The most astounding and the most familiar story of all is the story of the Nativity. And this very familiarity may give us trouble, from time to time. We feel as though we ought to be perpetually awestruck by a tale of such wonders; we hold it to be true. But we find that we can rehearse the whole thing, just as we can rehearse the events of the Passion, and not really be “moved” by it. What is wrong? Are we so cloddish that we can speak of God with us, and of such marvels as the Virgin Mother and archangels and the star, without being profoundly moved every time?

The notion that we ought to be so moved fails to take into account one big psychological datum, and it is this: we human beings cannot remain for very long in any highly intense frame of mind, whether it be grief or joy or awe or anger or whatever. That is, no matter what the original stimulus may have been that aroused the feelings, we find that, after the first flush, there is a pattern of receding and surging, and that the crest does not stay fixed at some high point. We find a respite, and then perhaps a return periodically to the intensity of feeling.

Anyone who has experienced a death close at hand knows this. The grief is there, but the wild surges of uncontrollable feeling come only at irregular intervals. Or joy: we don’t remain for long, steady periods in any elevated state of tingling bliss. It comes and goes. And the same is true with awe: you may be thunderstruck with the first glimpse of the Grand Canyon, or of a Saturn rocket launching, or of the Queen of England. But the guide who descends daily into the canyon, or the electrician at Cape Kennedy, or the equerry in the palace becomes accustomed to the thing. He can’t maintain his original awe.

This is as it should be. We have to function. We have to get on with it. T. S. Eliot was right when he said that human kind can’t bear very much reality. If we had the whole abyss of mystery and splendor gaping straight at us all the time, we would be paralyzed, or worse, shriveled to a clinker. We would not be able to take it. Tradition used to say that the seraphim, those high and burning celestial lords, could gaze steadily at the Divine Glory; but whether or not they can, we mortals surely cannot.

And so we find, for one thing, that the approaches Heaven has made towards us are “tailored” to our humanity. Sinai was wrapped in thick clouds—and even that proved to be a bit much for everyone. The Shekinah was veiled inside the unapproachable place. And when God himself came to dwell among us, his glory was wrapped in the ordinariness of infant flesh.

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But we find that, even with the thing brought low, as it were, our responses are hardly consonant with the immensity of the story. Here is the greatest event of all—God with us—and we do not leap to our feet in a transport of joy. Here is the greatest paradox of all—the Eternal Word incarnate as an infant boy—and we do not boggle.

But if we take our humanness, with its limitations, into account, it is clear that the thing God had in mind when he came to us was not to transfix us, or to mesmerize us into a perpetual trance. It was, rather, by his life of obedience and by his offering up of that life in our behalf, to open up to us again what human life is all about: namely, the liberty to know, love, obey, and worship God in all our appointed tasks. The life he lived here among us, through his infancy, boyhood, adolescence, and young manhood, was, so far as we can tell, a very ordinary one of domesticity, work and play, learning, and obedience to his parents.

That life was a pattern for us, the Scriptures say. And the pattern suggests that, in the ordinary course of events, the thing for us is that we do our work, and learn, slowly perhaps, what it means to live and do that work wholly “unto the Lord.” There is one sense in which we can say that the Incarnation raised ordinariness to the possibility of glory. The common life of human flesh was shown to be the very realm in which the Father can be known.

But of course, we were not left with unrelieved ordinariness—a featureless plain, as it were, of sheer, plodding obedience. That would be a daunting vista for the mightiest saint to face. There are peaks—of inspiration, of encouragement, of renewal, and so forth. Or, to change the picture, there is a round, a rhythm. Just as we have the round of the year, with spring, summer, fall, and winter perpetually enacting for us the drama of renewal; or the round of the month, with the phases of the moon; or of the week, with the one day in seven regularly and rhythmically recurring; or even of the day, with twilight and dawn and the pauses for eating and sleeping organizing our life and work into a solemn dance—just as we have all this in the “natural” course of things, so we may suppose that there is a similar round or rhythm in the spiritual realm.

