There’s an old gag about the importance of avoiding anachronisms in fiction:
The error of anachronism was once enshrined by an amateur playwright. He had a French obstetrician leave home in the early hours of numbingly cold dawn to attend a delivery. When he returned home exhausted, his sympathetic wife gave him hot tea and inquired:
“Did all go well?”
“It was a very difficult delivery,” he said, “but it was worth it. You know who was born today? Victor Hugo!”
[Louis Nizer, My Life In Court]
(Add that to the riddle about the archeologist who unearths what appears to be an old Roman denarius and without further examination declares it a fake. Why? Because it was date-stamped “15 BC.” Yeah, right.)
Time, at least for us humans, runs in one direction only. We don’t get to go back to our pasts and make revisions. The desire might be powerful, but sorry, we’re just not allowed. Many a maxim is founded on that particular limitation, including a favorite of mine: (spoken with the accent of an elderly German) “Ve get too soon old und too late schmart.” Words to live by, Gentle Reader…because there’s no way not to live by them.
Around this time of year, when Militant Atheists are thick on the ground giving shoppers the stink-eye for saying “Merry Christmas” instead of their preferred “Happy Holidays,” it can be a bit trying to retain the bonhomie that a Christian should always bear. Nevertheless, the effort is worthwhile. It reinforces the contrast between freedom and oppression. The free man chooses his own way. The apostles of oppression strive to force their preferred way upon him. The perennial contest between them determines the course of every nation.
One of the more amusing thrusts I’ve parried recently went like this: If Christ was the Son of God, King of Kings, Savior of Mankind, and so forth, why didn’t God make it more obvious? Why didn’t He announce the birth with a huge fanfare that no one could possibly ignore, possibly with all the major media in attendance?
(Can’t you just see the headlines? Son of God and Redeemer of Mankind Born in Bethlehem, Judea. Onlookers Astonished. And of course, the anchorman on the six o’clock news would remind us that there’ll be film of the event at eleven.)
Time doesn’t work that way. Neither does God.
A passage from an old essay from the late Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen:comes to mind:
When God came to Earth, there was no room in the inn, but there was room in the stable. What lesson is hidden behind the inn and the stable?
What is an inn, but the gathering-place of public opinion, the focal point of the world’s moods, the residence of the worldly, the rallying place of the fashionable and those who count in the management of the world’s affairs? What is a stable, but the place of outcasts, the refuge of beasts, and the shelter of the valueless, and therefore the symbol of those who in the eyes of public opinion do not count and hence may be ignored as of no great value or moment? Anyone in the world would have expected to find Divinity in an inn, but no one would have expected to have found it in a stable….
If, in those days, the stars of the heavens by some magic touch had folded themselves together as silver words and announced the birth of the Expected of the Nations, where would the world have gone in search of Him?
The world would have searched for the Babe in some palace by the Tiber, or in some gilded house of Athens, or in some inn of a great city where gathered the rich, the mighty, and the powerful ones of Earth. They would not have been the least surprised to have found the newborn King of Kings stretched out on a cradle of gold and surrounded by kings and philosophers paying Him their tribute and obeisance.
But they would have been surprised to have discovered Him in a manger, laid on coarse straw and warmed by the breath of oxen, as if in atonement for the coldness of the hearts of men. No one would have expected that the One whose fingers could stop the turning of Arcturus would be smaller than the head of an ox; that He who could hurl the ball of fire into the heavens would one day be warmed by the breath of beats; that He who could make a canopy of stars would be shielded from a stormy sky by the roof of a stable; or that He who made the Earth as His future home would be homeless at home. No one would have expected to find Divinity in such a condition; but that is because Divinity is always where you least expect to find it….
The world has always sought Divinity in the power of a Babel, but never in the weakness of a Bethlehem. It has searched for it in the inns of popular opinion, but never in the stable of the ignored. It has looked for it in the cradles of gold, but never in the cribs of straw – always in power, but never in weakness.
Power and pomp are the conceits not of God but of men. God’s glory is expressed through nature and its laws. You have to look closely to find the divine Order that pervades all things…and that is exactly as He wants it. He is not interested in homage from those who have no choice about it. He wants men to come to Him out of perception, silent reflection, and individual inspiration.
Had the Son of God been born to a great monarch, swaddled in furs of sable and ermine and laid in a cradle of gold, the event proclaimed to the world with a fanfare of thousands of trumpets and great crowds singing hosannas, we would have had no choice about it all…and no reason for introspection, self-correction, or faith. But introspection, self-correction, and the free embrace of faith are what He desires of us.
Of course, one must ask why. It’s what we do – and it’s another piece of what He wants of us. What is the good of belief in God, of confidence in His benevolence, and of the hope for an eternity in blissful nearness to Him?
There are teleological approaches to the question, but these fail for the same reason a legitimate Roman coin wouldn’t be date-stamped “15 BC.” The answer is simply this:
Sincere faith and what it impels can make us what He wants us to be. They allow us the closest approach possible for a living mortal creature to the Divine Essence. The conclusion of the development is found in the Beatific Vision: the apprehension of all of existence, natural and supernatural, as a single eternal moment in which all things are as they were intended to be. This is mystical ecstasy: the highest state of being a living man can attain.
It’s not “a good,” in the sense of one among others. It’s not available in any store. (Nor on TV, if you were wondering.) It’s The Good as He has made it available to mortals: the ultimate fulfillment for a soul that must travel through Time to reach Him.
God the Father wanted the news to spread in the quietest, humblest way possible. To announce it with a mighty fanfare would have spoiled it. He made only one fleeting exception to the quiet, ultimately humble birth of His Son in mortal flesh, that there might be a handful who would know, and believe, from the outset:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
May God bless and keep you all!