WHAT a story, — as incredible as it is ineffable, — telling how, in a tiny town, in a stall in a stable, under a singing sky, at ‘the end of the way of a wandering star,5 God was born a Babe, bringing a new pity and joy into the life of man, dividing time into before and after! Once aloft and aloof, cloudrobed and shrouded in awe, God drew near, striving to enter our fleeting life, trying all doors, and finally making Himself small as a little child and lying down on the doorstep of the world, until the world, moved by the cry of a Babe, opened the door that had been barred to threats and thunders, and took the Child in. Was any story ever more fantastic, at once more impossible and more enchanting?
It is unthinkable, say the wise, — knowing not what they say, — because the Infinite One who inhabits eternity cannot take the form of man. But God is not truly great unless He can reveal Himself in little things, in a cosy room and a hearth side, in the love of the home and the family. If He is too high to be lowly, He is too small to be God. Love is lost in immensities; it comes in simple, gentle ways, and that is why, on Christmas, religion is so homey and full of caresses, showing how we are ‘caught in the coil of God’s romances’ and held in His arms. Hence the joy that sets the world singing, and a haunting loveliness in the heart — warm, tender, glad. God did not come a giant to little folk; He took our tiny shape and let us hold Him in our arms.
If there were no Christmas, our idea of God might be august and awful; it could never be homey and happy. A God who revealed Himself only in suns and systems would remain remote; He could never be intimately near. Such words as ‘eternity5 and ‘infinity’ chill our spirits and make our minds reel. They tell of a God who sits in silence on the far-away hills of wonder, dim and unapproachable, a dweller in the distance. But Christmas reveals a Little God, joyous and gentle, at once eternal and humble, nestling in the heart.
If, stated starkly, the story reads like a leaf out of a fairy book, we must remember that only the thinnest of veils divides fairyland from the truth. Alas, the veil may be as thick as a stone wall, unless we have kept something easily lost in the rough ways of the world, as a page from a wellbeloved book will show. In the Journal of Amiel we meet a man sensitive, shy, smitten with the malady of thought, and often sad, albeit rich in varied insight. One entry tells of the tumult of his mind as he finished reading Schopenhauer, now so much in vogue, as if the petulant pessimism of the philosopher had infected his spirit. It left him all awry, groping amid dim dogmas, cloudy creeds, and a wisdom that is not wise. When he asked himself, as so many ask to-day, ‘What, then, do I believe in?’ he did not know. Then, suddenly, in the depth of his heart he felt a stir, and heard the laugh of a child: —
Folly! I believe in goodness, and hope that goodness will prevail. Deep within this ironical and disappointed being of mine there is a child hidden — a frank, sad, simple creature, who believes in the ideal, in love, in holiness, and all the heavenly superstitions. A whole millennium of idyls sleep in my heart: I am a pseudoskeptic, a pseudo-scoffer.
Aye, happy is the man deep down in whose heart the gay laugh of a child — free, trustful, joyous — makes his grim, gray philosophy seem foolish. It is to a hidden child in us, sleeping but never dead, that Christmas makes its appeal, and that is why, when the clouds are off our souls and we are most truly ourselves, free from the pose of being wise, we know that it is true. The highest truth is never known by logic, but by love. God is an artist and does not hang His pictures in a cold, dim light. The life of God, which is beyond our ken, may be more like the heart of an unspoiled child than like that of a king on his throne, to whom cringing men bow down. There may be nothing in the universe, even with its light-year measurements, greater than the love that forgives a penitent man and binds up a broken heart. So Jesus taught, — He whose generation and affinity are with elemental and eternal things, — and by following Him we come at last, not to the child that once we were, but to the child we never yet have been.
For, in a true sense, the urge into childhood, as it is called, is not backward but forward, not a return into an old but a growth and unfolding into a new childhood. After all, children, as someone has said, are rather symbols of youth than youth itself; they are unconsciously young. Whereas, in later life, if we be truly wise, we have the power of converting the symbol into the reality, of being young and knowing it. As Jesus told us, unless we become, not little children, but as little children, we shall in no wise enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Such words should give us pause, since Jesus, whom our age is trying so hard to understand, so often insists that unless we have the child attitude toward God and life and man we cannot even see His kingdom, much less enter it.