It is always risky, of course, to separate the natural and the spiritual realms, as though they were two independent worlds. Various religions and cults try it, but no Christian can be satisfied with this dichotomy, holding as he does right at the center of his vision the notion of the Incarnation, that is, that event where the natural became the vehicle for the spiritual, or the eternal was manifest in time.

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It is perhaps because of this lively awareness in the Christian vision of the way in which our world and our ordinary life were made the vehicle, or the stage, for the disclosure of the eternal, that the Church has thought it was not amiss to celebrate periodically the great events of the Gospel—Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost—precisely for the renewal and refreshment of the faithful.

Not all the churches in Christendom mark these events, and there is apostolic warrant for either way. St. Paul seems to permit the believers to observe or not to observe, as their outlook inclines them to do. And of course, no one claims that Jesus was born on December 25, or that he rose from the tomb on April 20, say. But it has been a very widespread practice in most of the churches to observe some or all of these occasions, and, if we reflect briefly, we can see how it makes sense.

For one thing, as we have seen, the created order in which we mortal men live is rhythmic, rather than linear and featureless. Spring and fall, dawn and twilight—we have the whole business enacted and vivified for us by earth and sky and trees and living creatures, a sort of natural antiphon, you might say, to some divine pattern. Our eyes and ears and noses are hailed with sights and sounds and smells that recurrently boost us along to renewed awareness of the wonder of this created order.

And, besides this external rhythm, we can find inside our own makeup, as we have seen, this need to be jogged and reminded of what we already know. We have no doubt, for instance, that we are married to our spouse, but the yearly marking of this event seems to spring from something in the very fabric of our being. Or again, we know quite well that our child was born one fine day, but we return every year to a formality with candles and cake to mark this event. It is not as though we don’t know it. But we need to enact it somehow, or to celebrate it.

This, surely, is what the yearly celebration of Christmas suggests for the Christian believer. Here is the recurrent marking and solemnizing of the event that stands above all other events for him—God’s appearance in our own flesh, our salvation made nigh, light bursting over our world, life and immortality brought to light, peace declared between God and man. If our own little anniversaries and birthdays claim our recurrent attention, how much more profoundly does the remembrance of this event—which occurred not simply in some legend, or in some transcendent ether, but in our real history—claim our attention.

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But there is more. The event celebrated is the supreme point at which our ordinariness was attested to, as it were, by God himself taking our flesh, and our life was raised to glory. So that the things that make up our life here—work and eating and drinking and relationships and music and play and colors and sounds and smells and flavors—become, for the Christian, not simply chance details in a futile grind down toward oblivion but the very forms by which we participate in our appointed realm of the created order.

And so, in one sense, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ; but it is more than a mere anniversary of a past event. It is the celebration of our life made new, of our humanness opened out to the possibility of glory; and therefore we bring everything that pertains to that humanness, and we deck this occasion with all of it, affirming that it all “belongs.” We call up, in song and pageant and picture and ceremony, the scenes and characters who appeared in that first drama: the Holy Family, Bethlehem, the shepherds, the angels, and the Magi. And we worship and feast and make merry in a hundred ways in honor of it all. We enact, in rituals of gaiety, and of giving and receiving, and of festooning and caroling, the joy that broke upon our world in that little town on that unlikely night.

We bring our wills, like Mary, who said, “Be it unto me according to thy word”; and we bring our adoration, like the shepherds, who hardly knew what they were seeing; and our songs, like the angels; and our offerings, like the Magi. As vividly as we can, we call up these scenes and characters for our imaginations, not by way of charade but in order that our whole being may be roused, by sights and sounds and even tastes and smells—for feasting and incense are of the very stuff of our humanness and have attended joyful occasions and celebrations from time immemorial. And we do this in order that we may find renewed in ourselves the appreciation of the very thing that the Nativity was all about, namely, that the whole of our humanness, and not just our immaterial spirits, is the object of the Divine Love, and the locale of his Incarnation for our salvation.

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