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The miracle of Christmas

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 24 December 2018

The celebration of Christmas is based on a miracle; the incarnation of the Eternal Word of God as the man Jesus. It is in him that "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell." He was/is the Word made flesh, the intersection of the finite and the infinite, the human and the divine in unity.

It was not as though one could discern what was human and what was divine, as though divinity was added to humanity, or humanity to divinity. Jesus was human and divine in that he lived as a man who found himself in intimate relation to the Father who is the truth of all things. The Calcedonian formula of the two natures of Christ is not a materialist/immaterialist puzzle but an expression of the relationship between the Father and the Son and as the image of what we might become.

The miraculous is represented in the doctrine of the two natures of Christ because the finite cannot mix with the infinite, the divine with the human, the eternal with the temporal, by definition. An understanding of the miraculous is reached in two natures Christology, thus defining what we mean by the miraculous ie it is not a matter of breaking the laws of the universe, but a matter of the relationship between the Father and the Son.


It is impossible for the infinite to directly affect the finite because that would mean that the infinite would have to become finite, God would have to become a finite cause in the world, His transcendence would be abolished and he would not be God. The doctrine of the two natures of Christ spells the end of the interventionist God. God acts in the world through the Word made flesh in the power of the Spirit or not at all.

But did not Jesus do miracles? It is interesting that in the gospel according to John, miracles are denoted as signs pointing to another reality. In a world in which miracle workers abounded, the miracles of Jesus point to the work done by the Word in healing a broken world. The deaf hear, the blind see, the lame walk and the lepers are healed. While our minds go immediately to the medical question, this does not give the clue to what is meant. Even our advanced medical science cannot fathom the resurrection of the dead.

The miracles of Jesus are signs that the action of God in the world occurs through His presence in the world as the Word made flesh ie they illustrate what happens in that presence. To understand these miracles as the actual healing of individuals of medical conditions is to relegate them to events that happened in the past, but in our experience, happen no more.

It has long nagged me that it may be the case that people like me, educated in the sciences, do not believe in miracles because their scientific education forbids them. While this if often true, and has been true of myself, the theology of the Church gives us a different view of the miraculous that does not involve breaking the laws of nature or that stands as evidence for the activity of God in the world or even the existence of a spirit world.

Such "evidence" would disrupt the graciousness of God. As soon as evidence is given for the existence of an interventionist God, grace is destroyed and replaced by laws of logic. We are not drawn by the desire for the good, beautiful or gracious, we are trapped in a logical predicament that has nothing to do with the only possibility we have of encountering God i.e. through the life of the incarnate Word.

It is hard news for the religious that no matter how hard they pray, even for the life of an innocent, that God will not intervene. We have learnt, during the bloodiest century ever, that human evil seems to know no bounds and that the world can be turned into a charnel house. There is no answer for the devout Jew being led to the gas chambers who asked "what is He doing now?" The events of the twentieth century revealed a godless horror. It is no wonder that the renewal of theology in the twentieth century so often took its cue from the bloodshed of the first and second world wars.


As hardened as our hearts have become, at Christmas we celebrate the one and only miracle, the birth to a virgin of Emmanuel, God with us. Luke the evangelist relates the miracle in a charming story of a young couple, the wife heavily pregnant (with someone else's child?), who find no place to stay in the village but a place for animals. In the gospel of Luke the newborn is visited by the shepherds of the field, the lowest rank of society. A humble beginning to be sure. In many paintings of the nativity the child lays on bare earth. This One is the inverse of what we would expect from an omnipotent deity. All we see is the finite. The infinite is hidden (in plain view?).

The Church took many years and often entered strange and unrewarding paths in order to make sense of the stories and witnesses they received in Scripture. This development did not mean that the early disciples of Christ did not have theology, a way of framing the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Indeed, they were doing theology before the canon of the New Testament was settled. But it took the two main councils of the Church, Nicaea (325) and Chalcedon (451) all those years to lay down the orthodoxy to which the Church clings to this day.

The problems the Church faced in this task was immense. How do we understand how God, immortal, invisible, omnipotent, omniscient, roam the earth with no place to lay his head with a groups of disciples that never "got him" and who was framed and murdered by both the religious and civil authorities in the most obscene way?

The tension between the classical understanding of the attributes of God and the life of Jesus was immense. How to understand the incarnation without making God finite? How to understand the incarnation without making Jesus a divine messenger in a Greek myth? The future of Christian faith hung in the balance. Any mistake would have produced doctrine that was fatal to the Church.

All of this effort went towards our understanding of how we can understand how and for what purpose God became flesh and blood as we are, lived as we lived and died as we die. In the face of this, the argument, in our time, about the existence or nonexistence of God is entirely fruitless. How can the finite have knowledge of the infinite? The answer is that it cannot. Yet we must speak of God, the very source of Being if we are not to wander this earth as lost beings. The real question is not about the existence of God it is about whether Chalcedon got it right; when we see the Son we also see the Father. The answer that the Church gives about how we can receive the presence of God is given in Christology, the doctrine about Jesus, the Christ. No other path to God is available to us.

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This essay was written under the influence of Christ, the Heart of Creation by Rowan Williams.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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