Christmas is a celebration of the day God came back to us by being born, as Jesus. Advent, from the Latin word adventus which means arrival, is the four-week season before Christmas when Christians try to remember what it was like before Jesus arrived. We try to empathize with the incredible longing and expectation felt by the Jews who awaited Him and the rest of the world who hoped for something like Him. Advent is an annual spiritual exercise that helps bring Christmas to life. We do it because we recognize that Christmas can actually become lifeless. In fact, for many of us today, Christmas may have died altogether.
The opening book of the bible is a Genesis story. It depicts the origins of humanity as mankind’s fall from original peace, entailing a tragic separation from communion with God and painful exile from our shared garden home called Eden. Life as God spoke it into being was joy, beauty, purpose, and unending mutual affection. It was a life of blessing, full of God’s good gifts, the greatest of which was his own consistent personal presence. But just a page in, there’s bad news. The account establishes human life - both corporate and individual - as something everlasting, once graciously and ingeniously designed, but catastrophically distorted.
Tragically, this distortion is universal and all-encompassing. We all inherit it. Adam and Eve couldn’t stop the spread. So no matter our own unique story, we share the same sad origin. We carry separation and exile with us, even unbeknownst. It is as if that first couple tripped and fell and for thousands of years we newcomers are, one after the next, born into their free fall. In fact, Christianity dubs this whole notion the fall, and in a way, the metaphor is perfect. Don’t get me wrong, life isn’t just a raging plummet into darkness and depravity, but being does come with a real sense of groundlessness. (Picture George Clooney floating off into space in Gravity.) We just aren’t sure of our place in this universe and there’s a lingering sensation we can’t quite put our finger on that’s a lot like loneliness or homesickness. Life gives us each an understanding of a kind of joy and peace that even our grandest butterfly nets can’t catch. Some sort of something eludes us. There is goodness and beauty and truth to be had, but never in full. We get aromas of a sweetness, but never the source, and we’re literally dying to taste it. In other words, we seem to be born into a kind of restless and unsettled life, one with a sort of itch, or echo, or longing for a something or someone we don’t know, but miss nonetheless.
The cosmic narrative of Genesis was written to show us that this longing, the thing C.S. Lewis could only describe as joy itself, is a remnant of our shared beginning in Eden. The book is a road sign pointing back to the place we were made for, the place where God walked with man “in the cool of the day.” The Jews had a word for it all: Shalom. It is Hebrew for complete peace and prosperity, the kind only found once upon a time back in that Garden before that so-called fall. Shalom is life in Eden, our ancient origin, our purpose, and our longing. In short, according to Genesis, shalom is our fundamental human want and need. Believe it or not, feel it or not, this genesis story is the table upon which the supper of Christianity (as well as Judaism and Islam) is set. Everything else you know or don’t know or think you know about what the Bible says comes after, and upon, and through the scope of, this crucial idea.
We want Eden and we need shalom, it says. But today, we often deny such a genesis. We feel we’ve risen above the myth of our insufficiency. We forget that want and need are written into our souls like dark into night or cold into winter. We forget that there never was, nor can ever be, a winter without cold.
Let’s take a quick look at our own culture’s not so distant past. At the turn of the 19th century, as Modernism was in full swing in the Western world, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared that God had died. By this he meant that due to Darwin’s science and the discovery of new Enlightenment era knowledge and ideas, the reasonableness of belief in God had died. Religion, he thought, was now simply unfeasible and unnecessary. This belief has been a pillar of contemporary Western thought and has only gained steam over the past century. Looking back though, it would have been more accurate for Nietzsche to have decried that God hadn’t died, but our felt need for Him had. And when we feel like we no longer need something, it does in a sense die to us. We cannot access its life. So it goes with Christmas.
The three centuries preceding Nietzsche’s proclamation were marked by a surge in scientific and technological discovery. The sun, and not our little Earth, was at the center of our universe; apples fell from trees because of a natural phenomenon called gravity; and metal monsters called machines could now be built to do things for us. Electricity, the telephone, the photograph, and flush toilets. Life was getting better fast, and people felt good about it. And then Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution by “natural selection”, which Nietzsche perceived as the straw that broke God’s back. Since then, we have largely come to interpret these shifts as a graduation of the species. We’ve learned our way beyond the crutches of myth and religion, the story goes, and we’re now in control of our own destiny.
