Bishop Michael Ingham

Christmas, at its deepest level, is about God making a home in the world. It’s not simply about shepherds and angels and lights on the tree. It’s about the mysterious coming together of different dimensions of reality that, to all rational thought, ought mutually to exclude each other.

Here is the intellectual dilemma. How can the finite and the infinite co-exist in the same moment and in the same place? If you think of transcendence as that aspect of reality beyond scientific inspection, if you think of it as that dimension not bounded by time and space and other natural limitations, then how can it enter time and space and be subject to the very conditions to which it does not conform?

To put it simply, how can a glass of water hold an entire ocean? How can the human withstand the sudden arrival of the divine? How can a unit of energy withstand the infusion of limitless energy like, say, a light bulb plugged into the power of a supernova?

For this is what Christmas claims. That God entered the world in the form of the child Jesus. God so loved the world that the Creator of the universe took human flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. It’s an astonishing claim when you think about it. It brings together two intellectually irreconcilable things: the created and the uncreated, time and infinity. Christmas claims that at a single point in human history that which lies beyond time and space became intimately connected with us.

Now this, of course, may not be the problem you wake up with every morning. What have these abstract questions got to do with the daily struggles of life, with finding a job, paying the mortgage, coping with global warming, financial meltdowns, or figuring out what’s happening to your relationships? Well, the answer is—everything.

Christianity claims that God is present in everything. God is not outside anything. There is no particle of existence from which God is absent. To put this another way, Christianity is a material religion. Christians believe that matter matters. And this has several important consequences.

First, it means the world is a place of meaning. The cosmos in which we live is not the result of a random collision of molecules in space. It’s not accidental. The cosmos has purpose, meaning and intention, and we have a role in it. We discern its meaning and we also shape its meaning. We are its products and we also have a great capacity to determine its outcome. That means we have a spiritual connection to the planet. We are not merely bystanders. We are not ourselves accidental. The very purpose of our lives is deeply connected to the life of the world.

If we belonged to a religion that taught, as some do, that matter is mere illusion, that time and space are without significance, then there would be no impetus, for example, towards things like science. Why spend time investigating a dimension of existence that has no meaning?

But because we believe matter matters, we also believe scientific discovery is important in the search for meaning. This is why those Christians who are opposed to scientific knowledge have not actually understood the implication of God’s incarnation in Jesus.

We have a spiritual connection to the world, because God has entered it, and God has placed truth in the world for our scientific discovery, just as God has placed truth in the world for our spiritual discovery. And the two kinds of truth have the same source. Science and religion are not in conflict. Only bad religion and bad science conflict with each other.

The Mystical Nativity by Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1500-1501). National Gallery, London, U.K

This means that science and social science—and what they have to say about our world and its origin and composition, what they have to say about economics, biology, human life and social relationships—are relevant to Christian faith. They are part of the world God inhabits and infuses with spiritual meaning.

Second, we have an ethical obligation towards the world. It’s not simply self-interest that requires us to look after the planet on which we depend for our lives. You don’t need to be ethical to do that. A moral connection to the world means that we care. We care because God loves this creation, God is part of this creation, and our love for God is the prime motivating factor in our political and social action.

And we engage in politics and social change as Christians precisely because our moral obligation toward the world compels us to do so. We see poverty as an evil, not simply an inconvenience. We see racism and anti-semitism and human trafficking and child degradation and homophobia as interlocking oppressions, as part of the systemic corruption of the human condition, not simply as unforeseen tragedies about which we can do nothing.

If we believed that the human body were simply an outward shell, a mere container for the soul, then it would have no value for us. But because of Christmas we do not. At Christmas God entered our flesh through Jesus, and so the finite body became infused with the infinite value and beauty of God, and therefore the condition of every man, woman and child is of political and moral significance to us.

If this is true, then human worth has something to do with God’s appearing in the world in Jesus Christ. And it follows that the spiritual life is not about becoming detached from the world but becoming more engaged. Engaged in the struggle with poverty, engaged in the promotion of dignity, engaged in the eradication of interlocking oppressions, engaged in environmental responsibility, and engaged as well in our own appropriate self-care.

Because it’s not simply other people God loves. It’s also you and me. It’s not just humanity that God cares about. It’s you—your life, your health, your spirit, your mind and happiness, and those of all you love.

If you are the glass of water, the finite container, then the ocean of God’s love has also entered you. The grace of God has been poured out upon you, and this is a gift of such unimaginable beauty that the only proper response is joy. Because God thinks you and me, and all of us, are so colossally worthwhile that infinite grace is now part of us, unconditional love is inseparable from us—this single fact changes everything.

The Word became flesh, says the Gospel of John, and dwelt among us. And we beheld his glory .. full of grace and truth. And because of that, dear friends, Christians rejoice with a deep and thankful joy. And we commit ourselves not just to contemplation—but to action.