The longer I go on living in the Christian tradition, the more I realize the profound truth of a simple idea. For every positive statement we make, we can state its opposite and still be speaking the truth. Paul said, “Justification comes by faith apart from works of law.” James said, “Faith without works is dead.” Both statements were made by apostles, both appear in the New Testament, and both seemingly contradict each other. And yet: the truth of each does not imply the falsity of its opposite. The longer I go on in the life of faith, the more I realize that two apparently contradictory things can be true at once. Reality is bigger and more complex than I am. The broad, comprehensive nature of Christianity makes all narrow partisan ideology seem shallow and false.
So two things can be true at once. We’re saved by grace, yet works matter. God is compassionate, and God is just. We’re all sinners, and God loves us. To hold on to one half of any of these statements (without also grasping the other) is to see only part of the picture, and thus to misunderstand the radical nature of grace.
Something along these lines occurs to me whenever I think about Christmas these days, because Christmas is at its core a set of what seem like massive contradictions. It is a celebration of light at the darkest time of the year. It is an affirmation of peace and blessing in a world of aggression and alienation. It is an occasion when we have to hold two, seemingly opposing, ideas of God in our head. No wonder Mary spent her time after the shepherds’ departure treasuring their words and pondering these things in her heart. The King of the Universe has been born in a stable. How paradoxical can you get?
One way of thinking about Christmas is to hold the Hebrew word “Emmanuel,” as Mary did, in your heart. “God with us.” From the beginning of time, it seems, human beings have lived with two distinct images of God. God is at the same time the Being behind the Universe and my personal Savior. God is far away, powerful, and transcendent. God is also nearby, vulnerable, and immanent. Some religions emphasize God’s immensely other holiness. Other religions emphasize God’s compassion and concern for me in all my idiosyncratic particularity. The unique thing about Christianity is that it does not choose sides in this game of dueling theological banjos. Christianity says two true things together at the same time: yes, God is other and righteous and holy; and yes, God is familiar and compassionate and nearby. And the way we say that is Christmas.
On Christmas Eve we heard the familiar story of the birth. On the First Sunday after Christmas we hear the less familiar opening verses of John’s Gospel. Listen to what they say:
In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God. Christ was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Christ, and without Christ not one thing came into being. What has come into being in Christ was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [John 1]
What John announces here is a more poetic way of saying what Matthew’s and Luke’s birth stories tell us. The God who we thought of as far away is the same God who is right here, passionately and compassionately involved with us. Christmas is about God’s willingness to take on what it means to be human, to be with us in our frailty and freedom, to experience what we experience from the inside out. When you really love someone you are concerned with sharing and knowing their interior experience. God loves the way we love—though perhaps with fewer blinders on—and Christmas is God’s way of risking the safety and the isolation of perfect transcendence for the vulnerability and community of love and life in and with us.
But the journey does not stop there. Yes, God comes to meet us. But now we go to meet God. Christmas is a two-way transaction. Because if God shares our experience, now we also can share God’s. Listen again to the 61st chapter of Isaiah:
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations. [Isaiah 61:11]
These joyous words come to us from a hard season of personal and social pain. In their historical setting, the last chapters of the book of the prophet Isaiah sit perched on the brink of a great thing God is doing for Israel, but they arise from a time of great suffering. Israel has been nearly demolished and taken into captivity in Babylon. The whole sweep of its life and meaning appears to be over. And then, out of nowhere, in a way no one could have predicted, God acts. Israel is freed from Babylonian captivity. They return home. The story is back on. Isaiah 61 announces a revolution in divine and human experience: in bringing Israel home from Exile, God has done something so unbelievably enormous that it almost defies description. Isaiah cannot be silent because this divine deliverance requires that it be noticed and praised. God’s truth and justice and love and salvation are going forward. They spring up as naturally from God’s actions as shoots come forth from the earth and as the plants of a garden spring up from the seeds that have been sown within it. God moves towards us in mercy and justice. We move toward God in thanksgiving and praise. We are saved by grace alone. Faith without works is dead.
In other words: yes, God is moving toward us. And yes, we are moving toward God. In the life of Jesus, God takes on what it means to be a human being. We call God’s movement toward us “the incarnation.” And the incarnation, the enfleshment, is not only about what God does for us. It is just as importantly about what we do for God. After the Jesus event, God understands human life differently than God had before. God now knows what it is like to be us. God experiences our joys and sorrows and hopes and fears not just from the outside but now from within.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. [John 1:14]
When we say that the Word has become flesh and dwelt among us, we are saying that God and we have met each other in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And when we say that, we mean these two things. First, we mean that human life—in all its glory, in all its smallness—has been ennobled by God’s choosing to take it on and experience it from the inside. That’s why we do justice work: because in becoming one of us, God has given every human being unique worth and dignity. Second, we mean that the divine life of God—in all its transcendence, in all its immanence—has been irrevocably changed by its encounter with what it means to live and die as a particular human being. That is why we pray, because the one we pray to knows what it is to be us. God has taken on our experience, and we have taken on God’s destiny.
Christmas is about contradictions, about opposites, about two things being true at once. In Jesus Christ, God and humanity meet once and for all. In becoming one of us, God has taken on human mortality. For our part, you and I have been taken up into God’s immortality. Two things can be true at once. God knows and loves you more fully than you can imagine and understand. Your life has meaning and depth and purpose beyond the human markers we use to identify it. You are part of something timeless and universal. You now share God’s divine life in ways that connect you to the entire human community. Because what is true for you and me is also true for our brothers and sisters of every racial, ethnic, sexual, or class identity.
So Christmas and its season are jam packed with good news. God has come to meet us. We are moving toward God. Both sides are transformed in this encounter. We and God meet, once for all, in Jesus Christ. This meeting is the real gift of Christmas. Two things can be true at once. And it is the work of a lifetime to see, and know, and thank God that they can. Amen.