At an anxious moment for the city, the Lord gives the king a sign that he is master of the situation. Isaiah makes four predictions: Of a certain woman, that she is pregnant; of her child, that it will be a boy; that his name will be Immanuel; and, crucial to the king, that before this boy knows please from thank you, the enemies who have made the city anxious will have withdrawn. And it was so.
In Matthew, we read of the woman, that her name was Mary; of the boy, that he is Jesus, Immanuel, God with us. Seven hundred years before the fact, Isaiah had predicted Christmas. I love Matthew's interpretation. I believe it too. In novels, short and long term meanings are not mutually exclusive. "Foreshadowing," we call it. As that technique is in an author's repertoire, so it is in God's.
So we have short and long-term interpretations of this passage. The second magnifies the first. Christmas speaks to a whole world's anxiety. God has given us a sign.
Last summer I saw Captain Fantastic, a movie about a father who took his family back to nature. By day, he teaches his children to live by their skill and wits from the forests and the streams; by night, under lamplight, they read Einstein, Marx and Dostoevsky. I went in thinking of Thoreau and Swiss Family Robinson.
I went out thinking of Richard Dawkins, because the movie wore contempt for religion on its sleeve. Ours especially: the Christians in Captain Fantastic have all the charm of Harry Potter's aunt and uncle. So in lieu of Christmas, Dad and the kids observe Noam Chomsky Day. One of his sons protests: Why can't we just have Christmas like everybody else? The father retorts: Who is more worthy of commemoration, a great humanitarian--or a magic elf?
I choked on my popcorn, flabbergasted by that sidestep of the birth of Jesus who was if nothing else a hall of fame humanitarian. Then I felt wronged, as a teacher might feel when she sees that a student has cheated on a test. It is lazy disdain for Christian faith that will not face it squarely. Instead of saints, show us ugly muggles. Instead of Jesus, make your foil a magic elf.
Later, I reminded myself that we sometimes see the same from faith's side: Christians attacking unbelief through caricatures instead of tackling hard questions and facing honest doubts square on. "Anxious faith," let's call that.
The great teachers of Christian faith have not been anxious intellectually.
I think of Thomas Aquinas. When he makes a claim, he starts by naming the objections to it. Does God exist? It would seem that God does not, because for all that happens we can find a natural explanation. God is superfluous, apparently. Also, belief in God seems logically at odds with all the tragedy and trouble in the world. Aquinas sidesteps nothing, nor does he score points by mocking his opponents. Their questions are stepping stones towards deeper understanding.
I think of Marilynne Robinson, the novelist who reads Calvin and Karl Barth for pleasure. Non-anxiously, questions and doubts are woven through her stories. At the time I saw Captain Fantastic, I was also reading Robinson's novel Lila. Lila had been an abused child in a loveless home until rescued by a cleaning woman, Doll. Literally, Doll was Lila's savior. Doll had secrets; she had not been baptized, did not believe, and had nothing but contempt for Christians. Now grown up, Lila had married Ames, a faithful pastor, more or less by accident. She was surrounded by Christians. One night at dinner, there was some banter about heaven, judgment, who was saved and who was not. Doll, it seemed, was not. Not Doll, or anybody Lila knew before her accidental marriage.
Emotionally, she knew this: If Doll was going to be lost forever, [Lila] wanted to be right there with her, holding on to the skirt of her dress.
Intellectually, she knew this: I've been tramping around with heathens. They're just as good as anybody, so far as I can see. They sure don't deserve no hellfire.
She imagined the terrible moment before the judgment seat of God:
Souls just out of their graves having to answer for lives most of them never understood in the first place. Such hard lives. And there Doll would be, whatever guilt or shame she had hidden from all her life laid out for her, no bit of it forgotten. Or forgiven.
Instantly, Lila made up her mind that she wanted no part of Christian faith. By then she had been baptized--saved, as these Christians saw it. That night she went back into the creek to un-baptize herself and wash off salvation.
