On the Eve of Christmas under the reckoning of our Orthodox brethren, we are pleased to offer a Guest Post by Mark Citadel.
At a time when Eastern Christianity celebrates Christmas (as per the Julian calendar), the importance of Christ’s birth is more often misunderstood than it is underemphasized. Indeed, for the true Christian who sees beneath the surface of what holidays have become, Easter (or Pascha) is far more important than Christmas, for it contains the recognition of action on the part of Christ to redeem mankind so that he may not perish from the Way. Whether this action is more fully defined by sacrifice or victory is irrelevant to the event’s significance as such. Events surrounding the death of Christ are adorned with symbolism, and areas of vagueness that have intrigued theological study for centuries. Yet of course without birth there is no death, and thus to ponder the Incarnation itself is necessary for a richer understanding of His final significance.Frithjof Schuon wrote on the nature of the risen Lord:
If the Incarnation has the significance of a “descent” of God, Christ is thus equivalent to the whole of creation, containing it in a way; he is a second creation, which purifies and “redeems” the first.
This is especially important I feel, connecting Christ not only to fallen man but the entire fallen world itself. He is its redeemer out of the hands of the evil one. The God-man for the first time in history walks among us, emerging as if from nowhere, in the obscurity of a stable, noted only by those in the immediate vicinity and three wise pagan magi from Persia, Babylon, and India who had seen His coming in the stars above. Born of the ever-virgin Mary, Christ enters the world an affront to evil that the devil and his subordinates did not fully understand. Even as higher entities than human beings, they were not privy to the “second creation.”
On the link between the birth of Christ and creation itself, G.K. Chesterton painted in perhaps the most elegant prose the symbolic link between man’s beginnings and his redemption from all that had transpired since:
This sketch of the human story began in a cave; the cave which popular science associates with the cave man and in which practical discovery has really found archaic drawings of animals. The second half of human history, which was like a new creation of the world, also begins in a cave. There is even a shadow of such a fancy in the fact that animals were again present; for it was a cave used as a stable by the mountaineers of the uplands about Bethlehem; who still drive their cattle into such holes and caverns at night. It was here that a homeless couple had crept underground with the cattle when the doors of the crowded caravanserai had been shut in their faces; and it was here beneath the very feet of the passersby, in a cellar under the very floor of the world, that Jesus Christ was born. But in that second creation there was indeed something symbolical in the roots of the primeval rock or the horns of the prehistoric herd. God also was a Cave Man, and, had also traced strange shapes of creatures, curiously colored upon the wall of the world; but the pictures that he made had come to life.
But why does God join man in this way? The question vexed a great many at the time, as Father Ted Bobosh details:
Christianity from its beginning proclaimed Jesus as the incarnate God. This claim seemed folly to many in the ancient world. For some asked incredulously, what would be the purpose of God becoming human? Or, (excuse the pun), why in the world would God, spiritual and eternal, lower Himself to becoming part of the material world? For many the purity of God protected Him from contact with the material world, let alone entering into it. What these critics couldn’t fathom is that in God creating the physical cosmos, God imbued the material creation with spiritual value. This is how and why God could so love the world as to give His Son to save the world. (John 3:16)
God is, to Europeans most especially, not a distant figure, but the closest of figures. To retain a distance from the created world would entail ultimately an abandonment of humanity to its passions and the consequences of its Fall. In rejecting mitigated dualism, European man affirms some sense of a spiritual reality inherent in all things, rather than only invisible things. The world is not divided into profane and divine by the overly simplistic material/immaterial dichotomy, that in Christianity had found its expression first in the iconoclasts and later in the beige wallpaper of the most fundamentalist churches. This is why the Rosary holds such significance for Roman Catholics, and indeed why the Eastern Orthodox venerate icons of the great saints. Material can be imbued with real transcendental value. All at once, God Himself transcends the divide between heaven and earth, no more is the ultimate being confined to ‘mythic time’ but enters ‘historical time,’ affirming the spiritual value of the world’s content. God is not to be worshipped at great distances.
As Mircea Eliade wrote in The Sacred and the Profane:
Since God was incarnated, that is, since he took on a historically conditioned human existence, history acquires the possibility of being sanctified. The illud tempus evoked by the Gospels is a clearly defined historical time – the time in which Pontius Pilate was Governor of Judaea – but it was sanctified by the presence of Christ. When a Christian of our day participates in liturgical time, he recovers the illud tempus in which Christ lived, suffered, and rose again, but it is no longer a mythical time, it is the time when Pontius Pilate governed Judaea. For the Christian, too, the sacred calendar indefinitely rehearses the same events of the existence of Christ, but these events took place in history; they are no longer facts that happened at the origin of time, in the beginning.
Eliade’s belief was that the spiritual aridity of Modern man was in no small part due to dropping out of his ability to apply any sacred significance to historical events, thus succumbing to what he called the “terror of history.” This is largely to blame for man’s inability to confront himself about his actions in the Modern era.
The birth of Christ forces us to contest with the realities of historical time, and yet does not relegate such time to a profane nether. While mythic time is given its importance through creation stories as well as demiurgic activities and legends of divine interaction, historical time is given its significance through the birth and death of Christ, and the lives of the saints and martyrs. Eliade’s conclusion was that Christianity provided the answer to the great question of the pre-Christian religions, whose practices amounted to ritual repetition of symbols and events in mythic time, a return to the perfect state of creation, a call back to a time they could not historically recreate, and so found it again through religious experience. Yet in Christ is offered a new creation, free from the Fall, free from the workings of the evil one.
Modern man spurning all kinds of true religiosity, instead chooses to run from the question of the perfect state, and to provide palliative care for his wounds he dreams up whatever nihilistic fantasy he wishes and calls this the ‘perfect state,’ running blindly towards it, like a moth drawn to the flame.
I cannot fear myth, and I refuse to fear history. Myth has given birth to our world, and history has redeemed our mistakes. That redemption will always be offered, no matter how much we deny it, and no matter how much we manipulate the world God has given us to profane purposes. For as the contemporary world has desperately pleaded its case to transfer sin away from the heart of man in order to escape it, salvation lies in confronting our darker selves, and igniting this shadow with the light of a single moment: the moment when myth became history, when God became man.