Many claimed Darwin’s findings were the missing scientific key that philosophically proved atheism once and for all, even though the evolution taught us nothing whatsoever about God or his non-existence. C.S. Lewis said, “The attraction of Darwinism was that it gave to a pre-existing myth the scientific reassurances it required” (The World’s Last Night, 1952). It merely provided scientific rationale that could be used to justify previously incomprehensible atheist sentiment. Darwin’s science didn’t create atheists. It simply comforted them. As Lewis continued, “Darwinism gives no support to the belief that natural selection, working upon chance variations, has a general tendency to produce improvement.” Nothing found in the finches he primarily studied comes even close to demonstrating that mankind is the result of mere natural evolution, that we’re on our way to Utopia, or that therefore God doesn’t exist. It doesn’t even suggest such ideas. In other words, we conformed his science to our philosophies. Fervent weariness of God and the myths of Utopianism and human progress had been building for decades precluding Darwin’s studies. Looking back, we see that this growing desire for Godlessness led to an exaggeration of findings.
So the question ought to be, why? Why did people want to use evolution to prove religion wrong? Why have so many celebrated the perceived viability of atheism? Why do we want to get rid of God so badly? Is it because He sounds scary? Or mean? Or because “religion poisons everything”?
Perhaps, but not likely.
In my observation, most atheism is rooted in a resistance to needing God more than any personal objection to what he or she or it may actually be like. Our wanting not to need him, or anyone else for that matter, is what makes us hope he isn’t there.
This is universal, though. It’s just pride, old, tried and true. After all, it’s how that whole fall happened in the first place. In the story, God, Adam and Eve were enjoying paradise until a sort of devil snake tempted Eve toward pride, the choice of self-trust and self-reliance. “Go on,” the snake suggested, “eat the fruit God told you not to eat. It’ll be good for you and you shouldn’t trust him anyway. You’re better off fending for yourself. ” So she did, and Adam had a bite too, and we’ve been stubborn beasts ever since, constantly striving to maintain our independence and strength. This inheritance of pride is what Adam foresaw when, following the fatal fruit scene, he looked at his previous nameless wife with sadness and said, “You shall be named Eve, the mother of all who will live.” As sons and daughters of Eve, we buy into the same hissing lie, one generation after the other. To be in need or dependent is to be weak, we think, so we’ll spend a whole life trying to show the world how much we don’t need a thing. This is the epitome of our George Clooney floating-in-space fallenness. We refuse to grab onto anything or anyone. And as we float, the same serpent hisses at us all in a million different ways, yet the message is always the same: “You shouldn’t need God. Trust yourself.”
When we buy into this lie, and float, we become a front, or a facade, or an armored shell of ourselves. After awhile, we can actually forget who we really are. We forget what we’re actually made of. The goal then is to be honest about our real emotional, spiritual, and psychological makeup. The opposite of pride, according to Dallas Willard, is right recognition of oneself. We are jumbled messes of desire and fear, hopes and addictions, and great big ugly needs.
But what the so-called Enlightenment and Darwin passed down to us is confidence. After generations of technological advance and scientific breakthrough, our humanism and naturalism is at an all time high. We’re more confident than ever that we humans, and the world we inhabit, can take care of ourselves just fine, thank you very much. We don’t need divine help anymore. Indeed, the 17th and 18th centuries were really a time of Empowerment, not Enlightenment. We gained power, felt as a liberation from neediness, not light. This pseudo-Enlightenment has continued on to this very day. Every time a new medicine was created or machine invented or political progress accomplished, we became a little more confident in ourselves. When Nietzsche declared our arrival at the philosophical pinnacle of God’s funeral, over a century ago, he spoke in a victorious tone, using war language to indicate the defeat of religion. Throughout history, we had fought to not need God, and now, at last, through the study of the beaks of birds on the Galapagos Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the battle was won, victory attained. And so today every new iPhone seems to sound a similar trumpet. Siri’s automated voice whispers in our ears, convincing us we are indeed one step closer to achieving Utopia and saving humanity. We are, we believe, doing it. We’re relying on ourselves and it seems to be working.
But the truth is, for those who don’t think they need God, or don’t want to have him, there are any number of philosophies and ideas that can be adapted to suit an argument for his nonexistence. We can tweak the evidence to fit our preferred ideology easily enough. Our deepest desire has been, as always, to be strong, needless, and self-sufficient, and to be the ones to save ourselves. We have a massive societal messiah complex. Therefore, we consistently run all of our science and philosophy and even religion through a very fine filter, thereby conforming it to fit our myth of sufficiency. As a whole, the West is guilty of large-scale truth laundering. Now, the idea that God exists is more threatening and offensive than ever before because it equates to an assault on our feeling of strength and enlightenment and got-it-all-togetherness. And this is why Nietzsche wasn’t totally off. Even though modern secular philosophy didn’t really kill God, for many of us, it may have killed Christmas.
