If I doubted the power of Christianity to "push the buttons" of human meaning and feeling, I should think again when I remembered the central importance it places on a baby, and upon the image of a baby in its mother's arms. Tiresomely exclusive as Christianity may sometimes be in practice, it can never deny that it begins where all human life begins, with a baby, a baby who needs to be held, fed, burped, cleaned, comforted, loved.
It speaks to the universal experience of all humanity, to the place where every one of us began. "God comes down his own secret stair," wrote the poet George Macdonald, speaking of the birth of Jesus, but the secret was an open one - that Jesus imitated us. "He came a little baby thing that made a woman cry."
The standard exposition of the birth of Jesus - the Incarnation, as it is called: God becoming flesh - is of an act of humbling, of self-emptying, on God's part, the Almighty becoming humanly vulnerable, with the ultimate vulnerability of a painful death. That is one way of talking about it, but I prefer the opposite way, that is to say of God recognising the beauty, the courage, the kindness, the endurance, the unselfconscious dignity of humanity, and wanting to be part of it, like a princ e in a fairytale walking disguised among his subjects, sensing that in their powerlessness they had a quality he needed.
Watching television newsreels, talking to family and friends and acquaintances, listening to people on the bus, it is possible to catch occasional glimpses of simple human qualities (as well as dreadful failings) which a god might envy. Or perhaps they are a sign of the degree to which God is indeed incarnated among us.
I am talking of the power of the myth, of the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what our life is about, which is nothing to do with lies or invention but everything to do with a silting down of human experience into the powerful story that shapes our identity.
In Europe Christianity has been that story, in other parts of the world the story is somewhat different, though not as different as we often pretend. The story here is of a baby magically born to a loving mother by divine impregnation. Angels sing at hisbirth, shepherds and wise men come and affirm him, he grows up to be a loving person, full of the wisdom and healing power of the shaman. Many recognise his quality in his lifetime, though he also makes powerful enemies, not least among religious people.
If there is one thing the media circus of our own time teaches us, it is the way an individual, even an insignificant individual, becomes suddenly of huge importance to the collective, throwing all kinds of light and shadow before and behind. James Bulger, Madonna, Myra Hindley, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, even Eddie the Eagle, are known by name to each of us as their myth constellates a range of human feeling - pity, anger, erotic desire, admiration, ruefulness, or whatever it may be. We recognise in them, as clearl y as if it had been thrown upon a screen, something known and experienced but not clearly recognised till that moment.
What generations of people have recognised in Jesus goes further: his myth is further in, or deeper down, and the recognition is consequently bigger and more transforming.
As we light the symbolic candles in the winter darkness, and sing and feast and tell the familiar story - the story of the Christian tradition - we try to overcome the gulfs that divide us one from another, as the soldiers on opposite sides in the front line in France once exchanged cigarettes and alcohol. Like the newborn baby sticking out its tongue in the hope of bridging a gap, we have to be without cynicism, and full of a hope we don't quite understand.Reuse content