When Francis of Assisi orchestrated the first crèche in Greccio on Christmas Eve in 1223 with its scene of infant child surrounded by living animals, the intention was to humanize the birth of the messiah and so remind medieval Christians how near this God was. As Francis states, I wish to remember the child who was born in Bethlehem and to remember with my own eyes the hardships of his needy childhood, how he rested in the crib, and how, between a cow and a donkey, he was laid in the hay.
This was in keeping with Francis fundamental push to recover an evangelical perfection that reinserted the believer back into the narrative of scripture as he or she walked the Emmaus road. It was to experience afresh the poverty and humility of the Christ child. Moreover, there was a desire to place the biblical narrative into the cosmic narrative of the renewal of all creation. For a brief moment, the orders of creation from angelic to human to animal all came together in glorious harmony. Its effect, however, was more than this. As Giottos painting suggests, in placing an infant with its lusty cries for food and comfort into a wooden crib, Francis had inadvertently pointed toward the contingent nature of life and the “hardships” of human existence.
To imagine that first Christmas night as the time when the divine will first moved with the human will is to reflect on lifes fragile nature and utter instability. Choices made over hundreds of years had to be fused into a common narrative to make that night possible. More than that, however, a birth mother and an adoptive father had to weave their lives together to form a protective environment in which this child could grow and realize his destiny. An Edenic paradise as earthy and bacteria-ridden as any other slice of the Earth had to be formed by those first parents to preserve the fragile life of this child. In this way, the stabilizing structures of family formed a counter to the stabilizing movement of eternity.
When we consider that first Christmas, we should remember the condescension of the Son into our time and space. On that holy night with the first rhythmic rising and falling of his lungs, the Son entered fully into the instability of contingent existence. In doing so, the Son not only began a journey that dealt finally with the disharmony of sin, with each breath he experienced the life of creatures whose existence depends fully on others.
First, the Son endured what it meant to be created out of nothing, to have no basis, no ground for ones own existence. Athanasius suggests that there is a tendency toward natural corruption in all humans that results from their status as creatures. What he means is that humans tend toward dissolution because human being cannot sustain itself. The end of life and the beginning of life reveal how humans are dependent rational animals. With each breath we breathe and each morsel we ingest, we remind ourselves of the need for the proper environment and nourishment to survive. When we think of the lusty cries of the infant Jesus, we see how much the Son endured our finitude.
Humans stand between the sheer instability of creaturely existence and the deep yearning for a stability that transcends such existence. The foundation of created being is change and in this mutability lies the potential to achieve beauty or recede into deformity. There are no ordinary people.
Second, the Son experienced the movements of emotion and desire that shape human existence. The instability of human being has its psychological counterpart in the unstable nature of human emotion and desire. Maximus the Confessor helps us tease out this fundamental instability when he notes that there is a liability to passionate movements in all humans, including the Christ child. The passions, those movements of emotion and desire within the soul, form the basis for sinfulness or righteousness depending upon whether they are properly ordered or not.
And thus, the cries of the infant point toward the hunger, thirst, anger, and fear that the Son would undergo during his earthly sojourn. These passionate movements of emotion and desire became the basis of his temptations to turn away from the Fathers will and inward upon his own human will. They are the basis upon which all humans become either angelic as they bend emotion and desire heavenward or demonic as they enclose emotion and desire in upon creation itself. Again, Maximus notes that the Son assumed human natures liability to the passions and yet triumphed over them. He ordered his own emotion and desire, which shows us how righteousness unfolds in a human life and provides the medicine to heal our own waywardness.
As we move to Christmas day and begin the countdown to epiphany, let us enter again into the biblical narrative of the eternal Son becoming flesh. Let us hear the cries of an infant as he wrestles with his desires for emotional and physical nourishment. In those sounds, we glimpse eternity stabilizing the mutability of life and conforming it once again to the rhythms of the triune God.