You see, the way we see things isn’t normal. Believe it or not, throughout human history, the vast majority of people have wanted God. They’ve desired for some greater deity to exist to give them something to hope in. In Unapologetic, Francis Spufford describes an ad on the side of an English bus that reads, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” This atheist rationale rings true for millions in today’s secular world. Regardless of agreement, it sounds sensible to Christians and atheists alike. However, we should realize that it would have been a literally incomprehensible statement for nearly every person in nearly every civilization in history. Up until the 19th century, and still to most people today, it simply wouldn’t make sense. And that’s because for most of us, life involves incredible suffering, injustice, and disappointment. Much is wrong. Help is needed. And if God doesn’t exist, that means we’re on our own here. In most cultures throughout history, it’s been painfully obvious to everyone that our problems are too big for our own fixing. We don’t feel strong and sufficient and we’re not confident at all. We know intrinsically that human effort alone simply won’t cut it. So the notion that we might be on our own, with no higher power to ever intervene, isn’t exactly gospel. It’s terribly disappointing news.
Set yourself in the shoes of a nineteen-year-old mother of two in some distant rural village, for example, whose husband cheated, caught HIV, infected her with it, and just abandoned her and the kids. You are now a sick, poor single mother, ostracized from society with neither family nor job. And, imagine, you’ve never heard a word of philosophy or religion in your life. The world is entirely unknown. No Genesis and no Nietzsche. Desperate, you walk with the kids twenty miles into the nearest town, planning to prostitute yourself in order to feed them. Then you see the bus drive by.
“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
Try to feel that for a moment. Does that uplift your spirits? Does it even make sense?
Now consider an alternate scenario: There’s no bus. Instead, you meet a man along the road. He’s wearing a peasant’s robe and dirty sandals. He stops you, says hello, and declares, “Listen! There is a God, and through my being here, He has made his Kingdom available to you!”
Now try to feel that.
Which of these messages would sound like good news to the ears of such a woman? Regardless of what you currently believe, which would you hope to be true? The bus billboard or the roadside messiah?
You see, Advent is the attempt to empathize with this woman’s position and Christmas is a celebration of that second scenario. It’s a remembrance of how great a gift to humanity that little baby named Jesus was and how badly we need him. We remember why his arrival was great news long before he ever died and resurrected. God exists, as the story goes, and He took on flesh so He could meet us along our darkest roads and to shine a great light upon the world. Jesus, the incarnate Logos, is the true Enlightenment.
But here’s the harsh reality check. Christmas simply isn’t for those who prefer the bus to the messiah. Christ was born into our broken, needy world because we are broken and we need him. But many of us, Christian and atheist alike, no longer understand this. And if you cannot empathize with the type of desperation that woman would have felt, you cannot even begin to understand Christ or Christmas. There’s simply nothing in it for you.
There is a very real psychological and emotional element of Christian faith that we are often shy to discuss, though Jesus had no problem with it himself. The God-man is universally loving, but He isn’t universally appealing. (Don’t worry, it’s ok to say that.) Though Christ came and died because he loves everyone, in a real sense, Jesus just isn’t for everyone. He doesn’t attract us all. In fact, he’s actually a horrific threat to many. This has been true for all of human history, but it is especially poignant in our self-confident culture, where more of us find ourselves in the horrified and threatened category than perhaps ever before.
Christmas is the celebration that God came, as a man, to be here with us once again. But many of us today just don’t want a Christmas. We don’t want any interruption or intrusion. The status quo serves us just fine, so Christmas is but a cosmic encroachment. Rather than the greatest moment in history, it’s the grandest of intrusions and a threat to our current existence.
For the single mother in our example, this kind of intrusion is welcomed. Happiness and world peace, for her, is not just around the corner. The status quo isn’t just fine. She needs help greater than any of us could offer. If she’s told that God probably doesn’t exist, she won’t just stop worrying and enjoy her life. Instead, she might ache with grief, for there would be no help coming. Yet, if she discovered that God is real and He loves her and He came to be with her in her suffering, she might just weep in joy and exaltation. You could even imagine her cleaning Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her own hair in attempt to show her gratitude, as one woman once did.
