Arthur Middleton on the divine in the human, the modern trivialisation of the holy and the real purpose of a Christmas crib

Relatively recently, Muriel Porter, an Australian Anglican, wrote about friends who took their son to see the Christmas window displays. He followed the story of The Polar Express, but the nativity tableau was new to him. ‘So what’s the story here then?’ he asked. Porter commented that this boy belongs to the second generation at least, that is completely ignorant about the basic stories of the Christian faith, the religion that shaped Western civilization.

Some displays use giant plush bears dressed as Mary and Joseph, smiling at a swaddled Baby Jesus bear in the manger. Christmas cards portray similar scenes. If there was once grand mystery around the Incarnation, it has long since gone. Animals now convey everything we know or expect to know. How stupid! Jesus as a cookie, God as a pet. Even the Beckhams have replicated the Holy Family in Madame Tussaud’s.

Cuddly bears cannot help us deal with pain, or the great heartbreaks of life; nor deflect the hard, sharp, reeling pain of a death by drunken drivers. People today want a God cut down to their size, fluffy and approachable, without difficult commandments. God cut down to teddy-bear size becomes powerless, unable to ease our suffering or comprehend our dark confusions, with no strength equal to our grief. A reduced God is no God at all, and to suggest that in this celebrity obsessed culture the Beckhams could ever mirror the Holy Family is blasphemy.

God must be more than us; not less. Our understanding is partial and dim, but we know at least that he is greater than us. We grasp for analogies: some people are artists, but God is the greatest artist. Some are wise, but he is wisdom itself. Most frequently, however, we say that God is love, because love is the best thing we know.

What do you see when you look into the crib? Let me tell you. It is not the manifestation of God in a person’s life. It is the Incarnation of God in a personal life. This baby is a real Incarnation of a pre-existing Divine Person. He who existed with God eternally before all worlds were made; he who in the beginning was the Word and who was with God and who was God; at a certain time in history, for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. He who shared the divine nature with his Father decided to unite that divine nature with our human nature in order to redeem this alienated and spiritually distressed world.

Jesus is not a highly favoured individual being raised to the status of divinity. He is the only begotten Son becoming other than he was, whilst continuing at the same time to be himself. ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.’ Or as the hymn puts it: ‘He is that He was and forever shall be / But becomes that He was not for you and for me.’ Tell people at Christmas that a child is born and his name is Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, and Prince of Peace.