The History-Turning Paradox

Bethlehem is emphatically a place where extremes meet. A mass of literature, which increases and will never end, has repeated and rung the changes on this single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox all the literature of our faith is founded. Any agnostic or atheist whose childhood has known a real Christmas has ever afterwards, whether they like it or not, an association in their mind between two ideas that most of humanity must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars. These two ideas are not naturally or necessarily combined, even for Aristotle or Confucius. It is no more inevitable to connect God with an infant than to connect gravitation with a kitten. It has been created in our minds by Christmas because we are Christians. Omnipotence and impotence, or divinity and infancy, do definitely make a sort of epigram which a million repetitions cannot turn into a platitude. It is not unreasonable to call it unique.

It might be suggested that nothing had happened in that crack in the great grey hills except that the whole universe had been turned inside out. Perhaps the Christian tradition has not so clearly emphasised the significance of the divine being having been born in the cave. Christ was born in a hole in the rocks primarily because it marked the position of one outcast and homeless. Christ was not only born on the level of the world, but even lower than the world. In the riddle of Bethlehem it was heaven that was under the earth. There is in that alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down.

All this popular and fraternal element in the story has been rightly attached by tradition to the episode of the Shepherds. But there is another aspect of the shepherds which has not perhaps been so fully developed; and which is more directly relevant here. The common people, like the shepherds, those of the popular tradition, had everywhere been the makers of the mythologies. The populace had been wrong in many things; but they had not been wrong in believing that holy things could have a habitation and that divinity need not disdain the limits of time and space. Mythology had many sins; but it had not been wrong in being as carnal as the Incarnation. So the ancient shepherds might have danced, rejoicing over the philosophers. But the philosophers had also heard.

It is still a strange story, though an old one, how they came out of orient lands, crowned with  something of the mystery of magicians. But there came with them all that world of wisdom that moves all the sages, like Confucius or Pythagoras or Plato. Such wise men would doubtless have come, as these wise men did come, to find themselves confirmed in much that was true in their own traditions and right in their own reasoning. Confucius would have found a new foundation for the family in the very reversal of the Holy Family; Buddha would have looked upon a new renunciation, of stars rather than jewels and divinity than royalty. These learned men would still have the right to say, or rather a new right to say, that there was truth in their old teaching. But after all these learned men would have come to balance their imperfect universe with something they might once have contradicted. Buddha would have come from his impersonal paradise to worship a person. Confucius would have come from his temples of ancestor-worship to worship a child.

There are many evidences of this presence of a spirit at once universal and unique. One will serve here: that no other story, no pagan legend or philosophical anecdote or historical event, seems to us to be Christmas or anything like Christmas. It is either too cold or too frivolous, or too formal and classical, or too simple and savage, or too occult and complicated. Not one of us, whatever his opinions, would ever go to such a scene with the sense that he was going home.

G. K. Chesterton (passage abridged from his The Everlasting Man).


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