Sometimes, with the yearly round of month-long Christmas celebrations—the mangers, the carols, the constant reminders amidst the materialist orgy to “remember the real meaning of Christmas”—it is easy for that “real meaning” to become too familiar and domesticated. Sometimes we need to step back, give our heads a hard shake, and reflect upon the strangeness of it all.
The Peasant’s Prayer
Imagine, if you will, being a Chinese peasant who had never heard of the Christian God or the person of Jesus – and whose conception of God was vague and confused. That is, imagine someone who only possessed the natural revelation of Romans 1, perhaps mixed with the idolatries Paul describes in Acts 14 and 17. Mixed up in these idolatries is nevertheless some concept of a God whose eternal power and divine nature is manifest. Perhaps it is just a concept of a consciousness behind all material things – as when we speak of mind over matter. Perhaps certain attributes can be predicated of this. Some notion of such a God is fairly universal (albeit mixed with error to a greater or lesser degree). Though, as I will argue below – precisely in their accurate discourse concerning God – orthodox Christians can risk a similar idolatry. But first, the confused Chinese peasant.
Such a person senses their absolute dependence on this mysterious Person or structure or what-have-you. And the relation to this God is felt to be immediate. This is the origin of all, the One in whom we live and move and have our being (as Paul agrees with the pagans of Acts 17). The most fitting relation to such a God is found in the universal human activity of prayer – speech. However understood or known, we reach out to and speak into the darkness to He with whom we have to do. Most fundamentally, we ask for help. Life is full of trial and concern, and we constantly appeal to God in a crisis. We need relief from our guilt, shame, and our fear.
This fundamental human relation stands behind any dogmatic construction or discourse concerning God. Fundamentally, the relationship between God and creation, between God and man, is “meeting a stranger” (as Michael Horton has put it). And to the extent that our dogmatic formulas and discourse make us think we have contained God, that we grasp Him, to the extent that God is harnessed as belonging to those who speak correctly versus those who don’t, to that extent we have committed a great error of idolatry. While it may be true that Christian discourse speaks of God more accurately and understands Him more thoroughly than other discourse, God transcends the categories of our minds. While they smash before His gravity, He is available to and answers the prayers of those who have the least and most distorted understanding – as children barely understand the world of the parents who answer them. (Matthew 7:11)
What I want to argue is that, only from this standpoint, can we begin to remember what is so significant about the incarnation. It is not uncommon for the religions of the world to claim that God, for instance, is closer to us that we are to ourselves. Even more relevant, the popular depiction of prayer in film and literature (whether it be George Bailey’s invocation of the divine or Judy Blume’s “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret”) underscores some basic sense of God’s availability to our speech – to those made after His image. Indeed, this theme of God as a stranger from whom we desire help and with whom we desire communion is not uncommon in the world’s literatures. And for at least this reason (among others), the story of the incarnation is a story for the world. It speaks to the most fundamental piece of human religion – the most basic sensibility of dependence on an ultimate Stranger, and a need for that Stranger to answer our collective pleas for help. What the story of the incarnation says to the Chinese peasant is that God has heard their cries and their lamentations. Overlooking mixture with idolatry and ill-bent will, latent within our cries for help is nevertheless the image of God longing for all bad things to be made untrue, for communion with God to be restored, for the world to work aright. And passing over our sins, and responding to what is legitimate and fitting in our prayers, God has answered. That is, the God who is closer to each person than they are to themselves, the God who is the misunderstood object of all prayer, the ultimate Stranger behind all our distortions, and who is not (let is again be said) comprehended by even correct dogmatic formulations.
