Advent–the season leading up to Christmas–is only the second most important season of the Christian year, but it is certainly the most misunderstood. For Catholic and Orthodox Christians, Christmas requires a period of fasting and self-reflection; for Protestants, it is a time of contemplation leading up to the great celebration of Christmas day. All traditions of Christianity, however, are focused on one thing: the incarnation of God as an infant human, born to people of no particular importance in the Roman-occupied land of Judea.
By all accounts, this is not a pristine expression of spirituality. The Incarnation was an affront to traditional ideas of beauty and divinity alike, and the God-man Christ continues to be a puzzlement. Why must God take on the needy, shit-stained form of a human being? How can the Divine abase itself so pathetically? Perhaps no better popular phenomenon than Star Wars carries on the more immediately appealing idea of fleshless spirituality: as Yoda says, “luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” There is something deeply appealing in turning our eyes away from the material world, ignoring the crudities of our actual existence. Christmas brings its own temptations to revel in abstract cleanliness: perfect homes, perfect Christmas dinners, the perfect gift, all wrapped around warm-hearted movies that let us forget our sorrows, anguish, and struggles. Yet this tempting vision is not the path that God chose. Nor is it the path that Christians must follow.
The idea that God came as a Jewish infant requires a different perspective on the world. Jesus teases out the implications of his incarnation, where the sheep are separated from the goats not on account of their discipline, accomplishments, or greatness of spirit, but rather on how they responded to “the least of these:” those who are hungry, thirsty, strange, naked, sick, or in prison. To both the righteous and the wicked, the Son of Man identifies Himself precisely with the unnoticed and unimportant of the world. Acts of kindness earn praise, for “whatever you did to the least of these, you did unto me.” The wicked, however, are not condemned for their vicious acts, but rather for mere apathy. “Whatever you did not do to the least of these,” Jesus reminds us, “you did not do to me.”
Love is said to be at the heart of the Christmas season, and certainly love is at the heart of Christian theology (though, sadly, Christian culture often ravages its own ideals). Yet Christmas gives a particular shape to love. For Christians, love is not the Hollywood ideal of attraction to physical perfection, or even the higher ideal of ecstatic communion of someone who conveniently shares one’s thoughts, opinions and desires. Similarly, love is not a spiritual desire for a “noble soul,” or a recognition of virtue. Instead, the Love that is God’s very essence is revealed in Jesus Christ, though the humble, miraculous act in which God join humanity in its very flesh and blood. Such a love is demanding; it requires that we love those we would rather dismiss, and serve those who will never pay us back. For Christianity, this is the only form that true love can take.
Ultimately, Christianity is a religion of faith and hope, as well as love. We believe that Jesus is God. We daily put our faith in the saving power of Christ’s spirit, trusting that God’s life, humility, and sacrifice on earth has somehow broken the power of fear, hatred, and even death–both in ourselves and in the world. Yet during the Christmas season, we re-live not God’s ultimate triumph over evil, but God’s birth as a screaming child in a food-trough meant for animals. We shiver with God, feeling the cold bite of winter on our merely fleshy skin, and we remember that loving God means loving other fellow creatures of fragile flesh and bone. This is the cradle in which love is born, the place where peace enters the world.