Christmas is supposed to be an event for the “PACE Christians”—those who attend church for “Palms, Ashes, Christmas, and Easter.” But I learned from John Derbyshire, a columnist at National Review, that he always preferred to attend in midsummer, when half the congregation was away on vacation. In a recent column, he said he had given up on his mild Anglicanism a couple of years ago, and so has now given up on summer church attendance, too. An honest man: He defines a Christian minimally as someone who believes “that Jesus of Nazareth was divine, or part-divine, and that the Resurrection was a real event.” (How Anglican!) He can’t believe that, and so he is gone.
I have had rather the opposite experience over the years, starting from adolescent atheism, then acquiring a couple of core beliefs in my early 20s. Yes, Jesus is divine—I believe I actually met Him on the Hungerford Bridge in London on Thursday, April 15, 1976. And yes, it would follow that the Resurrection happened. From there I’ve spread gradually through the rest of the Credo, which I now believe in English and Latin. I passed first in then out of the Anglican Church, arriving figuratively in Rome, by the end of 2003. The reader may allege I am a slow learner. I reply that learning disabilities are endemic to the human race.
“Ask and it will be answered.” This, to my mind, is the hinge of faith. My religious experience—classically Protestant, though only on first view—came in the moment I asked seriously.
Under a growing philosophical suspicion that my disbelief in God was unsustainable—that it didn’t make rational sense in the face of a rational universe—I had become a mild deist. I had also read the Bible, with some attention, because it was literature, and I fancied myself a poet. The more attention I paid, the more I grasped the scale of the claims this Jesus was making. He was either God or a madman. He didn’t leave room for polite third options. “Therefore be perfect.”
In a glib and superficial way, I formulated the question in my head, “So, Jesus, if you really exist, why don’t you just show yourself to me?” It was a question that occurred to me many times, over months when I was still trying to assimilate my own defection from atheism to mild deism. At first, the question seemed to answer itself: “Of course Jesus isn’t going to show Himself to me.”
As I vividly recall, I was walking along the south embankment of the Thames, thinking about this question. It had suddenly become crucially important to me whether the gospel was real or just “myth and poetry,” there being no polite third options. I reformulated the question something like this: “Jesus, I have to know the answer. I cannot be satisfied with philosophical speculations, or the authority of any church. If you are there, you must show me!”
Immediately upon asking this question—not in a glib and superficial way, but with all the sincerity I could summon—I became bathed in the light of some presence that seemed to exude Love infinitely. I was turning up the stairs onto the pedestrian walkway of that Hungerford Bridge. As I rose up the stairs, this presence spoke—I know not how. And Christ said, “I will cross this bridge with you.”
He left as I came to the north bank, and I briefly glimpsed another figure, standing in the air. “That will be the Holy Spirit,” I can recall explaining to myself. “I know that, because it has always been there. I remember it from my earliest childhood.”
The Nativity of Christ comes as a surprise, except in retrospect. Christ is born in one, as if one were a child.