Few images are more familiar to the Western world than those that surround Christmas. I'm not talking about our memorial of Dickens -- Tiny Tim, the Christmas ghosts, the ruddy-faced carolers and Scrooge, the most attractive convert in the canon. The Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Luke, provide our more familiar images. The bright harnessed angels caroling in the winter sky, the shepherds who come in innocence to worship, the stable, the manger, the ox and the ass, and above all the simple figures of Joseph the carpenter and Mary his young wife. We revel in the images and the music, as over and over again our hymns invite us, "Let us go even unto Bethlehem," or "O come all ye faithful."
But the words of the hymns have it backward. It is not we who seek at Christmas but we who are sought. As Simone Weil put it, "In the great symbols of mythology and folklore, in the parables of the Gospels it is God who seeks man." In seeking man, in taking a human nature upon himself, the God of creation accepted the limits of our greatest gifts. Our understanding is darkness to him who spun the stars; our imagination no spark for him who could dream the birds and the sky to put them in; our best art mimicry to him who tied the subtle knot that makes us man. He comes to seek us, yes, but at his cost, not ours.
The images too run sharply counter to our unrolling history. Bethlehem had no meaning other than the memory of a long-dead king in a tiny corner of a great empire. The stall and the animals remind us only of the bitter truth that God has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement. The maiden mother and Joseph are like our homeless, lost and hurting. They bring no great skill, no learning, no tie to the religious powers of even the little world of Israel. The shepherds come in innocence, but our ceremonies of slaughter have taught us all that innocence is powerless. The great angelic voices that fill the winter's night sing of peace, but the history of believers only recalls how dark and bright the hate he died to quench and could but fan.
We still cherish the images, and indeed the words of the hymns, because they give us a sense of control, because we want to feel that Christmas is our doing, that we, men and women, loom large in its making. And indeed in one sense we do. Having put on the human form of limitation between being and unbeing, the omnipotent God needs us, because he has chosen to. But nothing in all the beauty of the music, in all the simplicity of the images makes plain or even symbolizes the great work that is done this night; the bridge that runs from our obscurity into the bright light of God, the lifting of weak human nature up into a world where but for divine sustaining it must necessarily gasp into nothingness.
Indeed, Christmas is a reversal of all our values, of all that we have learned to trust, a tearing down of all the rich, proud cost of outworn history. It upends our sense of place; who among us would have picked Bethlehem if given the choice of Ephesus, Athens or Rome itself? Christmas also violates our sense of setting. We yearn for richness, so we reared the temples of prayer we call cathedrals and made them more beautiful than any palace. Yet the coming of the Son of God in a stable reminds us how broils root out the work of masonry. The God who seeks us at Christmas must love us for our ingenuity and care, but Chartres and Canterbury are of our making not his.
We find a certain neatness in the kings and shepherds, the top and the bottom of our careful sortings, and yet Christmas reverses even these groupings. The simple maiden whose womb shaped the body of Jesus becomes this night, after him, the greatest figure of all Christendom. Finally, the peace the angels sang is his to give, and indeed he himself shall later say, "Peace I give you, my peace I leave unto you." But it is a peace unlike any we invent and cherish, a peace deep within our souls, that even at its best is powerless against the wrackful siege of time and our own capacity to destroy.
We still sing, "Let us go even unto Bethlehem," and in our rituals pretend that this event is even partly of our making. But we also know how profoundly, how totally, the whole order of our tidy little worlds is upset by this most and least alien of visitors. It is God himself who seeks us out and, at terrible cost to himself, enters our world. In our hearts this night we do indeed go to Bethlehem, but it is to be taken not to take, it is to be caught up in a drama beyond our imagining, let alone our making, it is to hear the word of God made flesh respeaking all of his creation, including us. Our coming to him begins a journey for which a lifetime is little room, and which we know, at the risk of contradiction, will fill the long reaches of eternity.
Father Healy is president of Georgetown University. This is excerpted from his Christmas Eve sermon.