The Christmas stories we know best sound like history. Maybe not history as we understand the term, as something academic, or scientific, but history nonetheless. Luke tells how Jesus was born in this place, to these parents, at the time of that imperial decree, when so-and-so was governor of Syria. Or if you prefer Matthew’s version, sages from Persia, observing unusual astronomical phenomena, came to Jerusalem looking for the newborn king of the Jews. This aroused the malice of the usurper Herod, and so Jesus’ family fled to Egypt for safety.
The mythical or supernatural elements in these stories, the angels and prophecies and dreams, tell us that they are sacred history. These are events in which God is afoot. But the backdrop against which they take place is the natural lives of people and the history of nations. The principal actors are human persons. When God intervenes, it is by sending messengers to those persons, or by filling them with the Holy Spirit, so they become bearers of the message. But God remains offstage, invisible, unknowable, on the other side of the curtain that separates earth from heaven.
The Gospel of John, on the other hand, begins the story of Jesus on God’s side of the curtain. The principal actor in John’s Christmas story is not a character in history. The backdrop is not the places and events of the human world. Instead it is a story that begins with the beginnings of the universe. The principal actor is God, and the backdrop is God. For John the story of Jesus Christ begins with the no-beginning that makes all beginnings possible, in the no-time that precedes every moment of time. The miraculous birth that John begins with is the primordial mystery of existence itself, the mere fact that there is anything at all.
One of the first experiences of my childhood that could be called “religious” concerned just this mystery. I was eight or nine years old, and my Grandma Lenore, was undergoing her first round with cancer. I was lying in my bed at night and for the first time that I can recall it really hit me that I was going to die. And my parents and my brothers, and everybody I knew—all of them were also going to die. If felt as if a great abyss of dread and meaninglessness was opening up beneath me and was going to swallow me up. And then, suddenly, a light went on. Another thought came to me, that brought me comfort and hope and filled me with gratitude. It was the thought of how completely gratuitous, how unnecessary, even arbitrary, and utterly not-to-be-taken-for-granted it is, that there should be anything at all.
That anything and everything comes into existence at all is a gift. It is grace. That the world exists, in spite of the improbabilities, in defiance of entropy, notwithstanding its tendency to instability and metamorphosis, is the one undeniable and irreducible truth. The created universe, and everything in it, is not simply there, at random, out of nowhere and to no purpose. It exists because there was in God, from the beginningless beginning, the impulse to create. And if that, then also the desire to be created. To be light, shining in the darkness. To be word, spoken in the silence. There is nothing in the universe that does not owe its existence to that love by which God becomes an other to herself, pure potentiality moving into act, absolute freedom taking form and pattern, perfect being becoming becoming.
John’s gospel begins with this beginning to tell us how radical is the grace that comes through Jesus Christ. John wants us to understand that Christ’s coming transforms everything we thought we knew about our relationship to God and our place in creation. He wants us to perceive that the very stuff of our consciousness is the word of God. We reflect, like an image in a mirror, that intrinsic act of standing apart from oneself by which the one becomes two, and the uncreated creates. We participate, not just instinctively, but consciously, freely, and artfully, in the bodying-forth of God that unfolds of the universe as.
But the irony is that this god-likeness also gives us the capacity to imagine a godless universe. The intrinsic stepping apart from ourselves by which know ourselves as knowers, also makes us prone to believe the lie that we are separate. We can fall into the delusion that the light of our minds is the only light. We can think that the words we use to name, to classify, to make distinctions and count quantities and rationalize the world are the only truth there is. We can use our freedom to act upon the other creatures in the universe as if we and they were disconnected things. And we can grasp that freedom as power, power without relatedness. We can fight and kill for power. We can worship it, and in worshipping it become its slave.
This is the precarious freedom into which Christ is born. To talk about it as I have done can seem abstract, disconnected from our every day human life. It is no surprise that we’d prefer a history. We can make sense of a baby in a manger, and shepherds, wise men bearing gifts, and a star. For all of their legendary quality, we can connect these stories to our own stories, and infuse them with our feelings and our memories. We can feel like we know what the story means for us. And it can also leave us out of it.
The Gospel of John asks us to find Christmas at a deeper level of experience, in the very heart of reality. John asks us to see the Christ child in the manger and know that there we are. Paul says something similar in the letter to the Galatians. To really understand what the birth of Christ means, to really receive the gift of his grace, we need to be like children in relation to God. We need to experience the word of God as a child might, in utter simplicity, as light, as life, as bread, as the cry in our hearts for love and protection, as consciousness itself. This is the experience of Christmas that is sometimes called contemplation, or mystical illumination, or even gnosis, and even the church has not taken it very seriously. Or we have treated it something dangerous and exotic, reserved for a select few, rather than the universal birth-right of every human being.
And it is dangerous. It is dangerous to the powers-that-be who worship their own alienation. It is dangerous to theological systems and ideological orthodoxies, to false piety and self-serving cynicism. It is dangerous because it finds a God who comes from completely outside our existing frame of reference. We want to know where he comes from, because we feel the irresistible draw of our true home. But if we are going to come alive in the way that he is alive, we have to be willing to become other than ourselves. We need to let God take away from us everything we thought we knew we were—our tribal and religious identities, our ideas of morality and virtue, our understandings of human nature and the historical situation, our fantasies about how to improve our lives or make the world a better place. We have to let it all go and let God speak. We have to allow God to begin again with us at the beginning, where nothing is taken for granted, and to tell us again who we really are.