John Thornhill (Passionist Worker)

In a very tender and intimate way, the story of Christmas describes an extraordinary feature of Christian belief: the ‘self-emptying’ of the divine nature by Christ in the Incarnation. The writer of the Letter to the Philippians sums this up succinctly: ‘he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness’ (Phil. 2:7). God becomes something as ordinary as a baby: a baby destined to grow up in mundane poverty in an obscure province of an occupied country. If you blinked, you could miss the extraordinary claim that in the unremarkable ordinariness of birth and struggle and death, something incredible has happened. God has come. It was hardly credible two thousand years ago. And it is incredible to many people today.

Yet ask many parents about their experience of the birth of a baby, and they will tell you there is nothing remotely ordinary about it at all! Researchers at Healthtalk Australia summarise this very well: ‘Many parents considered first meeting their babies a significant or life-changing emotional experience, describing it as “extraordinary” or “amazing”. Several also said they had not expected their emotional response to their child to be so “powerful”.’[1] So extraordinary is the experience of having a baby to a parent that the Swedish-American Pulitzer Prize winning author Carl August Sandburg could write: ‘a baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.’[2] It is a blessing on existence itself.

So in the chaotic, frightening, emotionally charged, every-day drama of birth: God chooses to make a very visceral gesture: God arrives in a maelstrom of emotion, of passion; and of love. This is God’s blessing on existence itself. And love, in this sense of the word, is given action in relationship between two or more human persons: a baby, his mother, his father, his community. The Welsh philosopher Bertrand Russell could state: ‘love at its fullest is an indissoluble combination of the two elements, delight and well-wishing.’[3] ‘Delight’ and ‘well-wishing’: a reciprocal receiving and giving, an inter-connected emptying and filling-up. An experience that can only happen where there is identity (a person to give, a person to receive) and relationship (something active which happens between two or more persons).

The fleshy reality of the Incarnation, then, lies in an experience as simple and as complex and as relational as having a baby. The Incarnation is not reducible to a dusty, abstract idea where most debates about ‘God-stuff’ tend to get mired down. In the early decades of the twentieth century, instead of asking what we are, what the world is, what being is (in all probability an impossible ‘Russian Doll’ of questions nested within questions); the phenomenologist philosophers chose to look at the experiences we obtain from our senses and our relationships in the world; and the significance of those experiences to our lives. This led Martin Heidegger to say that philosophers should really be looking at how we live our lives in their ‘average everydayness.’[4] Indeed the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas could write that we can only really experience ‘God’ in the ethical encounter with another person or persons. The Divine can only be accessed through the human other to whom the self is infinitely responsible[5]. Put simply, if you can’t find God in the ordinary and extraordinariness of human relationships, you won’t find God at all. That is what the personal, relational story of the Incarnation is trying to say.

But the personal, relational story of the Incarnation is not only telling us something about the nature of God, it is telling us something about ourselves too. ‘The self’ can only really happen in relationship to others. The phenomenologist Max Scheler, teacher and mentor to the Jewish philosopher and Catholic saint: Edith Stein, wrote in ‘the Nature of Sympathy’: ‘Community is in some sense implicit in every individual, and that (a person is) not only part of society, but that society and the social bond are an essential part (of a person); that not only is the “I” a member of the “we”, but also that the “we” is a necessary member of the “I”.’[6] That is, I can only really make sense of myself because of you, and you can only really make sense of yourself because of me. I carry my relationships, my community, within me; and those who are in relationship with me, my community, carry me within them. In relationship I am called to give, but also to receive and this dynamic of giving and receiving, of emptying and filling-up is what we call love. An experience that can only happen where there is identity: a ‘me’ and a ‘you’; and relationship: a ‘me’: who gives, and a ‘you’ who receives; and a ‘you’ who gives and a ‘me’ who receives.

Edith Stein (often known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), who died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, could observe that love is the ground, centre and completion of each social action.[7] Perhaps there could be no greater, or dramatic, or explicit lesson on the nature of God and on the nature of the self than in the story of the birth of a baby.

[1] Healthtalk Australia: Emotional Experiences of Early Parenthood, http://healthtalkaustralia.org [cited 09/01/2018]

[2] Sandburg, Carl (1948) Remembrance Rock, Ch. 2, p. 7.

[3] Russel, Bertrand (1925) What I Believe, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1925.

[4] Inwood, Michael (2002). Heidegger: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, USA.

[5] Urbano, Ryan (2012) Approaching the Divine: Levinas on God, Religion, Idolatry, and Atheism, 50-80.  Logos, vol. 15 (1).

[6] Scheler, Max (edition 2017) The nature of Sympathy (1954), Routledge.

[7] Wulf, Claudia Mariéle (2017) ‘I look at him and he looks at me’ Stein’s phenomenological analysis of love, International Journal of Philosophy and Theology, 78:1-2, 139-154.