By Eugene R. Schlesinger

 

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,  in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. (Gal. 4:4-5)

The first Noel was an astoundingly recent occurrence.

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Because we humans are (always) short-lived and (usually) short-sighted, lacking a proper historical consciousness or a due sense of the immensity of time,[1] it feels like it was a really long time ago. (This is compounded for U.S. citizens, whose nation’s history goes back just over 200 years. Two centuries feels like a long time to us, so two millennia must be a truly long time.)

But on a cosmic scale, the first Christmas just happened, we’ve all just barely missed being eye witnesses to the birth of the Incarnate Word. Homo sapiens have been around for about 300,000 years, on a planet that’s had life for 3.5 billion years, and which has itself been around for 4.6 billion years, all in a universe that’s nearly 14 billion years old.

Like I said, on a cosmic scale, the time between the Nativity and our lives today is negligible.

It was a common trope in the ancient world for skeptics to ask Christians questions along the lines of, “If Christianity is so great and so true, why did it come about so recently?” Quite the opposite line of inquiry from what we so often hear these days, from folks who perceive the Christian faith to be something antiquated.

So, when Paul writes to the Galatians that God sent forth his Son to be born of a woman “when the fullness of time had come,” he signals something about how we ought to view time and our place in it. In fact, the meaning of the “fullness of time” extends beyond what he could have possibly had in mind.

To say that we’re living in tumultuous times is an understatement if ever one was uttered. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed a great many fault lines within our society, fault lines that have been exacerbated by a long-overdue and still-resisted reckoning over the white supremacist legacy of colonialism and racism, and the attempted overthrow of constitutional democracy in the United States. And all of this plays out against the backdrops of the ecological crisis and the deepening tragedy of sexual abuse scandals throughout the Christian churches. Amid all this, we cry out for relief, for resolution, and (I add with some measure of fear and trembling) for justice.

We do so rightly, for these are problems with solutions disproportionate to our fallen finitude. They require a supernatural resolution, though, properly understood, the supernatural does not bypass, but rather takes up and fulfills the natural. In other words, just because we need God to fix this doesn’t take us off the hook, in terms of being agents of change. The way God solves these problems is through transformed human agency.

And this is precisely why we celebrate Christmas, because God has not left us to ourselves, but has instead come to us, become one of us, so that we might be redeemed, healed, set at liberty, adopted as God’s own children.

And yet, the long patience of God, who awaited the fullness of time — the expansion and cooling of the universe, the long march of evolution with all its fits and starts, a wayward human history, and all the travails of his chosen people Israel, the gestation of the Word’s humanity in the womb of the holy Mother of God — ought to warn us away from expecting the solutions to come with rapidity, ought indeed teach us to be suspicious of solutions that present themselves as quick and easy.[2]

The eternal God is also infinitely patient, for God does not have to wait for the opportune time. All moments of time are equally present to the creator of time. But the God who is infinite wisdom also knows precisely when the fullness of time has arrived, even when it strikes us as a long time coming.

And indeed, the course of the incarnate Word’s earthly life, the beginning of which we celebrate this day, shows us much the same thing — a God who seems quite willing to take his time. He lived for around 33 years, was actively engaged in ministry for three of them, and redeemed the world over the course of a long weekend.

On the cross, he too cried out to the one who was able to deliver him from death, only to find that the time was not yet right. The way would not be around, but through. The long patience of God left unanswered the cries of the incarnate Christ, allowing him to sink down into death.

And the long patience of God continued to wait all through Holy Saturday.

Until, finally, in the light of Easter, those cries to be delivered from death were answered and the Savior was raised into immortality. By some measures, this answer might seem to have come three days too late, but in the wisdom of God, it was perfect timing.

We presently face manifold uncertainty. And while so many cries to the heavens seem to be met with indifference, today, in our celebration of Christ’s birth, we are reassured that this is not so. In the fullness of time God has acted. In the fullness of time God will act. Christmas assures us that even if we are living in the abandonment of Holy Thursday, the agony of Good Friday, or the desolate grief of Holy Saturday, the light of Easter will dawn, and all will be set right.

I write all this with full awareness that it’s kind of a “downer” (likely not the “cup of cheer” for which you were hoping on Christmas Day), but also in hope that it is also honest and in hope that this honesty will allow the glad tidings of Christmas, of the birth of the Christ, of the Word made flesh, to be a respite amid the tumult and uncertainty of life at the tail end of 2021. And in hope that this respite will steel us to face the challenges that surely lie ahead in 2022.

God is frustratingly, sometimes discouragingly patient. But in Christ we have the hope that God is always right on time.

Merry Christmas, and God bless us, everyone.


[1] A major exception to this would be a series like Frank Herbert’s Dune, which I’ve recently revisited, thanks to Denis Villeneuve’s excellent film adaptation.

[2] I say this not having fully worked it out for myself yet, but with a growing conviction that we cannot allow calls for patience to put us in the position of the “white moderates” decried by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” who counseled the oppressed Black community to bear with their oppression until the opportune time for equality under the law came around. The ultimate resolution of these problems may be a long time coming, but we are not thereby excused from taking decisive action here and now where and when and as we’re able.

About The Author

Eugene Schlesinger is Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University. The author of Sacrificing the Church: Mass, Mission, and Ecumenism (Fortress Academic, 2019) and Missa Est! A Missional Liturgical Ecclesiology (Fortress Press, 2017), and the editor of Covenant, he understands his vocation to be an Episcopalian who does Catholic theology.

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Doug Simmons
1 month ago

I’m truly sorry, but whatever good points you are making in this article get lost for me when I encounter references to “the attempted overthrow of constitutional democracy in the United States.” I can overlook the common failure to recognize the other social fault lines the writer lists as endemic manifestations of Sin reflecting the Fallen and broken nature of humankind and creation in general. I’m used to people thinking that we can somehow “fix” the problems whose roots are so deep that the Creator Himself had to enter and sacrifice His only begotten Son in order for their to… Read more »