When it comes to books on what it means to believe in Christianity, you can’t do much better than Garry Wills’ What Jesus Meant. And when it comes to that book’s take on the Incarnation — and the arrival of Jesus as the incarnation of God is what we’re celebrating at Christmas — you can’t do much better than this passage:
Dark and mysterious as is the whole matter of the Incarnation and the Passion, perhaps a simple thing can help us think of them. I turn to my own experience. My young son woke up from a violent nightmare one night. When I asked what was troubling him, he said that the nun in his school had told the children that they would end up in Hell if they sinned. He asked me, “Am I going to Hell?” There is not an ounce of heroism in my nature, but I instantly answered what any father would: “All I can say is that if you’re going there, I’m going with you.”
If I felt that way about my son, God obviously loves him even more than I do. Perhaps the Incarnation is just God’s way of saying that no matter what horrors we face or hells we descend to, He is coming with us. I did not realize at the moment that I was just following a way we should think of God according to Jesus himself, who said, “Would any of you give your son a stone when he asked for bread? Or a snake when he asked for fish? Well, if you, flawed as you are, know how to provide good things for your children, how much more will your Father in the heavens provide for those who ask it of him?”
Chesterton offers another way into the mystery, in a little two act play of his called “The Surprise.” The play opens in the Middle Ages, with a friar wandering through a woods. He sees a large rolling caravan, a platform stage with its curtain open, and handsome life-sized puppets lying there with their strings loose. The puppet master is up above the stage. The friar asks what town he will be giving his show in — he would like to see it. The man tells him to sit down and he will give him a free performance.
A romantic tale is then spun out in which a swashbuckling hero and his friend, drinking to each others’ health, swear to rescue a damsel in captivity. They carry it off with great panache, and the play ends. The friar applauds, but the man asks to go to confession. He confesses that he is unhappy because he loves his characters, yet they do not breath and reciprocate his love. As he turns away, the friar falls to his knees and prays that his wishes might come true. The curtain then falls on the first act.
The second act begins with the puppets again lying down amid their loose strings. But then the characters begin to stir on their own. They rise and start reenacting the play. But this time little things begin to go wrong, each aggravating the next, and the pace of mishaps quickens. The friends drink too much and quarrel, they show jealousy over the heroine, they arrive to late to rescue her, so her captor is about to rape her. At this point, the puppet master stands up on the roof of the caravan and shouts, “Stop! I’m coming down.” God is going with us. Now that His creatures have free will, the puppet master can no longer manipulate them from above. He must come down to be with them, to fight for them.
Today we celebrate the arrival of our champion. Merry Christmas everyone.