Unlike most people, I do not feel much Dickensian nostalgia at Christmastime. The holiday fell just a few days after my father died early in my childhood, and all my memories of the season are darkened by the shadow of that sadness. For this reason, perhaps, I am rarely stirred by the sight of manger scenes and tinseled trees. Yet, more and more, Christmas has enlarged in meaning for me, primarily as an answer to my doubts, as evidence of the Creator who exults in life and beauty.

In Christmas, the material world and the invisible world come together. If you read the Bible alongside a Civilization 101 textbook, you will see how seldom that happens. The textbook dwells on the glories of ancient Egypt and the pyramids; the book of Exodus mentions the names of two Hebrew midwives but neglects to identify the pharaoh. The textbook honors the contributions from Greece and Rome; the Bible contains a few scant references, mostly negative, and treats great civilizations as mere background static for God’s work among the Jews.

Yet on Jesus the two books agree. And with each online calendar reminder, the flashing date implicitly acknowledges what the Gospels and the history books both affirm: whatever you may believe about it, the birth of Jesus was so important that it split history into two parts. Everything that has ever happened on this planet falls into a category of before Christ or after Christ.

In the cold, in the dark, among the wrinkled hills of Bethlehem, God who knows no before or after, entered time and space. One who knows no boundaries at all took them on: the shocking confines of a baby’s skin, the ominous restraints of mortality. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation,” an apostle would later say; “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col. 1:15, 17) But the few eyewitnesses on Christmas night saw none of that. They saw an infant struggling to work never-before-used lungs.

Why did Jesus come to earth? Theologians tend to answer that question from the human perspective: He came to show us what God is like, to show us what a human being should be like, to lay down his life as a sacrifice. I cannot help thinking, though, that Incarnation had meaning in other, cosmic ways.

God loves matter. You can read God’s signature everywhere: rocks that crack open to reveal delicate crystals, the clouds swirling around Venus, the fecundity of the oceans (home to 90 percent of all living things). Clearly, according to Genesis, the act of creation gave God pleasure.

Yet creation also introduced a gulf between God and humans, a gulf that can be sensed all through the Old Testament. Moses, David, Jeremiah, and others who boldly wrestled with the Almighty, flung this accusation to the heavens: “Lord, you don’t know what it’s like down here!” Job was most blunt: “Do you have eyes of flesh? Do you see as a mortal sees?” (Job 10: 4-5)

They had a point, a point God underscored with the decision to visit planet Earth. Choosing words that astonish, the author of Hebrews reflects on Jesus’ life as a time when he “learned obedience,” “was made perfect,” and became a “sympathetic” high priest. There is only one way to learn sympathy, as signified by the Greek roots of the word sym pathos, “to feel or suffer with.”

Of the many reasons for Incarnation, surely one was to answer Job’s accusation. Do you have eyes of flesh? Yes, indeed.

I, a citizen of the visible world, know well the struggle involved in clinging to belief in another, invisible world. Christmas turns the tables and hints at the struggle involved when the Lord of both worlds descends to live by the rules of the one.

In Bethlehem, the two worlds came together, realigned; what Jesus went on to accomplish on planet Earth made it possible for God someday to resolve all disharmonies in both worlds. No wonder a choir of angels broke out in spontaneous song, disturbing not only a few shepherds but the entire universe.

Adapted from Finding God in Unexpected Places



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37 responses to “Disturbing the Universe”

  1. Berwyn says:

    I love the sense of awe and wonder you convey. We would do well to cultivate a sense of awe for God and his creation every day.

    For instance, I marvel not only at the Incarnation, but that as a babe, Jesus entrusted his care to teenage parents! Dirt-poor. Just the three of them. Fleeing from danger. Refugees in a foreign land. This is how our Lord came to us.

    Thank you, Philip.

  2. Keith Akins says:

    Thank you for your comments.

    So much of even the best academic theological inquiry tries to answer, “What was the Incarnation for” , by pointing out the (genuine) benefits to the human race … “What’s in it for us?” I like that you inquire what might have been in Creation and the Incarnation that was for God’s own purposes including but in addition to our own salvation. There are, for example, clues in passages that indicate Jesus came as a sign to the “principalities and powers” that imply that the Incarnation was much more than a clever logistical gambit to get an adequately spotless Lamb onto the world scene.

    I explore these ideas more fully in my upcoming, long-in-process book, “Why God Joined the Human Race” and would be glad to share a draft for your comment when it is ready.

    Grace and Peace be with you!

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Good, I look forward to seeing the draft! I presume you explore John Duns Scotus, a most original thinker on this subject. –Philip

  3. Hi Philip. Thank you for your message. I’ve been dwelling for a long time on the effect that a baby can have on us, in contrast to imposition of power play. That vulnerability speaks to our own, and I find that that’s the most compelling thing about the Christmas story. So here’s a poem called ‘Unprepared’.
    We prepared for your coming,
    with fireworks – a veritable
    sky-show –
    military brass bands befitting a
    king and mighty warrior,
    a podium festooned with
    and well rehearsed speeches.
    But our fireworks were
    reduced to a single star
    and a flickering lamp
    throwing up beastly shadows
    on a stable wall,
    and our fanfares drowned out by the cries of a young woman,
    a child giving birth to a child,
    bunting stripped away in preference for straw,
    and dignitaries upstaged by a motley crew of sheep herders;
    And our speeches?
    Our fine, eloquent speeches reduced to “Oohs,” and “Aahs. “
    And somewhere in our silly, soppy defencelessness
    you made yourself at home.
    Sr. Sandra Sears CSBC 2010

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Very nice. I once heard the Incarnation described as “fireworks in reverse”: glorious light condensed into an ordinary paper package.

