In 1943 the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was languishing in Tegel prison, charged with sedition against the Third Reich, for which he would eventually be executed. On 17 December, he wrote a moving Christmas letter to his longsuffering parents. Bonhoeffer recalls lovely celebrations from his past and laments the lonely Christmas of his present. But then the letter takes a turn. With surprising resilience, he writes:
I daresay [Christmas] will have more meaning and will be observed with greater sincerity in this prison than in places where all that survives of the feast is its name. That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness look very different to the eyes of God from what they do to man, that God should come down to the very place which men usually abhor, that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn — these are things which a prisoner can understand better than anyone else. For him the Christmas story is glad tidings in a very real sense.
In his recent book The Godless Gospel, the philosopher Julian Baggini valiantly tries to retrieve Jesus for the secular age. Treading the well-worn footsteps of Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Jefferson before him, Baggini feels compelled to edit the biblical texts. Ditch all the miracles and eliminate the God-talk, he insists; what really matters is Jesus’s teaching — moral parables, rebukes to the rich and powerful, witty aphorisms. This keeps Jesus relevant for a world weary of dogma.
Christmas barely features in Baggini’s retelling of the gospel. To be sure, some details of Jesus’s birth are briefly given, but they lack much significance. Why would they? The birth of Jesus is just prosaic preamble to what really matters: Jesus the adult sage dispensing words of wisdom.
Baggini’s book throws into sharp relief how strange it is that the Christian story celebrates the infant Jesus. The gospel of Luke speaks excitedly about the arrival of a “Saviour”. But what is the sign that a Saviour is here? A baby. Part of the utter weirdness of the Christian story is that the birth of Jesus is not prelude. It’s essential to the story.
In a year like 2020, one could be forgiven for confusion as to what Christmas might mean. The saccharine sentimentality of Yuletide past feels awkward in this strange, strange year. In its place is the deeper gratitude which emerges from an experience of struggle. The simple joy of eating together. The deep relief that loved ones are safe and well. It’s somehow better than the ideal, because it’s joy in the darkness, and the darkness has not won.
What good is a baby Jesus, wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger? In those earliest chapters of his life, Jesus can’t yet speak. He’s a newborn, not a sage. In medieval portraiture, paintings of the infant Jesus routinely portrayed him as a homunculus, a little man-child. (Have a look at Madonna breastfeeding Child by Barnaba de Modena, in which the child Jesus appears to be suffering from male pattern baldness.) But within the gospel texts, the newborn Jesus is not a precocious philosopher, dispensing hot-takes from the manger. He’s a baby. And yet the arrival of a helpless infant causes pilgrims to travel long distances and many to break out in song. This baby is not simply a life on the verge of significance. The baby is significant — “Jesus, Lord at thy birth.”
In the person of Jesus, God experiences human life from womb to tomb.
This is where Baggini’s reading of Jesus, and Jefferson’s before him, feels manifestly insufficient. The Christian story affirms a claim strange yet wonderful. In the person of Jesus, God experiences human life from womb to tomb. The beauty of the Christian hope is that God has come down, God has come near, to bear our sorrows and, ultimately, to taste death on our behalf. Editing the divine out of Jesus makes him tangential, not relevant.
Early in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is called the name “Immanuel” — which means “God with us.” This is why, before he’d ever spun a parable, or provided us a morality, the story of Jesus was already what Bonhoeffer calls “glad tidings in very real sense.” Baggini attempts to rescue Jesus by editing his life. But the beating heart of the Christian story is that Jesus rescues us by experiencing life unedited.
Mark Stephens is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared in ABC Religion & Ethics.