When you look into the eyes of an infant, you see someone who sees something you are no longer able to see. The orbs are clear, free of self-reflection, looking outward at the world as it really is, unclouded by disguise and interpretation (even when they are looking at you – a slightly unsettling thought). Recent studies in child psychology have confirmed what the world’s traditions have always taught, namely, that children know things that get forgotten in the throes of misguided education and the tumult of adolescence.
By the time we are adults, we dismiss those sweet little gazes as childish naivete that will soon have to measure up to the ‘real’ world. But we are wrong. True, Christ does not admonish us to remain children, but he does insist we become like children; and it is that childlike innocence that is held up as a spiritual goal. Still – and this we too often forget – becoming childlike also means knowing certain things only children know. (Take another look at the baby’s face before continuing to read.)
The Incarnation of God is not the work of one more in a series of avatars. Those ‘descended manifestations’ do, in Hinduism, what angels and prophets do in the Bible: they ‘come down’ (the root meaning of avatar), teach or reveal for a while, and then return to whence they came, like the angels; or they speak forth the deep things of God, like the prophets. If an angel takes on the form of a human being, it is only a temporary vehicle, soon to be cast off once the mission is accomplished. They are not God, and do not become man. Prophets are men already, and never become God. In fact, the impossibility of this last is perhaps their most frequent prophetic injunction.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” This is certainly the most momentous claim ever made about the fabled Logos. For those who believe it – and nothing is more germane to bare Christian faith – it is a fact so objective, so metaphysical and so severe, it could only become a scandal (a tripping stone) on which all the world would lose its footing. It bespeaks a God who is not, as most atheists and too many believers hold, just the biggest being in the universe, but rather Transcendent Being Itself. And it bespeaks a human nature that carries an abyss within itself that only such a Being could fill.
You cannot explain the beauty of music by mathematics alone, nor can you account for the look on that baby’s face (take another look) by survival of the fittest alone. Man is a mystery, and his soul is open – both intellectually and volitionally – to the infinite. Into that parabolic opening of the human mystery the Second Person of the Holy Trinity took its own nature, producing the event in time that marked the year zero, and made the “God Who Is” into the Man of Sorrows. God became man in a full human nature. And since that nature does not exist, as does God’s, in the ever-present moment, it is spread over time and unfolded in space. And like all things in time and space, it begins small, as a child.
In the decades and centuries following Christ’s Ascension, the colossal events of Holy Week and Easter lost some of the edge of their first shock, and the early Christians began to put that Paschal Mystery into context. They pondered the backstory of the early years of the man who died and rose from the dead. Mary was queried more than anyone, and further witnesses of the birth, infancy and youth of Jesus offered their recollections as well. Much of this found its way into the Gospels.
Slowly the story of Christ’s Nativity came into full focus, as it became clear that the fullness of the Godhead already resided in the tiny child lying in the manger. Surrounded by shepherds, overlooked by angels, soon to be hounded by a murderous monarch and visited by mysterious magi from the East, the story of Christmas became the beloved domestic tale we all know so well. It inspired even its secular counterparts in the yuletide midwinter traditions of the north, with all the magical trees of life and festooned colored lights we see each December. But nothing prepared the world’s religious imagination for this last divine wonder: that out of the sweet face of a tiny infant, the God who created the cosmos and hurled the world into a new context by his death and resurrection, would gaze at us, and love us, and lose nothing either of his infinite power as God or of his disarming delicacy as a Child.