I believe it was Chesterton who said that the birth of every baby is God's way of telling the world to keep going, yet when I set the dreary faithlessness of this world against that baby who lay first in his mother's arms and then in his manger, I am invariably led to a melancholic wondering: why did he bother? The world is such an incessant Babel of human conflict, a festering sore of suffering, strife, persecution, disease and calamity. We can't think straight, or make the most obvious moral distinctions, or treat each other decently, or, where manners are somewhat in vogue, barely restrain beneath a civilized veneer the genuinely vicious contempt we hold for those who won't see things our way. Should the contempt know no moral constraints, some of the things people are capable of doing to other people are quite literally unspeakable. In fact, that baby in the manger would end up victim to one of those 'things.'
And He knew it all beforehand: that He, most perfectly innocent, would be born into the arms of the most innocent of mothers, live long enough to tell us the truth, then be tortured and murdered for it, knowing all the while that mankind would afterwards go on doing pretty much what it always has, with no end in sight. There wasn't even anything unique about a man being tortured and murdered. It has been the end of many, though this man's end was supposed to be different because it was somehow for us, not only in the way that a man might sacrifice his life for another, but in this mysterious shouldering of a burden, this taking on the sins of the world. How that can happen I have no idea. I do know that, whatever He confronted in Gethsemane - whatever He saw, felt, took into His very being - He merely sweated blood for what would have killed a mere mortal. But still we go on our way, and so still I wonder: what was the point? Why bother? What is it about you and me and all the rest of this vale of corruption that makes us worth His trouble?
To ask the question is to ask why He made us at all, and to ask that is to doubt the very nature of His love, and if I am not to doubt it then I am forced to a conclusion: that His appears to be not very much like yours and mine. It is not a thing offered in greatness of heart only later to be withdrawn at the first sign of disappointment, or meted out in stingy parcels according to how deserving you are from one moment to the next, as though He were subject to mood swings. He doesn't offer it to some and withhold it from others. It is there always and forever, without end. You can withhold from Him, but He cannot from you. On the crests of life's ocean we rise and into its troughs we fall, while He, like a lighthouse, remains in one place, that when lost we may find our way. We waver in our commitments with every wind, while He remains constant. Even in this very poor Christian, of whose evil He knew before my conception, he finds something worth taking note of, some remnant worth saving, or worth trying to save. I don't think He came for such a trivial reason as to save my life, but to save me from myself. The good of one saint outweighs my million evil thoughts and actions, and those of a million others. Love creates, and can create only what is good. God will die if He must to bring the good, to bring you and me, back to life. If this is not true of Him, then there is no truth worth having.
Every year at this time I look to that image of mother and child to change the world, and every year I must wait for the next. I look in the hope that at last the world's heart will melt into submission, and every year the world fails. For most of mankind, Truth seems so elusive as to actually be an illusion. Maybe some great event awaits mankind's future; I don't think I'll be here to see it. Since I disappoint my Master at least as often as the world disappoints me, perhaps I should narrow the breadth of my concern. The evil of the day is sufficient unto itself, and so forth.
Another of my fantastical hopes is that on my deathbed I'll be given leisure to first say goodbye to those who condescended to put up with me, and then to fix in my mind's eye that scene in the cave, the babe asleep in his mother's arms. Some hope to see the Lord on his cross, or in his resurrected glory, but not me. Any father who's ever held his newborn child wrapped in hospital swaddling clothes knows that diminution of vanity, of his masculine pride, before this miracle in all its weakness. It was at the end of a Gospel that the baby grown to a man said that He would be with us until the end of time, but He had already said it back there in the cave where He was born. In submitting to the balefully fragile bonds of human flesh, he made that flesh new, resurrecting its mortal destiny, such that we can never look at the birth of any child in the same way again. In rendering himself as vulnerable and helpless as only a baby can be to the kindness of others, he anticipates that later surrender to the cruelty of his tormentors; in casting his innocence into the cauldron of our wicked world, he points to a cross on a far-off hill, in the shadow of which that wickedness now stands ashamed. It was back there in the cave that he first announced that he was with us because he was one of us, that this life he gave us is good because he made it his own; that, though we are born to die, we cannot in the end.
"Follow me." Yes, to be led into the next life by mother and child, nothing more than one Christian's vain fantasy. But as to its impossibility, I would remind you that it is written: a child shall lead them.