When you recognize that your current existence requires great assistance, and you are utterly discontent with the maladies of the world, Christ’s arrival is received as good news and celebrating it makes perfect sense. You’re happy for God to move into the neighborhood. When you are sick or poor or persecuted or widowed or lonely or hurting, Jesus is the most beautiful offer you’ve ever heard. Christmas is alive and well. But there is a dividing line. Because when you are strong and advantaged and powerful and wealthy and comfortable and safe and perhaps even involved in some subtle form of oppressing the weak around you, Christmas is a terrible threat. God’s approach is offensive, and you’d rather He died than come any closer. Jesus was wise enough to know this and he said it himself, saying, “See, the stone that some builders rejected (see: killed) has become the most precious object to others.” He was utterly offensive to some, and invaluable to others.
Those who don’t naturally love Jesus cannot even understand him, and begin to hate him. For many, this rejection even turns violent. This paradigm isn’t new. Jesus was still an infant when He was first rejected. The king at the time was a guy named Herod. When Herod heard there was a baby born who some called the true king of the Jews, he ordered the murder of every boy under two years old in the entire region. Fortunately, Jesus escaped, but the rest of Christ’s life wasn’t much different.
When Jesus got older, he spent much of him time meeting people in the streets, saying, “Repent, for I am making the Kingdom of God available to you here and now.” At this, the poor, sick, and needy flocked to him, worshiped at his feet, and followed him. Then he healed them of their epilepsy and blindness and leprosy. He even healed deadness, bringing people back to life. He explained that he was the perfect embodiment of everything the Jews had heard and understood about God, and that he could give them therefore new and abundant life. Everything about Him was good and true and beautiful, but it assumed neediness. The needy wanted him to be there, because they knew they needed him, and that made them love him. In his own words, Jesus was like a precious pearl which they valued so highly as to give up everything they had to be with him. Yet, all the while, a whole organization of Jewish leaders in positions of religious and political power schemed to kill him. They were offended by his presumption that they needed any sort of help. The pharisees were those who claimed to know and love God the most, but were actually the most invested in getting rid of him. They were happy with how the system worked to their advantage, to which a messiah posed a great risk, and had to be eliminated. Driven by self-reliance and self-protection, they killed their own savior.
But really, the pharisees weren’t much different than us. I mean do you want God to come knocking on your door today? Does that sound awful or exciting? The chances are, if you are in a position of power in this world, and winning out over others, you’re probably going to lock the door on God. He can’t help you. He’d probably only hurt you by undermining much of that power. That’s why many of us get so angry at hearing that Christ is our savior. We hate that old, stuffy notion that we need saving. It feels so accusatory. But if you identify on the side of the powerless and marginalized, then your door is probably already open. You may not even have one, and you’re happy to go out to the road to find anyone that can help. Christmas is for those people, “the least of these”, who are discontent in a world without God and therefore desire a return of Eden and the One who gives it its peace.
Some of us want God and some of us don’t. And the reality is, those who need God and yearn humbly for mercy can easily accept Jesus as a much-needed help in times of trouble. But those who don’t want to need God, kill him. The Jewish leaders are the only people in history who ever got a shot at the real deal. They literally hung God up on a tree to watch him suffer. Nietzsche and the rest of us have to kill God in our minds and hearts.
In this way, Christmas is alive for some of us and dead for others. It is either the literal source of life worth giving everything up for or a threat to life worth doing anything to destroy. There is no middle ground. Don’t get me wrong though. Christ isn’t an exclusivist. He doesn’t just love the poor. He came for us all. We self-select our sides. And some of us, especially those of us who might share in some culpability for why the poor are still poor, have to kill Christ before we can receive him. Which, if you ask me, is actually the greatest part of the Christmas story - that Jesus loves even those who deplore his birth and wish him dead. For as his murders watched him suffer on the cross, he looked down on them and prayed, “Forgive them Father for they don’t know what they’re doing.”
So, when it comes to God, Christmas and your soul’s deepest needs, how well do you know what you’re doing? When you’re 28 and living the dream, it may feel like you’ve got it all figured out, but at some point, the facade falls apart and the dream comes to an end. What about when you get diagnosed with cancer, or your spouse leaves you, or you’re 85 and every one of your friends has died? Will you be strong and powerful and without any needs, then? It’s often in those times that Christmas, like Christ, seems to rise from the dead and save us.