LONDON, ONTARIO – The celebration of Christmas is about the personal intervention of the Divine in human affairs. In the first book of the Old Testament, God creates man and woman and invests them with free will which, a mere five pages later, has so completely caused things to run amok that this temperamental Deity sets out to destroy everybody but Noah and his family and those lucky beasts and birds which have male and female representation on board the ark. In the New Testament, disorder and chaos have returned to mankind (actually they’ve been pretty constant through both Testaments and continue to this day) and this time God elects to send His only Son to instruct people how to live and to win us salvation.
G.K. Chesterton wrote a brilliant allegorical play in 1932 about the events leading up to the incarnation. In the first scene of The Surprise, a distressed author holds a long conversation with a Franciscan friar about the lack-lustre, puppet-like characters he’s been creating for a play. Though he loves each of his characters before he even creates them and knows them through and through, there is something unsatisfying about their passivity and mechanical natures and he has come to the friar seeking supernatural assistance. “I want them to be and not to do. I want them to exist,” the author cries. “These people deserve to be alive.”
The author soon gets his wish and is relegated to an elevated space backstage where he watches, appalled, as his characters proceed to alter their roles, mangle their lines, miss their cues and frankly lose all grasp of the whole point behind the drama. At the climax of the sixth and final scene, an oath is sworn in the devil’s name as two characters start to adlib a duel to the death. Unable to restrain himself any longer, the author’s head suddenly bursts through an upper panel of painted scenery, rudely interrupting the action on stage. “And in the devil’s name, what do you think you are doing with my play?” he calls out. “Drop it! Stop! I am coming down.”
The idea of God ‘coming down’ would ordinarily suggest a heralding blast of trumpets, a spewing volcano or a smashing good storm. But in perhaps the single most sublime stroke to be found in all sacred scripture, Jesus Christ arrives among us in the most defenceless, the most appealing and – if one may so phrase it – the most ‘naturally supernatural’ form of all; as a newborn infant.
My own generation – the notoriously overindulged boomers – managed to introduce a couple of worthwhile new wrinkles into the grand scheme of things and one of these, I believe, is the presence of dads in the delivery room. Not that most dads are able to do a blessed thing to assist their wives or babies to successfully come through the bloody, sweaty, grinding, straining, knuckle-whitening and ultimately dumbfounding ordeal of getting born. No, I think a case could even be made – what with fainting and instantly forgetting every birthing class tip with the onset of their wife’s first contraction – that most dads are worse than useless in the delivery room. But it’s always a salutary thing to put a smugly competent modern male into a situation that will overwhelm him completely – evaporating his wits, reducing him to tears, turning his bowels to water and his knees to rubber. This does him a world of good and gives him a little humility and divine perspective.
I earned three gold stars for delivery room duty and the third visit was as shattering as the first. You stand there in your paper slippers and hospital greens all sopping with empathetic sweat, cradling this perfectly beautiful and impossibly tiny human being in your arms, and even though you’ve just seen the seismic bringing forth of this fragile being with your very own eyes, the only question you want to ask your newborn child is, “Where did you come from?”
Considering the constant precariousness of human existence, it’s remarkable how very much for granted we learn to take the fact of our lives. It may be a natural tendency but we lose something precious when we allow our jobs and our daily struggles to monopolize all of our time and preclude the possibility of wonder and reflection. But if anything can effortlessly call us back to a contemplation of the religious and the miraculous, it is babies.
To try to rationally or scientifically chart all of the odds you had to overcome just to get born, is to dabble in the realm of pure magic. And good luck tracking the fusion and development of that unique genetic legacy which would ‘explain’ your personality and nature – your love of the bassoon, your aversion to pineapples, your affinity for table tennis, the way you unfailingly start to blubber whenever a tenor sings, “Comfort ye, my people.” Even more boggling than trying to sort out the baby that we used to be, is thinking about the babies which we somehow bring forth. In fact, most of us don’t – think about it, I mean.
If procreation had to be explained or justified before the fact, you’d never go through with it. Nothing about babies makes good sense. The incubation period strips each would-be mother of any pretense of glamour or comfort and sometimes health as well. And the process of giving birth itself is a painful and terrifying trip into the jaws of death made all the more excruciating by the tension of its imminence. Once the baby comes home to live, the parents might as well sign contracts promising to not even attempt bringing order to their lives for at least the next 12 years. Barren friends come over to visit and, shrinking from regurgitated milk stains on the couch and Cheerio crumbs ground into every section of carpet, you can actually read the thought balloons hanging over their heads: “THESE PEOPLE LIVE LIKE SWINE.”
The miracle is that, even knowing what we think we know, we vote for it anyway. Regardless of the risks and sacrifices, we get swept along in this astonishing process of physical reproduction which – even after three or four successful rounds – no father or mother can ever quite believe is true.
Even among non-believers Christmas remains the most popular holiday on the calendar because it focuses our attention on the one supernatural event which sets every human life in motion and inculcates a sense of gratitude for life itself. (And if babies turn households into pigpens, how appropriate that Jesus Christ should be born in a stable.) For believers, of course, this intimate sense of connection and significance is increased and magnified many times over. At the coldest, darkest time of the year we celebrate the warmest, brightest holiday. And in pondering the desperate straits of the Holy Family as they struggle to secure nothing more than a quiet corner of an alien town in which to have their child, we paradoxically sense that we have finally found our home.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
Monday, January 28
St. Peter's Seminary
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