Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
I think the dominant impression I have received this Christmas season is that of the reality of Immanuel, a reality the prophet Isaiah pointed to hundreds of years before Christ. The “with us”-ness of God is something that has always been significant to me and has been an important aspect that significantly informs my relationship with God. (See my post from a couple years ago for some cool quotes from Bono and from Pope John Paul II that relate specifically to the incarnation.) A Christmas carol that has stuck out to me lately is one that was apparently written as a sort of melancholy lullaby for the Christ child. It’s a beautiful song, but I think the most important thing about it is that we are singing a lullaby! It just points to the humanness of Christ:
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child.
By, by, lully, lullay.
O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor Youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.
Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay.
Interestingly, this idea of Immanuel that has been so important to me has only increased in importance as I have read works of world literature, especially Shusaku Endo’s writings and those of Russian Christian authors (especially Dostoevsky and Tolstoy). Endo’s Silence in particular had quite an effect on me, most memorably at its climax when God’s silence toward the protagonist is broken and the grimy, abused image of Jesus speaks a message of ultimate solidarity with us and sacrificial suffering for (indeed, beacuse of!) us. Dostoevsky’s characters in The Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima, Ilyusha and his dog Zuchka/Perezvon, Ivan, Alyosha (of course!), and Jesus himself in the notorious “Grand Inquisitor” chapter, all have pointed to aspects of who God is and to the reality of who we are and how we interact with God.
I think those of us who are Christians, especially in this day and age, would do well to focus on the Immanuel aspect of God. For one, it should be a primary focus anyway, and for another, most people, when it comes to spiritual and meaning-of-life questions, respond positively to this God. And why should they not? What an amazing thing God has done (and does, if you get Shusaku Endo’s message) for us!
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
Most atheists and practical agnostics I’ve known (which, admittedly have been few and have been pretty young, around my age) have lived lives characterized by not only strife, but rage and deceit as well. I think a major factor in this is that they are living reactionary lives, lives of rebellion against different negative experiences or powers. But what does rejection of God bring, in a practical everyday sense (I am laying aside any theological considerations here)? As far as I can imagine, and as far as I have seen in the lives of my friends and loved ones, nothing that is ultimately of any good to them or to others or, of course, to God. At first, there may (and I stress “may”) be a sense of liberation, but that supposed freedom is akin to the feeling of freedom one may feel once one has been pushed out a window twenty storeys up. Even the one who believes in no God knows that ultimately, there is an end to this existence, and even if there is nothing after death, annihilation is a pretty scary thought, too. If an atheist philosophizes too much about death, he or she will begin to sound like the ancient Hebrew writers as they spoke of Sheol, the Pit, the chambers of Death; a place of darkness, obscurity, and oblivion.
The only other gain that I have seen in the lives of my peers has been the opportunity to give the ultimate “Fuck You!” to pretty much everything. Our whole existence is tinged with the person of God, as well as conceptions of that person of God. I’m not just talking about the created world, which indeed screams out the existence of God. Our society, as secularized as it is, is still profoundly shaped by theistic impulses, particularly of the Judeo-Christian variety. So being an atheist (or an agnostic, I would say) is a great and dramatic way to give the bird to anyone or thing one might be bitter toward: parents, church, school, whatever. Great for a thirteen-year-old, perhaps, but what is life built upon then? That kind of person has built their life on a foundation of puerile bitterness and rebellion.
I must say, though, that atheism has been ennobled a bit in my own personal view. I have never met a strictly “practical” atheist, one who rejects the idea of God so that he or she may live in whatever way suits him or her. I think, especially for many younger atheists, that practical atheism becomes more and more a way of life for them (it is hard to imagine it not to), but it has not been the primary cause. That’s nice. And of course, I do have more than a bit of respect for the more serious atheists, who object to the idea of God on moral grounds, although I don’t think the atheistic moral objections are unanswerable, by any means. The most excellent and moving presentation of this kind of atheism that I have encountered was in the aforementioned Brothers Karamazov, but not just (or even primarily) in the much-heralded (in the secular university setting) “Grand Inquisitor” chapter (look, it’s even been published by itself!), but more so in the chapter before it, entitled “Rebellion.” Books 5 and 6, entitled “Pro and Contra” and “The Russian Monk” respectively, are a must-read. They present the moral-atheist objection to the idea of God and the Christian answer. Simply stunning reading.
But back to the point of this time. I think Christmas, perhaps even as much as Easter (and maybe more than, in some senses), really captures the essence of Christianity. Not that God hates us and wants to punish us and torture us but somehow he doesn’t; no, it is that God loves us, and loves us enough to suffer as we do, to experience what we experience, even to experience more than most of us experience in terms of agony and death. I think I would go along with Endo’s idea, too, that God’s suffering continues, because of what we do, not only to him, but to each other and to the rest of creation as well. Another Japanse writer named Kazoh Kitamori, a Christian theologian, really picked up on this idea in Theology of the Pain of God and other writings, too. (I think Japanese Christians, no, Japanese people in general, are pretty good at picking up on this aspect of God, but that’s for another post.)
And this suffering is not the end, neither is it pointless. Its goal is that we all may be reconciled to our estranged Parent, that we may all be reconciled to each other as well. That our hatred and evil to each other and to God and to what is around us may come to an end! And who, whether atheist or agnostic or theist, does not yearn, in a way most painful, for that existence?
My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.