One of my favorite Christmas traditions has always been the Christmas Eve candlelight service. As a child I probably liked it most for the getting-to-light-a-candle aspect (who doesn’t like playing with fire and wax?), though even then I felt the mystical power of seeing one light pierce the darkness and gradually begin to spread throughout the congregation, illuminating and warming the church sanctuary. It was a marvel to behold, especially when—as “Silent Night” or “Oh Holy Night” echoed throughout the candlelit room—I began to fathom the symbolic significance of the whole activity. It was the image of a world-changing light that spread everywhere from one humble little plastic-cup-encased white wax candle. The Incarnation.
This baby—born into strife, squalor, in a nondescript cave—was more than a feared little rebel threat and chink in the armor of the Roman machine. In time this humble little child set in motion a movement that surpassed Rome and all other empires in size, scope, and revolutionary impact. From Bethlehem the light spread through the dark sanctuary of the world, from the Middle East to Europe to the ends of the earth. Within two hundred years Christ’s world-changing life and gospel was being propagated and theologized by major figures in North Africa (Tertullian), Greece (Clement), Turkey (Polycarp), and Rome (Justin Martyr). Against strident opposition and persecution the light spread quickly and caught fire in some places (Europe), ultimately becoming the dominant cultural influence from that point onwards. 2007 years later, now in places like China and Sub-Saharan Africa, the light is shining brighter by the day.
The Christmas Eve candlelight services are more than just a nice symbolic act of remembrance, however. They are the continuation of a biblical tradition of likening Christ to images of light and darkness. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light,” wrote the prophet Jeremiah (9:2). “On those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” This was hundreds of years before Mary, Joseph or Jesus were even born, but it was an idea Jesus himself carried on as an adult. “While I am in the world,” he said, “I am the light of the world” (Matthew 9:5).
When I think hard about the Christmas story, beyond the cutesy nativity scenes and pomp and circumstance of it all, my brain begins to hurt. Essentially the birth of baby Jesus is the most metaphysical, reality-defying cosmic event in history. Incarnation is a fun word, but it’s an impossible concept to get your head around. What does it mean that the God of the Universe—the infinite Being of beings, creator and sustainer of all things, apart from time and physicality—became a physical, mortal being in the very creation he breathed into existence? How could it be that a humble Jewish peasant girl could hold within her womb something more powerful than the entire world—the unborn King that Over the Rhine’s Linford Detweiler so eloquently described as “the prism through which the spectrum of history [would] radiate, bend and contort.”
Indeed, the Incarnation is hard to fathom, as are the various other marvels (heavenly hosts, angel appearances, magical stars) associated with the birth of Jesus. Sufjan Stevens tackles the mystery of this cosmic event in his song “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, IL,” imagining the Incarnation as an alien being making a fearsome arrival in the terrestrial sphere: “The flashing at night / the sirens grow and grow / Oh, history involved itself / Mysterious shade that took its form / Or what it was, Incarnation / Three stars / Delivering signs and dusting from their eyes.”
Perhaps art is our best chance at grasping just what the Incarnation really means. Perhaps in the soft strokes of a brush, or a violin bow, or the elegant assemblage of people and candles, we can best grasp this mystery of God “involving Himself” in creation. Perhaps Linford comes close in his artful articulation of this event—“this concentration of cosmic reconnaissance and holy motion … this violent generosity flung at a speck in the universe, this needle in a haystack unspeakable gift hurled across dark skies toward our not yet beating hearts, this quiet revolution born out of many long conversations around heaven’s fireplace.” It’s a fireside chat about a baby that now involves billions across many millennia.