That's what I mean by faith's tackling hard questions and facing honest doubts square on.
From the age of two, I knew that there was more to Christmas than the story of a magic elf. It is also more than the story of the birth of a great humanitarian. According to Calvin and Barth, Christ came into the world as prophet, priest, and king: earthly offices that Jesus filled with heavenly authority: as prophet, to show the truth of God; as priest, to reconcile the world and God; as heavenly king to rule through earthly service.
In Robinson's novel Home, a daughter remembers what her father taught her about worship.
Her father had always said, God does not need our worship. We worship to enlarge our sense of the holy, so that we can know and feel the presence of the Lord. He said, Love is what it amounts to, a loftier love, and pleasure in a loving presence.
Christmas magnifies the Lord. Heaven and earth are mutually enriched through intimate association. We find that heaven has a lower bottom and earth a higher top than had been previously imagined. The birth of Jesus humanizes God and elevates humanity.
There are many things I love about these last few days leading up to Christmas.
I love the lights--red, blue, green and blinking white--glowing in the early darkness of the winter solstice. As a child they seemed to promise Christmas magic. I love that memory.
As an inland southerner, I love the oysters, stewed or baked with cheese and breadcrumbs. Used to be they'd haul them up the Mississippi from the Gulf, special for the holiday, and drop them off in Helena and Greenville.
I love the snow, the pure hope of it, because white Christmases in Little Rock are as rare and luminous as miracles. The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow gave the luster of midday to objects below.
I love reading that to children. A wink of his eye and a twist of his head soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread. We have nothing to dread. That's the meaning of the season.
I love the quiet of the church on Christmas Eve before the worshippers pour in. I sit alone and soak it in: the scent of evergreens and candlewax, the beauty of holiness. My heart fills up with hopeful memories of people I've loved at Christmas through the years, now gone to heaven.
Lila, the novel, ends in church on a snowy winter day as Lila the doubtful woman's infant son is baptized by his faithful father. Three times the old pastor dips a handful of water and lets it fall on his son's head--a sign of God's mastery of death and care for the child through every situation. Slyly, he flicks the holy water on his wife, as though to redo the baptism Lila had attempted to return to sender. She knows what he was doing, and why. Remembering it later, she thinks she told her husband: It's all right with me, I guess. Or maybe she hadn't--it happened so quickly.
According to Aquinas, doubt is when our mind is evenly divided between two answers to a question. Lila muses that if she'd told her husband he could sprinkle her, she wasn't sure she'd meant it, and if she hadn't said it she was sorry she had not. A feeling from somewhere had slipped into her ruminations and registered its own opinion.
She begins to think. She remembers Doll and her rough company of unbaptized friends from childhood. Then step by step, this unlettered woman works her way through a process of intelligent deduction.
Lila knows that heaven for her husband wouldn't be heaven if she weren't there: In that eternity of his, where everybody will be happy, how could he feel the loss of her, the lack of her? So if he is bound for glory, she is too. Aroused, her mind pushes that surmise a little further: if she is included, then by the same line of reason so is Doll. And if Doll, then countless others.
It must always be true that there are the stragglers, people somebody couldn't bear to be without, no matter what they'd been up to in this life...
Now Lila puts that fact of life together with a simple, moral observation.
If any scoundrel could be pulled into heaven just to make his mother happy, it couldn't be fair to punish scoundrels who happened to be orphans, or whose mothers didn't even like them, and who probably have better excuses for the harm they did than the ones who had somebody caring about them. It couldn't be fair to punish people for trying to get by, people who were good by their own lights, when it took all the courage they had to be good.
Now the gates are open.
Two and two make four, plus two is six. Rung by rung, reason leads Lila up from doubt, climbing Jacob's ladder. A mysterious feeling and moral intuition reach down from above to lend a hand.
And for the first time in her life, Lila's memories are hopeful. And she decided that she should believe and realized that she did.
Let us pray. Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ at his coming may find in us a mansion prepared for himself, who lives and reigns with you in unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.