What child is this? The story of a vulnerable baby has rarely resonated more powerfully than this Christmas Eve. In Newtown, Conn., last week, President Obama raised the old questions that also resonate with new force: “Why are we here?” he asked, invoking all the world’s religions. “What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose?” After noting the difficulties of “groping through the darkness,” the president concluded, “There’s only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love we have for our children. . . The warmth of a small child’s embrace. That is true.” Christmas is the world-wide feast of that very warmth and that very truth.
Strikingly, in the earliest of the four Gospel explanations of Jesus as a source of meaning and purpose, there is no Nativity narrative, no child in the manger, no star in the sky. Instead, the Gospel of Mark, written around the year 70, begins with Jesus as a mature figure encountering John the Baptist, ready to take on the tyrant Herod Antipas and his Roman sponsors.
Yet the authors of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, writing a decade or so later, radically altered what they found in Mark. They began their Gospels not with a powerful prophet, but with a babe in Bethlehem. It is as if, by the time of those accounts, the followers of Jesus needed a more direct reckoning with what he meant — and they found it in the figure of a child. As Luke’s angels tell the shepherds, “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger.”
The Christmas story has become the central parable of Christianity. Historically unreliable, and theologically less significant than Easter, the Nativity still embodies a fundamental revelation of the religion’s deepest meaning. God is with the poor. The purpose of life is not acquisition of wealth, fame, or power, but selfless love.
The shepherds saw in the birth of Jesus something life-changing, and so have Christians down through the centuries. Jesus — whose early followers took him to be the messenger of God, the savior of Israel — eventually came to be understood as God himself, which made the story of his birth even more powerful. In Bethlehem, the very creator of the universe becomes vulnerable in the most contingent and dangerous of circumstances. Indeed, the “Silent Night” sentimentality one often associates with the Nativity is obliterated, in Matthew’s account, by a confrontation with absolute evil. At news of the birth of Jesus, Herod the Great (father of Herod Antipas) “was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under.” Warned in a dream, Joseph escapes with the child Jesus, saving his life.
That turn in the story gives the good news its most dramatic expression: Because God entrusts himself to the protecting care of humans, humans can, in turn, entrust themselves to the otherwise unknowable God — even in the face of unspeakable murders of children. Trust, exemplified by the care given to an imperiled infant, is at the heart of existence. It is why we are here.
If Christians found an ultimate signal of the benign in the child Jesus, they did so because humans had already long seen just such absolute goodness in every child. The anguish that wrenched the United States last week was grounded in the protective instincts we feel for children. In their presence, the purpose of life is crystal clear and always has been. “That fierce and boundless love we feel for them,” as Obama put it, “a love that takes us out of ourselves and binds us to something larger — we know that’s what matters.”
That 20 little ones of Newtown, finally, could not be protected defines America’s all-embracing sorrow. Our horror is mitigated, if not removed, by the selfless love the adults in their school displayed. Goodness like that can surprise as much as wickedness. The Christmas story, usually taken as angelic glad tidings pure and simple, in fact crosses that whole range of experience, proclaiming a God to whom nothing human is foreign — neither danger, nor grief, nor consolation, nor love. This year, with 20 children lost, God’s heart, too, is broken.James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.