be upset if the Gospels are not true. It would then be like other fictions which never took place.
Yet we should be more upset if these events did happen as they are narrated and we did not acknowledge their truth. Then, if we refuse to accept their reality, we have to concoct a counter-narrative to explain how they could not have happened.
In another ancient prayer for the Christmas season we read that, in the Nativity, we see “our God made visible” Through this God made visible, we are caught up in the love of “the God we cannot see.” At first sight, two “gods” are mentioned — one we see and one we do not see. So the plan is complicated. One aspect of it is to teach us about God. God is indeed one, but within His single being, we have different persons. The “God made visible”, the Word, is one of these Persons. Later on in His life, the “God made visible” as a human being refers to the “God we cannot see” as His Father.
And when He comes to die on the Cross, this “God made visible” tells us that He will send His Spirit, as He is called, who is not the Father or the Son. By the very fact that we attend to these differences of persons, we see the plan being worked out. And part of the plan is that we learn something of the inner life of God as we learn who the Son is.
What is the plan of the Christmas story?
The plan goes something like this. The world had a beginning (something contemporary science seems to corroborate). But God did not have a beginning. So in this beginning there was God but no world. The Trinitarian life within the Godhead was complete and sufficient in itself. It did not “need” the world in order to solve its loneliness or to have something to do. Had God decided not to create cosmos and man, God would have lacked nothing.
So the existence of something other than God can only be explained by an abundance and freedom in God that did not arise from some necessity in God. The world, in other words, and man in it, need not have existed.
Hence, the world arises out of goodness, not evil. This source is expressed in the Genesis account when each level of created being, and creation as a wholel, is described as good and very good. But it is unlikely that the real cause of the existence of the physical cosmos was that God just wanted it out there to behold. Within it was a rational creature whose mind was open to the universe and capable of receiving intelligence.
The world was created as an arena wherein the rational creatures, each of them in turn, could work out their destiny. Each person was to participate in the inner life of the Godhead. This participation, the reason for his creation, was more than was due to man by nature. Man is supernatural in origin, not just natural. This fact explains much about him, especially his inability to find any rest except in his ultimate Trinitarian destiny following death. The real purpose of creation was that other free beings, not gods themselves, but beings with mind and will, could accept an invitation. God could not force anyone to accept this invitation to participate in His inner life.
Were He to do so, there would be no freedom, hence no love or friendship or joy. So the existing world is shot through with the contingency that comes with knowledge and free will. This need to accept or reject one’s place in the plan is what makes the plan a drama.
‘God made visible’
Here we need to consider the Nativity of the God who is “visible”. The initial invitation to participate in the offered gift of eternal life was rejected. The consequences of this rejection touch every subsequent human life. God did not prevent our actions from taking their course.
What He could do was to respond to them with, as it were, a counter-plan within the original plan. This counter-plan, the one that went into effect when the first parents fell, is what we call redemption. It means, in effect, that a way was made open to achieve the original purpose of creation.
This way respected the intelligence and freedom of the rational creature. He was still free to accept or reject it. Indeed, this freedom, how he chooses, is the essential outline or biography of each existing human life.
The redemption by the “God whom we do not see” respected what was already put into being at creation. God was constrained in this sense: that no one who really and freely did not want to accept His invitation to eternal life could receive it against his will. The choice to reject it, or to live according to one’s own definition of life, is what we call hell. The notion of a heaven filled with folks who did not want to be there is obviously absurd. We are given the consequences of our freedom.
The other side of this freedom is that those who accepted the invitation were to do so after the manner of the life of the “God made visible”. This way included the Cross; the Redemption included suffering. It was no accident that the Gospels open with calls to repent.
On examination, repentance is the acknowledgement that God’s creative and redemptive plan is true. Sin is a refusal to accept an element of this plan, as if we could concoct something superior. In one sense, hundreds of years of persecution and martyrdom, starting with the Crucifixion, are a record of the refusal of many of our kind to accept the plan. We were warned that it was likely to turn out this way.
But we are here mostly concerned with the Nativity. The Incarnation emphasizes human biology. The Annunciation, when Mary agreed to be the mother of Jesus, was the necessary beginning of the human life that was Christ. The Nativity is when He first becomes visible, to His parents, to a few shepherds, a bit later to a few neighbors, relatives, and people in the temple.
The birth of Christ was not a major world event. No one in Rome or Athens or even Jerusalem knew that something important had happened at a manger in Bethlehem. But it did happen. The witnesses were few, but they were there. That is all we need to know.
That this child was also divine was known by His Mother. But as His life went on, it became more and more public, more and more a line of demarcation between those who thought that the invisible God could not dwell amongst us and those who did, because they saw that the God who was visible did dwell amongst us for a time. At Christmas, this fact is what we remember. It is a fact that changes how we understand ourselves and the world itself.
Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books.