It was a Saturday, around Christmas time, years ago, and my three-year-old daughter Amy and I are in the car picking up our pizza order. Car seats for children were not yet mandatory, so Amy is sitting next to me on the passenger’s seat; her little legs sticking straight out.

We must have been listening to Christmas music because as I make a stop at a railroad crossing, Amy says: “I don’t believe Jesus was born in a stable.”

I glance at her and say: “I do.”

“I don’t.” Her response is firm.

I look at her. I can’t believe that I have a three year-old doubter in the family. I say, “But honey, the Bible says Jesus was born in a stable.”

“I don’t believe it,” she says.

There’s a momentary pause, then I ask, “Amy, do you know what a stable is?”

“Yes.”

“What?”

“It’s what holds two pieces of paper together.”

“No honey,” I say, “that’s a staple. A stable is more like a barn. You know what, after our pizza tonight, we’ll visit some people from church who have a manger scene in their barn. OK?”

“OK.”

Some things make no sense. Being born in a staple is one such thing. It’s nonsense, and no one should believe it.

But what do we say when what is dismissed as nonsense by some is embraced by others as a holy mystery? Think, for example, of John’s Gospel 1: 1, 14: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”

Is that nonsense or holy mystery? And what makes the difference? Madeleine L’Engle says that nonsense is anything that is without meaning. It makes no sense in the total scheme of things. Mystery speaks of something that is meaningful, though beyond our full comprehension. It elicits wonder and awe but also brings “understanding.”

To a secularist, religious belief is irrational, wishful thinking, as silly and nonsensical as believing that Jesus is born in a staple. Christians, on the other hand, claim that when we say that we have a sense of beauty or fairness, or a sense of the presence of God, we are not engaged in wishful thinking or projecting our feelings on to reality. We are responding to this incredible reality in which we find ourselves, and like small children, repeatedly asking: “What’s that?” All our senses act as receptors, and we form our beliefs, in consultation with many others, by interpreting all the incoming data that constitutes our reality.

Charles Sanders Pierce writes: “A man looks upon nature, sees its sublimity and beauty, and his spirit gradually rises to the idea of God. He does not see the divinity, nor does nature prove to him the existence of that Being, but it does incite his mind and imagination until the idea becomes rooted in his heart.”

My dad died when he was 47 years old. I remember when the family gathered in the funeral home to see his body in the open casket. As we entered into the room, my five-year-old cousin, Bernie, broke the silence by saying loudly, “Uncle Case is not in heaven. He’s right there!” pointing to the casket. My aunt tried to hush him, whispering: “Uncle Case’s soul is in heaven.” It made no sense to Bernie. I felt a child had told us all that the emperor has no clothes. It is hard to make sense of it.

Years later, with the computer, I remember sending a photo of our newborn grandchild to relatives in California. When I tapped the send button, my computer made a whoosh sound as if the photo was leaving and flying through the air. I knew that the picture I was looking at on my computer was now also on my relatives’ computers in California. It’s a marvel to me. And it got me wondering whether the moment we die, while our bodies lie lifeless in a casket or on a battlefield, there’s this inaudible whoosh and we are safe and cradled in the arms of God. Perhaps this is a trivial image of a great mystery. It will no doubt be different from anything we can imagine, but different only because it will be better.

And this confidence that it will be better, that our brief life is meaningful and not a slow descent into oblivion, is based on nothing less than the Christian’s central belief: the Word became flesh. People have seen, and continue to see, his glory. It is full of grace and truth. We see it in his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection. In him we see that God is with us and for us.

To embrace this unfathomable mystery is “…a posture less of comprehension than encounter.” It overwhelms!

Jack Roeda

Jack Roeda is a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church. He served as pastor of Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Michigan for the last 33 years of his ministry.

7 Comments

  • Hsrvey Kiekover says:

    “Overwhelming,” Jack. Thsnks for this meaningful and deeply encouraging blog.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Jack, for this article that tries to make sense of the Christian belief that God became human. That God took on human flesh at the Christmas event doesn’t really make sense, but is still believed by Christians. That Mary gave birth to a baby without a human father’s involvement doesn’t make sense but is believed by Christians. That there was a multitude of angels who announced Jesus birth is unlikely but Christians believe this too. That Jesus grew up into adulthood without ever doing wrong or sinning is unreasonable but Christians believe this. That Jesus fed a crowd of 5,000 men, plus women and children, from a child’s small lunch is doubtful, but Christians believe this too, along with many other miracles, including bringing dead people back to life. That Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, along with many other dead people at the same time is an impossibility to people of reason, but Christians believe this to be true as well. To believe these events requires a setting aside of all reason and common sense. Christians, like most everyone else, use reason and common sense when making important decisions for their lives, whether it be changing jobs, choosing a marriage partner, raising children, buying a home, planning for retirement. But reason is set aside when choosing to believe the story of God’s incarnation. Christians accept the story of Jesus by faith apart from reason, and stake their lives upon such a legendary account.

    The story of Jesus is seen by non Christians as a legendary tale, a fabrication of fact, but a nice story. Even many Christians would say, much of the Biblical account is less than factual, perhaps mythical with a spiritual lesson. Take the creation story as an example.

    Most Christians call into question the miraculous events attributed to other religions, whether it be the appearance of the angel, Gabriel, to Mohamed to give the words of the Koran to him. Or Christians tend to doubt whether the angel, Moroni, directed Joseph Smith to the hidden golden plates and which when translated became the book of Mormon. Or whether the lost tribes of Israel actually migrated from the Middle East to North America. Christians, using common sense or logic, discount the validity of other religions, along with their so-called miracles. It makes no more sense to believe the bazar teachings of the Bible than the teachings of other religions. To the non Christian world, the bazar events of the Bible simply are not true, and wishing them to be will not make it so.

    As Christians, we tend to believe the tenets of our faith without wavering. We wonder how those who are not Christian can possibly doubt what we believe to be true. But reason actually puts the shoe on the other foot. Wishing you the best for the New Year.

    • Daniel J Meeter says:

      Actually, not.

      • RLG says:

        Actually, not what? You don’t believe the tenets of Christianity without wavering? Reason doesn’t put the shoe on the other foot? In other words, reason doesn’t make the story of Christ untenable? What are you suggesting?

        • Daniel J Meeter says:

          Well, sInce you ask, not your definitions or your premises, therefore not your conclusions or your implications. Rather, the definitions and premises in, for example, the two hinge paragraphs of the original post: “Is that nonsense or holy mystery?” and “To a secularist.”

  • Jan Heerspink says:

    Thanks, Jack. A wonderful analogy. Whoosh. It makes the loss of loved ones to this earth so much more manageable. And I love your daughter’s “staple” as well as her youthful ability to contradict. I trust she is still skeptical at times?

  • Dick DeYoung says:

    Tomorrow marks twenty-five years since I last spoke to my Dad. That day I visited him in a nursing home and he would die the next day while I was at work. It has proved very important for me, a gift from God, that I was able to say goodbye to him. Lying in a bed on the second floor of Freedom Village in Holland, his last words to me at least that I remember were “It has been a joy to be your father.” When I got to the parking lot and to my car, I turned and looked toward the building and there he was in the window, just to the right of the front entrance, up on the second floor. I raised my hands toward him and uttered a benediction — “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you, now and always.” It is a mystery and not nonsense — the words we are given either from our hearts to those we love or the words we are given from Scripture to express the hope of the Gospel.

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