Put plainly, if the words of Jesus mean anything, they mean that if we are losing — or rather, if we have failed to attain — the spirit of the child, we are losing the gospel, or can never find it; losing it utterly, and need to be born again — as the Teacher told the grave and courteous scholar who visited Him by night — if we are to regain or find it. Our scholarship, it would seem, of which we are so proud, is quite futile. Some artist ought to paint the puzzled look on the face of Nicodemus when he asked how a man who is old can be born again, and the sweet wonder on the face of Jesus, who was astonished that a teacher of faith should not know what He meant.
Here, no less, is the pathos of our generation, with its bright, brittle, bitter sophistication and the tiresome egotism of an all-analyzing self-consciousness which has brought it to the verge of spiritual paralysis and futilitarianism. It is fascinated with Jesus, haunted by Him, pitying and patronizing Him by turns, trying to know Him, but failing, finding His mind naive, childish, and primitive, and His faith in a divine Father an infantile complex. Yet even those who have broken with the Christian tradition find themselves in the presence of Jesus, unable to escape Him, enthralled by His personality, as if He knew a secret which our supercleverness has missed, and without which life loses its meaning and lustre. Evermore Jesus passes by on His errand, and men follow His figure with wistful eyes, but not with their minds and feet.
Life is in little fragments to-day, set under a microscope for inspection — when it is not being flung on a screen so that we may watch our heart beat, note its score, and check its response to injected stimuli. Actually, we have a race that knows itself and is so fascinated with the knowledge that it cannot stop looking at itself. There is no longer any privacy, scarcely sincerity—all is pose and posture. Jesus warned us not to do our alms or say our prayers to be seen of men, but, alas, that is the least of our troubles—the awful trouble is that we do everything to be seen of ourselves! Has a self-conscious self-knowledge robbed us of that wholeness and simplicity which alone make Jesus intelligible? Has His word, ‘The kingdom of God is within you,’ taken up by the devil of introspection, become not a haven but a horror? Have we looked into everything and through everything so long that we now overlook the little door that leads into the land of Christmas, where love is just love, and beauty is just beauty?
To say it otherwise: can the sophisticated modern mind, so wise in its own estimate, so mature in its own judgment, and so emancipated, ever enter into the simplicity, the humility, the wonder and sweet wisdom of the Jesus way of thinking? Most of the elements in its make-up run exactly counter to His faith and the spirit of His life. Take the story of Tolstoi, so typical of our restless age, going without arriving, seeking without finding; a great, Godhaunted soul, — the man was humanity!—to whom the most terrible shadow was not death, but the meaninglessness of life. After trying everything, after going everywhere, and finding neither truth nor peace, he turned to Jesus, as all must do sooner or later. But, alas, unable to become as a little child, like Dostoevski, — who kept, or won, the child heart, and saw all souls as troops of little children, some with dirty faces and bedraggled frocks, — Tolstoi came to Jesus not in humility, but in humiliation; and so missed a great secret. Let us not chide Tolstoi; his quest is also our quest, and happy is he who finds. There is mystery enough in life to rebuke the proud, and light enough, if we follow the gleam, to revive the spirit of the humble.
If the wise and witty mind of our day, so bewilderingly intelligent and capable, will not bow at the Manger, like the Magi of old, what has it to offer? Surely it dare not give up the quest and resign itself to the religion of despair, lest its own wisdom be impeached as the ultimate folly, ending in obfuscation. It is only fair to ask that it set to work to discover a meaning in life, or to invent a meaning for it, else we all fall together into a hound’s ditch. For, if life is futile and without meaning, by the same token our zeal to know about it is futile and silly, since the true is no better than the false, both being vanity. In the past Wisdom might dwell in an ivory tower, aloof from direct interest in actual life, a kind of umpire of its issues. But that is no longer possible, if only because the very value of Wisdom itself is in debate, and it must defend its tower. For the first time the real issue is clearly seen, and may not be evaded: the fact of an adequate value in life, and a valid worth in human effort, is as much an issue for the wise men of the world as it is for those who follow the Christmas star. Which way, then, lies the clearest light and the truest vision?
