“In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . . He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world knew Him not. He came to His own home, and His own people received Him not” (John 1:4-5, 10-11).
This year as I approach Advent, light and darkness are more dramatically opposed before my mind than usual. The baby in the manger rebukes the world leaders of Cairo, who seek like Scrooge to “decrease the surplus population” as a solution to poverty. The fate of the slaughtered Innocents calls up not only (isn’t it enough!) the millions of aborted souls sent each year before the throne of God, but also the human embryos that our government has now determined may ethically be experimented on by scientists. The love of the Holy Family casts a poignant brightness over the failures of our own ambivalent efforts to seek refuge from the loneliness of living as isolated atoms.
Does all this sound too melancholy? Never mind, Advent has not even begun, and Christmas is only just usurping the place of Halloween in the department stores. We will have time, during Advent, to focus our minds on the Christ Child and to draw on the strength of this God-Man come to save us. Each day newspapers offer fresh proof of our fallen state, but we have never needed them to know our poverty. Christmas has always taught the lesson of discovering strength in weakness.
The unborn and, in our age, all those threatened with death to satisfy others’ needs and desires are the weak ones who throw into relief the strength of the Gospel. To grasp in their light how much more precious and beautiful Christianity is than the alternatives is to understand something of its profound appeal to the ancient world.
The ancient world — we mean by that phrase a world much younger, but certainly one which did not recognize itself as young. However much it excelled in building, the arts, and in governance, it was like our own world, steeped in its own horrors, and offered much to oppress the imagination. People staggered under the weight of tyranny or grew callous and cold by inflicting it.
Imagine the liberation of being told one could find freedom in serving as a slave to another (Paul is full of it, “the glorious freedom of the children of God”). What a crack in the surface of the world that must have caused, like the smile on a man who had never before seen the point of a joke.
Imagine a poor pagan trying to choose between a pantheon of imperfect and uninvolved gods and some sort of Platonic first principle. See him confronted by Paul, preaching Christ crucified. What an earthquake that almighty weakness set off: to have God, the source of all strength, “emptying Himself” to save us by the abject weakness of a condemned man bound to a cross.
At Bethlehem all of this is there in miniature. The helpless infant is wrapped in strips of cloth and bedded down with animals in quite a different way from Romulus and Remus. He is slated to die before he is old enough to learn his first Hebrew prayer or take part in his first Passover. God-made-man requires a miracle on his behalf — a message from an angel to his foster father — to be rescued from Herod’s slaughter.
If Christ had died then, as a baby in Bethlehem, he would still have died — and lived, for however brief a time — for us. He would have saved us as surely as if he had been crucified when he was old and infirm. We would have missed all his wonderful teachings, his parables, his healings. But every species of human suffering is known to him intimately by his Incarnation and each shares in his suffering. And every form of weakness conceals his strength.
So Christmas, when it comes, will be a celebration not of unredeemed weakness, but of weakness given point and purpose by the divine emptying of our Saviour. Those details of the hard journey to Bethlehem, the crowded inn, the animals in the stable are not pretty or sentimental decorations on a Christmas card. They mark the limits of the Son of God’s much longer journey from heaven to earth. They are given us to show how far Jesus descended in coming to us, and how much of our burden He was undertaking to share.
This weakness is ours to lean on when we are contending with our own era’s forces of darkness. We can lean on Christ’s weakness — the weakness of the threatened baby, the bound and crucified man — when we feel the faintness of too many lost causes, too many squabbling factions, too much inertia both within us and without. His weakness was greater than ours, and his strength, if we let it, will overflow us. “But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).