I really like mystery novels. Or, Christoper Nolan movies, like Memento, Inception, and Interstellar. Or, even the earlier movies of M. Night Shyamalan, including The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. If you’ve never seen these (and most aren’t suited for younger audiences) watch them when you have a minute over the holidays. But, only if you like mysteries and plots with divergences you didn’t expect. We attribute the success of movies like these to the fact they delight us with extraordinary endings, mysterious plot twists that confound us to the very end. Most of all, however, I think we take a delicious pride in seeing if we can be “the one”- the smart one who outsmarts the writers and directors, who figures out the twists and turns, who boldly pronounces to our friends as we walk out to our cars as the credits roll, “I knew it all along!”
I think we have a love/hate relationship with mystery. In our secular, modern world, as creatures of the Enlightenment, of the scientific method, we want to have everything figured out, categorized, and boxed up. There’s comfort and safety there, but mostly there’s control. If we know something, understand it, and can explain it, then we are free to mentally manipulate it and use it for our purposes.
But, the love a mother feels for the child she just met? The way a sunset on a certain day brings sighs of contentment and, sometimes, tears? The way a melody can lift your heart to such heights that it incomprehensibly transcends the bitter sadness you felt only minutes before, and at times even brings you into the very throne room of the living God? No one can explain these things. These are mysteries. Explanations seem vain and pointless, and in those moments we have totally lost control. In those moments, we simply surrender.
The Incarnation is one of those mysteries. How is it that the being who spoke the universe into existence, who breathed life into you and me, became a microscopic proto-human swimming in amniotic fluid? How is it that He in whom we live and move and have our being, who holds the universe together on a molecular level and keeps it from flying apart second by second through His active will, become dependent on a teenage girl, kept on life support by a thin, fragile cord?
This was just the beginning of the Jesus who confounded those around Him, who confounds us still, who refused to meet the common definitions of “messiah,” or “savior,” or “king,” yet in being none of those things anyone was expecting became something so much greater that any of them, any of us, could have comprehended. We wanted delivery from oppression from earthly rulers and powers; He offered freedom from princes and principalities who threatened our eternal existence. We wanted salvation from slavery; He offered freedom from death itself. We sought a king who would rule this world justly and wisely; He promised to wipe clean the world and make it what it once was, when we were young and immortal and free, and what it will be again. As Leonard Boff notes, we discovered the true nature of God through living on earth with this man, and we discovered how to live as men by intimately knowing and walking on earth with God.
Yet, perhaps the greatest mystery of all lies in the greatest gift of Christmas, the gift the incarnate Jesus still offers every day to every person in every era in every corner of the world. It is a completely free gift, yet to receive it you have to give up everything you ever had–your pride, your rights to self, and your ability to live any old way you choose. But, once you actually receive this gift, you learn that you were deceiving yourself all along. You never actually had those things you thought you had. You were never free, you never had a claim on yourself, your life had a predetermined, disastrous outcome. What you gave was actually nothing at all. You gave nothing, and received everything in return.
We don’t really want to figure it out, do we? Do we really want a God in a box? Aren’t we profoundly grateful for a wild God, a God beyond our reckoning and imagining, one who defies our description, and one who invites us into a life of mystery?
Jay Ferguson, PhD, Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.