This series explores what we don’t believe — and why — in order to help us understand what we do believe, and why we do.
The church does not teach that the birth of Christ makes sense.
Advent is the season of doubt. For most people, the soundtrack to these weeks before Christmas is a rising chorus of carols: Ding Dong, Merrily on High; I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In; Grandma Was Run Over by a Reindeer; and of the ringing of bells in the hands of chilly workers from the Salvation Army. To priests, however, there is another chorus that rises in the background: I cannot believe.
I cannot believe that Mary was a Virgin. I cannot believe that God would become a human being. Even if God wanted to, how would it happen? It makes no sense. If God had come to earth, wouldn’t we be better by now? Why not just admit he was a good teacher and move on?
In response to all of this, there arises another set of voices, cry counterpoint: Put the Christ back in Christmas. Stop the commercialism.
Personally, I agree with the counterpoint, but I find their voices often strident and grating. I think that what I hear underneath both voices is a hunger for a God who behaves in ways that are consistent with human reason and logic. The questioners wrestle with the apparent illogic of central claims in the Christian faith, and believe that if those claims cannot be made to conform to what we understand, then they cannot be true. The asserters, on the other hand, have embraced the claims of the faith, but often as if they were completely comprehensible — too easily assimilated to scandalize us out of our consumerist complacency.
But the birth of Christ is about mystery; it’s about making a space in the world for what we do not easily understand, but what we know to be true. Love. Courage. Hope. Faith. Every one of these is, in some sense, a victory of heart over reason. No one has ever been loved who as not deeply imperfect. No one has ever been brave without knowing the reasons for fear. No one has ever had hope without feeling despair pressing in around them. No one has ever had faith in something they can see; it’s about holding on to what is not yet brought to completion, often in spite of what is all too manifest.
A thousand years ago, Anselm of Canterbury wrote, “I believe so that I may understand.” He was contrasting our paltry human logic with the great and unpredictable logic of God. He was speaking of Christ who broke open the relentless laws of this cosmos: cause and effect, wrongdoing and punishment, the laws of nature — those laws — and made space for God to be free in. He broke open our rigid constructs and made space for a God who wanted to give us freedom and grace and love.
And so the doubters are right: It doesn’t make any sense, the way we usually understand the world. That’t the power of it.