Nativity

I get depressed at Christmas time. Not for some traumatic reason. I just find it much harder to find solitude. It’s busy and stressful and just full. It’s not a relaxing time for me.

Then there is the whole hope, joy, peace, and love thing. The nativity story, as I read it, isn’t anything like the saccharine version most of us love to hear retold at Christmas. Mary is calm. Joseph is stoic. Jesus, no crying he makes. But I’ll bet he sure did. He was a human baby boy born in the stable not a sterile hospital bed. His little bloody head would burst from his mother’s body in a barn full of animal feces and stuck in a trough to sleep. Aww so sweet!

At least Bean’s version has some gore. That’s the real Christmas story.

Jesus entered the world suffering and was eventually executed by torture.

Certainly, the Christian faith includes all that peace, hope, joy, and love, but none of it is borne of anything but struggle. The good is borne of suffering. Jesus is crucified as a traitor and becomes the king of salvation. Our sacraments are steeped in this violence. We die to sin and rise to life in baptism. We eat the flesh and blood of Jesus as we re-present the torturous death of our Saviour week in and week out.

I’ll bet he was a beautiful baby, though.

Christmas reminds me of a truth I don’t want to accept. Despite years of trying to deny it, I have grudgingly accepted it as axiomatic. It is the way of the world. The good is borne of suffering. The problem is, I can imagine a possible world in which it is not. And I would rather be in that world. In fact, for me, it turns Anselm’s ontological argument on its head. Or side maybe. It’s also the primary argument against the God of the people of the book. It’s what puts the goodness of God into question.

Human beings grow through suffering. Suffering produces goodness but suffering in itself is not good. I think this is demonstrably true outside of Christian doctrine from the physical suffering of muscles gaining strength through strain to the aged having wisdom from a lifetime of mistakes. Perhaps, growth can come without suffering but I can’t think of any kind that’s worth a damn. But I can imagine a world where growth doesn’t have to include suffering.

Hell, isn’t that what we imagine heaven to be? A place that isn’t this place. You know, before it got broken. So why not just have heaven and skip all the bad stuff?

As Time Bandits‘ God responds to the the problem of evil, “I think it has something to do with free will.”

As any young pastor’s child worth their bible-study-borne cynicism does, I went to L’Abri in Switzerland. L’Abri is a cross between a kibbutz and a Bible College started by a b-list Christian philosopher named Francis Schaffer. That’s probably harsh, but I don’t think incorrect. He holds a kind of cultic status in the organization. Still though, I loved the place.

It was one of the best times of my life. And boy did I get to meet some kindred cynics embittered by Evangelical existential angst driven home by all of the TULIP petals of Calvinism’s purist purists. One particularly bitter young genius – whose name I wish I knew (a decade too early for Facebook) – said something like, “Sure, this is the possible world in which Adam and Eve ate the fruit but why couldn’t it have been the one which they didn’t?”

It’s not a dumb question even though it sounded like one to me at the time. I still remember it, though! I think the point is, if God is all-powerful, why couldn’t God have created a world where free will and paradise co-exist without the need for evil in the first place?

This is is what leads me to my issue with Anselm’s ontological argument summarized in a previous post. It’s all about God being a being greater than can be conceived. The problem is, I can conceive of a world better than the one God made and that makes me wonder if God can actually be the greatest being of which I can conceive. There’s a being I can conceive that made a better universe. Yeah yeah, I know. If God is greater than my conception, my conception can’t undermine the logic of Anselm’s stupid argument. I know. But I sure would like to conceive why good needs evil and with better answers than, “Something to do with freewill.”

In that mountaintop paradise in Switzerland, there was another person, this one a leader, who left me with a koan that has been krazy-glued to my soul:

“Everything of value has cost.”

His name, I do remember. It’s Jamie Shivers. But I’ve never been able to find a way to thank him for that sentence.

Everything of value has cost.

Combined with my favourite Oscar Wilde quote and you reach the soul of that pretentious young college student, “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”

I still see all the cost, but I’m trying to find the value too.

Everything of value has cost.

It is the way. It is the way of the cross. It is the way of the nativity. It is the way.

But why did it have to be the way?

The thing that still holds me to Christianity is that it is steeped in this truth. Jesus is the fully-God son of a fully-human woman of the nation of Israel, a people whose very name means “struggle with God.” He dies in profound agony. God’s people suffer and wrestle with him. In fact, we killed him. The Christian belief is that God turned that suffering we put his son through into the means of our salvation. We wrestled with God so much that we actually killed him. He turned that into the means of life for all humanity.

That is the good news. Goodness born of suffering.

It is the way.

But why did it have to be the way?