A Plunge Into the Depths: The Mad Humility of Christmas

The Nativity by El Greco.

The octave of Christmas isn’t over, so I am sharing this brief meditation on the humility of Christ our Lord.

The glory of Christmas, the very splendor of this holy feast, lies in the very fact that it is a great festival of humility. It is the plunging of divinity into the depths. The emptying of the ineffable God—beyond all speech, beyond all category, beyond all definitions, beyond all being—into the frail helplessness of flesh.

The whole drama of the Christmas narrative speaks of the humility of God. It was a race to the bottom, to the lowest place possible, an emptying, a pouring out—and this not by necessity, but by choice. Christ wanted, he chose, to be born among the rejected refuse, to groan and travail with the frail dust of his creation.

The first act of humility of the divine child was to submit to the census call of a pagan government, a government that will one day nail him mercilessly to an ignoble cross. Desperately poor, his parents do not resist, despite the cost, but make the long weary journey. Poor peasants, they are hardly noticed as they wander down the road, just two more insignificant faces in a vast sea of humanity. Their destination is the tiny town of Bethlehem, the City of David, from ancient days called “the house of bread.” Fitting, for it will be the birthplace of the living bread that will feed the nations.

There is no room for the weary couple in the crowded town, filled with travelers as it is, though all can see that a child will be born soon. The Creator of all creation is sent rejected to a cave where animals are kept. This too is a sign. Far from appearing before the great kings of the earth, before the mighty Caesar in all his earthly splendor, Christ does not appear at first to men at all. Rather, he reveals himself to the dumb animals, the humble beasts of burden. The Maker of all is born among irrational animals, and in allowing them to be the first witnesses of his birth, he honors them and shares in their humility. In some way, too, this is a promise prefiguring the redemption of all creation, the transfiguration of the heavens and the earth that will come at the apocalypse, the final revelation of reality. Christ greatly desired the lowest place, and he got it, sharing his coming first of all with creatures that could not even speak, but only gaze wide-eyed with wonder.

Only after he had been born before the beasts did Christ reveal himself to men. But not just any men: only the lowest were worthy. For this reason, the angels appeared not to the scribes and Pharisees, not to the religious experts and scholars, but to lowly shepherds sleeping under the stars. They were unlearned and could not read or write, but they still held within them the secret of simplicity and innocence, the trusting and childlike spirit, so dear to the heart of God. They did not question, did not seek to analyze and explain, but simply wondered, rejoicing and praising God and telling everyone they met the stupendous news. No doubt they were laughed and scorned as crazy, the first holy fools, for wildly proclaiming a king was born in a stable, but nothing could contain the bursting forth of their joy.

Finally, in the great, ascending spiral of Christ’s self-revelation, he revealed himself to the wise men, the philosophers and kings. And this he only did a while after, for by then his family had already found a house to lodge in. These men, with all their great learning and wisdom and earthly honors, were chosen last to see the promised Messiah. But unlike it is for so many, their great knowledge was no impediment to adoration, for they fell down and worshiped him. Despite the child’s utter poverty and the simplicity of his surroundings, they were wise enough to see in him the blazing light of divinity. They were good men, holy men. But Christ, in his humility, chose to save the greatest for last.

The first are last, and the last are first. The humble are exalted. The least of these are called his brothers. This is the paradox of the Gospel. This is the paradox of the God who becomes small, and not only small, but the very least of all. If anything should inspire hope, it should be this truth: The God before whom angels veil their feet and faces does not meet us at the top of a fiery ladder impossible to ascend, but rather meets us at the bottom of the pit. When we can go no lower, we are closest to our Creator. For this is the mystery of Christmas, a mystery beyond all knowing. Our great God is not content to save us from afar, but driven by the mad necessity of love, plunges headfirst into the icy waters of our sin and brokenness, the waters in which we drown, and meets us in the lowest place of all.

Christus natus est, venite adoremus! 

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