For some of us, something in the spirit of Christmas makes it plain that the cocksure sophistication of our day is pathetically superficial, its glittering cleverness profoundly stupid, and its towering pride tragically pitiful. As one listens again to the old, immortal story, and sings carols that echo adown the ages, the scene which many think is only a fairy dream which we have agreed to dream for a day, and then forget, seems nearer to the truth than all our dim philosophies, if only because it does not seek too high for what is near by. After all, perhaps the most terrible error of our smart and giddy-paced age is that we have mistaken knowledge for truth, and cleverness for wisdom, and have forgotten to distinguish between the ‘childish things,’ which Saint Paul said should be put aside, and the great childlike things, which abide, and to which we owe the strength and sanity of life.
By an odd freak of fact, the men in our day who are nearest to the spirit and mind of Jesus in their method and approach are men of science. Long ago Huxley — the elder Huxley, not his descendant who shows us in an exquisite art the humor, irony, and pathos of futility — said that the words of Jesus, ‘Except ye . . . become as little children,’ are the most perfect description of the spirit of science in its search for reality. If a man would know scientific truth, Huxley said, he must sit down before fact as a child, eager, humble, teachable, rich in wonder and pure in heart; and such a spirit is no less the secret of finding the truth of faith. And it is the glory of Christmas that it makes known a truth which can never be uttered, but can only be incarnated and acted.
To the man of science, to say it once more, the simplicity and wonder of a childlike faith are no difficulty; they are his habit of mind and heart. In his laboratory to-day he is like Alice in Wonderland, only his findings are more fantastic. Nor is he averse to imagery as an aid, since his world view is far remote from that of the rationalist, with its neat logical perfection, and he must be content with imperfect symbols of truth, if that is the only alternative available. For example, the Rutherford-Bohr atom is an inherently impossible entity; but every physicist believes in it as the best picture, so far devised, of ultimate facts. The only alternative is to feign contentment with a mass of dynamical equations, which mean little and suggest nothing in the absence of the mental image of the atom.
In other words, as a man of science has to content himself with conceptions which are consciously symbolic, inadequate, and lacking even in consistency, so a religious man is justified in adopting a childlike faith, unless some more perfect knowledge is available to him. And if, in exchange for such a faith, he is offered the commonplaces of thought, or high-flown metaphysics, or dull dogma decked out in fine phrases, a sound instinct will justify him in rejecting them, trusting a deeper prompting, and knowing that the time when he need no longer ‘see through a glass, darkly,’ has not yet arrived. Nor may he hope to find an imagery of reality at once more intimate and august than the Christmas picture, with the brooding beauty of Mother and Child and the white star of the ideal in the sky.
For, unless our race is love-lifted and star-led, what hope have we that war will ever end, and the slum be cleansed, and mankind attain to a collective life that is just and merciful and full of joy? There is no valid fact against a greatspirited cooperation of nations and races but this — that we have a childish fear and lack a happy, childlike faith in the impossible things, which are alone worth the doing. As with the boys and girls in the market place whom Jesus watched at play, envy, spite, greed, petty pride, and, above all, jealousy — these are the real obstacles to those brave large reconstructions, those daring brotherly feats of generosity, that will yet turn human life — of which our lives are tiny parts — into a glad, gracious, and triumphant fraternity all around this sunlit earth.
Ages ago Juliana of Norwich, whose name is still as fair and as fragrant as a blackthorn against a sky of vivid blue, and as tender as mother love and child trust, wrote this line: ‘To me was shown no higher stature than childhood’; and all the great mystics agree with her vision. They know what Jesus meant when He said: ‘Whosoever shall receive this little child in my name receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me receiveth him that sent me.’ George Macdonald, who was half a child and half an angel, tried in his Unspoken Sermons to expound that text, and failed — inevitably so, because it is a white truth which human words discolor!