The other day I assisted my fellow parishioners in putting together the Nativity scene at our Church. In beholding the Christ child, a wood figurine reaching up with both arms for a hug, I am mindful of grace. Like all newborns, the Christ child rests precariously on the edge of disaster. It would take so little to snuff out the life that has just taken hold, and it is a wonder a cold chill flowing into the manger or an intemperate kick from a donkey did not take His life long before the Cross could do so. God’s grace preserves what would be so easily snatched away. He keeps the feather from dancing over the cliff and then down the abyss. Does God withhold His grace when a newborn dies? Or should we observe His grace in something other than the child’s death? Perhaps in how the parents respond to that misfortune? Those are questions to be pondered on another occasion, but I believe we can say for now that the very fragility of new life points to God’s hand in the occasion. Every birth is a miracle, not just in the sense that it is a wonderful experience especially for those who are emotionally attached to the newborn, but literally and definitionally. A birth is a most natural occurrence, and yet the fact that there is not more infant mortality than there is suggests a power at play here that transcends nature.
Our lives are that much more precarious because of sin. Over the centuries, theologians have used different metaphors to describe Original Sin. I am inclined to think of it as if a compass that is off kilter. In virtue of the compass we know that we should be directing our lives in one direction over another. We know that there is right and wrong and that in all instances we should choose right over wrong. We even endeavor to varying degrees to walk the right path. We hold up the compass and travel as well as we can due north. Because the compass is off kilter, though, our due north is not really north at all. Even if it looks like we are walking the straight and the narrow, in fact we are meandering down a tangent line that invariably is going to curve southward.
Given Original Sin, the Christ child is not simply an artistic representation of the miracle of the Incarnation. He is not simply an expression of divine kenosis: the self-emptying of divine omniscience and omnipotence so that God indeed may be vulnerable and reliant on the imperfect love and charity of others as men are. The precariousness of the Christ child is also an expression of who we are as a result of our sinful nature. All our lives our sin makes us vulnerable, weak, reliant, always needful of charity from people who are as incapable of absolute charity as we are. Our sin clouds our understanding of what is true and good so that as Saint Paul says even when at the highest command of our faculties we look through a glass darkly. Our sin at best renders us infantile, when God wants us to stand firm and to worship Him in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives.
When we see Christ in the Christ child we see God’s grace upholding a fragile life in the face of much adversity. In Christ, we are seeing glory, strength, and fortitude in absolute meekness; a King born in a manger; eternal life incarnate who will die on a Cross. This is the created order turned upside down. When God saves just one man in Christ, let alone all men, He turns everything on its head. Salvation is personal, intimate, but at the same time it is eschatological.
When we see ourselves in the Christ child we see our need for God’s grace to preserve us from stumbling back into Hell. We see our weakness, our infantile grasping for some higher power to protect us from the dangers all around us, our anguished cry to be held close. At the same time, we are comforted by Mary and Joseph surrounding the infant. They tell us that even when most fragile God is near. He is our parent, our refuge; and if the darkness outside the manger is cold and potentially deadly, inside it is warm and life affirming. We may be infants, but because God is near our lives have been turned upside down. All we need to do is to reach up to Him, as the newborn reaches up to his parent. Our salvation is personal, intimate, but at the same time it is eschatological; for if indeed God can make us strong, when we are so weak, and give us fortitude, when we are so confused, then the outpouring of God’s mercy will spread across creation.
Psalm 18 expresses the eschatological dimension of salvation. It describes a man who on account of his own personal sinful nature cries out, “the sorrows of hell compassed me about: the snares of death prevented me.” He is fragile, weak, about to be taken by his enemies, and so he has no recourse but to call upon the Lord to rescue him before death silences his voice forever. God responds to him, but in so doing “the earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because He was wroth.” God descends from heaven to rescue this one man, and the scene that follows is apocalyptic: “Then the channels of waters were seen, and the foundations of the world were discovered at thy rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils. He sent from above, he took me, and he drew me out of many waters.”
Salvation is intrinsically eschatological. This is as true for one man as for all men. When a man is redeemed in Christ Jesus, he is a new creation, yes, but he is also made a citizen of a New Creation. Specifically, he has been made a citizen of the New Jerusalem where he will live in all glory, and honor, and truth, when Christ Jesus returns. We see glimpses of this New Jerusalem in Saint John’s apocalyptic vision on Patmos. We know that this is the world that comes after heaven and earth have passed away (or more specifically the separation of heaven from earth is no longer, as when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, On Earth as it is in Heaven”). If salvation is intrinsically eschatological, and a man redeemed in Christ Jesus is a citizen of a New Creation, then Christian salvation is caught up in Christian polity. Stated another way, a man’s salvation is never completely personal. There is a political dimension to it – not political as in our civil politics (Republicans versus Democrats), which pertains to the Kingdom of Caesar, but political as in the structure and the order of the faithful worshipping God the Father in His Kingdom.
Before Christ Jesus returns, and establishes His New Jerusalem, even when baptized into Christ we remain afflicted in sin. We have not yet shed our old creation completely. Therefore, at best, we are imperfect stewards of His Kingdom. We understand vaguely that the Christian life calls for a kind of polity, an established and perpetuated order of worship and of fellowship with fellow Christians, but because we look through a glass darkly the best we can do is to maintain a semblance of His Kingdom. We understand that though the Church Triumphant is perfected by grace, the Church Militant suffers from the sinful nature of the men and women endeavoring to varying degrees to be the good stewards of worship, sacramental grace, and fellowship to which they are called. Still, however imperfect, the fact that there is a Church Militant at all is a testament to the fact that salvation is eschatological and, therefore, political. The Christian life must transcend the personal to the tribal, the national, and finally the universal, while at the same time remaining a personal and intimate relationship between the redeemed man and His merciful God. The Christian life calls for private morality, but does not stop with every man taking care of his own soul. It transcends private morality to public and civic virtue. It is never satisfied with one man living in the shell of his personal sanctification. No matter how morally good that one man may be, if he cares not for the community of the faithful, then his moral goodness is a kind of sin.
Our glory, strength, and fortitude for the Kingdom can be traced to the kenosis of God – the eternal Face and Word of God conceived of the Holy Ghost and born of a virgin. The self-emptying of divine power is itself the most powerful revelation of God’s love for us. As such, when we are engrafted into His Son in baptism, our weakness, our suffering, is the most powerful revelation of our strength and endurance in Him. As Saint Paul says in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, “If I must boast I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”
This is an insight, indeed the reality, that begins in a manger. Whenever we pray before a Nativity scene, we should see the total fragility of Our Lord there, and so we should offer praise and thanksgiving to God that He allows us too to be persecuted in this world. For if there is no room in the inn for us on account of our fidelity to Christ Jesus, or if we are refugees in a strange land because of our faithfulness to Him, then we too are that Christ child. We too are being protected and saved from a cold and dark world. Like the man in Psalm 18, we too are being pulled up from the depths by the One God who chastises the world and the devil for us. In our many sufferings for Christ, we are becoming more like Him, stewards of the New Jerusalem, citizens of a world emerging from the ashes of the old. In our faithful adherence to Christian polity, the life of worship, sacramental grace, and fellowship that is intrinsic to our salvation, we are learning how to be citizens of this world yet to come. We are learning how to speak and to walk as redeemed men, rather than remaining infantile subjects of our sinfulness. This is the miracle of Christmas that will persist in us look after we have packed away the Nativity scene for the last time.