In this season, dominated by the claim of an ancient miracle, I’m thinking of the book in which this claim is recorded. It is a strange book, tone-deaf to our modern sensibilities.
It used to be called ‘the good book’, which seems odd because it speaks with moral authority and it claims definite knowledge of God’s thoughts and intentions. In our culture, that’s considered a recipe for evil, not good.
And, of course, the book speaks of miracles – lots of miracles – which, to a culture steeped in Darwinian disbelief, sets it squarely in the realm of fairy tale.
Take, for example, another story from the book; the story of Jonah in the belly of a whale. This story reports – I grant – a highly unexpected turn of events. If you think that the whale found the Jonah thing hard to swallow, just imagine the modern reader. In his experience, people who enter fish don’t come out in one piece. His disbelief, he thinks, is reasonable; a product of his experience.
But another, less obvious factor also deserves consideration. What if the tables have somehow been turned; that what we record as experience is actually colored or filtered by our disbelief? What if, because of his presuppositions, the modern reader has given little thought to the world he lives in, to even the body that he lives in? Perhaps he is less qualified than he thinks to measure even his own story’s plausibility.
Is it a greater miracle that a whale should swallow a man or that such an unlikely creature as a whale should exist at all? Is it a greater wonder that Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale or that the reader has spent 270 days in the belly of a giantess? Very likely, the reader has somehow forgotten that fact or – more to the point – he has forgotten the wonder of it.
He lives in a world perishing for lack of wonder. He moves through it with eyes cast down, focused on what is man-made and man-sized. He thinks the cell phone in his pocket is a miracle and the intricate dance of the solar system a monotonous routine.
He thinks he knows the difference between the natural and the supernatural, but perhaps he is mistaken. He thinks that if something happens once, it is a miracle; if it happens a thousand times it is not. He thinks that the repetition of something marvelous removes the marvel and cancels the need for explanation or gratitude or reflection. He is surrounded by wonders that he has lost the ability to see.
And so, this ancient book is, in his ears, no longer ‘good.’ And of this ancient miracle, he thinks, we should not speak its name, let alone allow a cow or manger to appear in public. He is done with wonder.
But wonder is not done with him. After fishing Jonah from the whale, God said to him, “Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
The greatest wonder in this universe, the Christmas story that no one can suppress, is this: “he has come to seek and to save those who are lost.”