Mad, bad or God?
This Christmas season, we are once again reminded that something happened 2,000 years ago, and that the calendar was reset to mark the event: “BC” or “Before Christ,” and “AD” or “Anno Domini,” which these days have been renamed by secularists as “BCE,” “Before the Common Era” and “CE,” or the “Common Era.” Nevertheless, the fact remains that the dividing line is still the historic birth of Jesus of Nazareth, whose brief sojourn on earth left a footprint that is celebrated by all within the orbit of what we call “Christendom,” or puzzled over as an enigma by modern skeptics.
Those with childhood memories of the wonders of Christmas continue to marvel at the unaccountable joy that descends upon us whenever the season comes around. Could it be that what we celebrate is really more than just a festive ritual, more than the usual “times of effervescence” as the sociologist Émile Durkheim once put it?
The narrative of a savior coming to save us — a “Messiah”—goes further back to the history of the Jews. The prophet Isaiah had predicted that “a virgin — a young woman — shall conceive and bear a son, and he shall be called ‘Immanuel’—‘God with us.’”
How this “Immanuel” came to us is a stumbling block to some. As R.J. Berry, a Bible scholar, explains it: “Genetics has always seemed to be a barrier to belief in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. Even if one of Mary’s eggs had developed without fertilization (a process called parthenogenesis which happens regularly in some aphids and bees), the resulting child would have been female like her mother. Somehow Jesus must have got a Y-chromosome, or he would not have been a male. We have to recognize that if Christ was to be fully divine, he must somehow be different. If God is going to bring his Son into the world, he could, as it were, have snapped his fingers and produced a full-blown infant. But Christ was fully human as well as fully God. So, we are told, he had a normal mother but a divine father.” By his mother, Jesus was born as a man through the normal process of birthing, but by the creative act of the Spirit he was born God, which baffled the strictly monotheistic Jews.
For one thing, he did not look at all like the king who would restore the decayed dynasty of David as the Jews of his time expected. There was no royal announcement of his birth; he was born in a stable smelling of horse manure. He grew up in a backwater, a frontier town in Lower Galilee which remained outside the mainstream of Israelite life until Jesus’ time. Hence, the initial reaction of Nathanael when asked to join his little band of disciples: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
His own townmates could not believe that he could be more than the boy who ran around kicking dust in the streets and shaved wood in his father’s shop: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” This ruggedly rustic origin somehow did not square with the self-confident authority with which he taught during his brief career in public life. To pious Jews, his great “I Am’s”—“I am the Bread of Life, I am the Light of the world, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”—sounded like megalomania. When the crowds kept gathering around him, even his family felt they had to come and take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
On one occasion, Jesus not only healed but also forgave the sins of a paralytic who was let down through a hole in the roof by his friends. The teachers of the law felt this was patent blasphemy: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” The religious establishment, scandalized by the mass healings and spectacular displays of power over demons, attributed these to an evil source: “He is possessed by Beelzebub! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” But then, why is it that those who observed him at close quarters, at first clueless as to what he was, ended up saying, like the famously doubting Thomas, “My Lord and my God”? The disciples grew up believing there is only one God. But when Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am?” Peter had the insight to sense that he was more than just the greatest of their prophets: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Is it possible the baby in the hay was really sent from above, such that this sad earth need never been the same since?
“You must make your choice,” wrote the British don C.S. Lewis. “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
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Melba Padilla Maggay, Ph.D., is president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.
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