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 naiveté that will soon have to measure up to the ‘real’ world. But we are wrong. True, Christ does not admonish us to remain as little children, but he does insist we become as little children; and it is that childlike innocence that is held up as a spiritual goal; still – and this we too often forget – this includes knowing certain things only those in such a state are able to know. (Take another look at the baby’s face before continuing to read.)
The Incarnation is not the work of one more in a series of avatars. Those beings do, in Hinduism, what angels and prophets do in the Bible – they ‘descend’ (the root meaning of avatar), teach or reveal for a while, and then return to where they came from, 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, cast off once the mission is accomplished. They are not God, and do not become man. Prophets are men already, and never become God – the impossibility of this last being perhaps their most frequent prophetic injunction.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” is certainly the most momentous claim ever made in the Greek language about the fabled Logos, and for those who believe it – and nothing is more germane to bare Christian faith – it is a fact so objective, so metaphysical and so almost brutal, it could only become – as it indeed became – 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 can never be exhaustively accounted for by whatever mechanism of naturalist evolution science finally settles on, however conclusive its contribution proves to be. 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. And it was into that parabolic opening that 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. But that is already looking to Lent. God became a man in a full human nature. And that nature does not exist, as does God’s, in the ever-present moment, but is spread over time and unfolded in space. And like all things in time and space, it begins small, as a child.
As the colossal events of Holy Week and Easter lost some of the edge of their first shock, the early Christians began to put that Paschal Mystery into context, and ponder the early years of the man who died and rose from the dead. Mary was queried more than anyone, and other 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, and it became clear that the fullness of the Godhead already resided in the tiny child lying in the manger. Surrounded by shepherds, a murderous monarch and mysterious magi from the East, the story of Christmas became the beloved domestic tale that inspired even its secular counterparts in the yuletide midwinter traditions of the north. 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 twirled the world into a new context by his death and resurrection, would gaze, and love, and lose nothing either of his infinite power as God or of his charming delicacy as a Child.