The Universal Story
The story of Israel is the universal story, the story on which all the hopes and stories of the nations hinge. All aspiration of kingship, empire, prophecy, priesthood, sacrifice, family, love, marriage, etc – hinge for their integrity upon the coming of the Messiah in space and time. He is the proper theme of the historical tapestry of which all of these other things are but contributing threads. Even in the Old Testament, God states, “I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land: And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.” (Haggai 2:6-7) The story of Israel, going back to the prophecies of Genesis 12, has always been the story of the world (of Genesis 1-11) and of human religion. This is the significance of the story of the Magi in Matthew 2. We know little of these men or exactly how they understood the Messiah, but what is clear in this narrative is that the story of Israel is the hope of all the earth, even the hope of all kings.
The coming of the Christ is the answer to all human dependence upon and prayer toward God. The God to whom we all (more or less distortedly) pray and attempt faintly to understand has answered our prayers in the coming of Christ. In Christ all things are made new. In Christ our deepest need for the forgiveness of sins and of our guilt is met. In Christ, God has fully revealed His character in the one who is the perfect representation of His being (Heb. 1: 3). And the event of this happening, the event of this coming, this surprising irruption of the divine into space and time is precisely an irruption, an event, an act of an incomprehensible God before it is an object of dogmatic reflection or understanding. Emphasizing this point is not to discard the importance (indeed, the essential need) of doctrinal clarity or dogmatic understanding. It is rather to put things in their proper order. We do not even grasp our own dogma if we do not grasp this. Straining at a pithy formula: The “we know not what” to whom all people distortedly pray (for all sorts of distorted motivations) has come to us, has spoken, at a particular time and in a particular place in the story of Israel. In this sense, Christian reflection upon these events (and the formulation of doctrine) is discourse concerning what always exceeds our grasp of it – necessary as that discourse is.
Why emphasize this? Because apart from this recognition, the incarnation is re-particularized. It loses its universal import. It easily becomes merely a possession of the Christian, a piece of Christian “identity.” But it is more than that. It exceeds that. And to the extent that it is reduced to this, it is a mere idol. It exceeds Christendom, and speaks to man-qua-man. Moreover, it speaks to all men in all places and all times – precisely in the universality of its own particularity. Precisely in its location within the story of Israel, precisely as an irruption of the Stranger whom we see in a mirror darkly, it is a story and an event that belongs to all men. And for exactly this reason, the Christian faith has always been a global one. The coming of the Christ irrupts, redirects, and (in another way) climaxes the narrative of all people, communities, nations, and empires. The One on whom we all depend has come in a particular place and time for all places and times – bringing both personal and communal redemption from guilt, shame, and fear – through faith, the forgiveness of sins, and transformation to love.
The Desire of the Nations
We have been reflecting upon this irruption in history for 2000 years. And yet for all that construction, for all the early debates about the identity of Christ within Judaism, for all the debates of Nicaea and Constantinople, for all the clarification about the mission of Christ in the Reformation, and for all of the reflection upon the universality of Christ (even here) in the late modern missions movement – all of this stands as subject to the thing itself, the event itself. As with the Magi, the most immediate truth is that when we reflect upon this infant child, we know ourselves (mysteriously) to be confronted by the Desire of the Nations, the irruption of God in history, the moment in which the threads of all literature, longing, and prayer come together into a cohesive picture. That is, this story has precisely the immediacy for the Chinese peasant (and in precisely his world) that is has for you (even with greater understanding) in your world. And in this recognition, we can (in a second act of naivete) rediscover the drama of our own doctrine – not as mere formulae, but as fitting speech concerning He who exceeds all utterance – a God who is the property of no man, who is immediately reflected in the soul and conscience of all men, and who has spoken to and come to us in the history of a people that climaxed in the coming of the Desire of the nations. In short, the God of all people has heard the groans of His whole creation and has answered their cry.
Joseph Minich is Editor-in-Chief of the Davenant Press, and author of Enduring Divine Absence: The Challenge of Modern Atheism.
“Most people today become atheists less because of persuasive arguments than because of the social realities of our secular age. There are plenty of good apologetics books out there. But few target the ‘gut’—that is, the pre-understandings and social practices that make belief in God more difficult today than in previous generations. This is a must-read.”
WESTMINSTER SEMINARY CALIFORNIA