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