  4. Thankyou! You remain my favorite author as no one else I have read imbeds so much thought and wisdom into such honest expressions and images of God. And that is truly beautiful!

  5. suleman john says:

    “Christmas turns the tables and hints at the struggle involved when the Lord of both worlds descends to live by the rules of the one.”

    This gave me goosebumps. Thank so much, as always, for writing sir Philip Yancy. Love from Pakistan. Merry Christmas!

  6. Laurie A Tuholski says:

    Such a mix of pain and joy at Christmastime for me, like no other. I myself have not had any tragic losses at Christmastime, but I have had much tragedy and loss in my life. I had it almost ‘perfect’ as far as my dream of a family around the Christmas tree, and then lost it, when I lost my husband to mental illness and alcoholism. I am now a single mother raising two children of my own, in the way life is ‘not supposed to be’ like so many others out there. But it is a good life, a blessed life now. I have two healthy happy children, supportive extended family who live nearby, I own my own home and have a rewarding career. I have friends that I treasure, even a boyfriend who is also a single parent and understands some of my struggle. And yet, at Christmastime and other “family” rich times, I find myself entering a small “pity party” that is all my own. I find myself rejoicing, and the next moment, weeping with heartache for the picture I so wanted and don’t understand why God allowed to be taken from me. Over 3 years later being on my own and I still grieve I suppose. The interesting part is, when I was living in the midst of one crises after another, I turned to God and found the joy. Now that life is manageable, and rich with blessings, I can’t see it–the joy of Christ. I can’t feel it. I go to church (even when virtual), I have been reading my daily verses and trying to connect in a little prayer, and yet, struggle to re-connect. I just read from the 2003 version of “God’s Celebrating Grace — 365 Day Brighteners” (which I have owned and read from for years) and an exerpt from Philip Yancey for Dec 28th–one I’m sure I’ve seen before but never really “read” before–spoke to me. It asked the questions I didn’t know I had. It brought me to immediately google, hungry for more answers. And I read the Christmas day post, which I connected to immediately (that and the poem “Bells Across the Snow” by Frances Ridley Havergal which I read yesterday). Thank you to you, Philip. Thank you for your bravery to ask the questions aloud, and share the good news to the world. I am just now reading some of your work and may I find the answers, or at least “feel” the answers through the words I most need. God Bless all of You. May you find the joy in Jesus…

  7. You continually help me to see her another piece of God. The kaleidoscope of His presence still amazes me. From introducing me to Defiant Hope, which has guided me for decades, to today’s message which ironically focuses my mind on God’s love of matter. The cosmo. The human experience (happy and sad). The unanswered questions. God In all. Thank you.

  8. Thank you, Philip!
    I love that you pointed out how God loves matter itself –how He delights in HIs own creation! What a treat to ponder that…so the fact that He made it obvious we “matter” to HIm, too, is an even more glorious a thought. Thank you for giving voice to your thoughts–how much less goodness we would see, had you not made the sacrifice to do so.

  9. Michaelle says:

    I too struggle as does my daughter 3 years ago very early in the AM Christmas morning my alcoholic drug addicted son and brother stormed into my daughters house after 3 earlier encounters. The boyfriend had brought a gun it was on the table my daughter was afraid she picked up the gun my son lunged at her the gun went off he was shot dead. Your insights have always been so helpful and your honesty in your struggle for faith. Sorry for sharing so much I just haven’t shared much since this incident. I’m thankful for this forum to share.

  10. Rose Mason says:

    It was heart warming to read that there are others who have melancholy around the issues of Christmas.

    My father passed on December 12th, the year I was 15. I have had mixed reactions to Christmas since that time. I bask in the love and attention of my friends and family.
    I am grateful for the birth of Jesus. I treasure that God gave His only son. However, my pain remains.

  11. Travis Bishop says:

    Found your books later in life (at 70). Been reading you for the past three years. Hope we both have many more years to go.

  12. David Frank says:

    I thank you for your thoughts through the years. From where we are in Spain it is good to get input from different parts of the planet.
    One thought I believe would be good to take a second look at. You started out this blog with the phrase: “unlike most people”. If I understand what you were endeavoring to communicate about your childhood, I believe that more and more these days “most people” are just like you in one way or another as far as their negative childhood experiences go…thinking of the USA. Over here you would definitely be in the “most people” category.
    The rest of the blog was inspiring and inspired further thought. Thank you!

  13. Jane Hakes says:

    May I second Paul Barnfeather’s suggestion for a new Grace Notes. I used the original all year and it meant so much. I even quoted from it often as I did the lesson for ouor home group.

  14. Veronica says:

    1)Of the many reasons for Incarnation, surely one was to answer Job’s accusation. Do you have eyes of flesh? Yes, indeed.

    2)the birth of Jesus was so important that it split history into two parts. Everything that has ever happened on this planet falls into a category of before Christ or after Christ.

    reading it brought a spark of joy, uttered -Ohh, and paused to ponder

  15. Anthony Mercer says:

    In Luke 2 1-14, One angel of the lord spoke to the shepherds first. Then “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
    We can legitimately interpret “praising” as singing in contrast to simply “saying”.

  16. Taiwo Awe says:

    Great word Philip. Thanks.

  17. Jake Wall says:

    I read the angels spoke to the shepherds. They were not singing.
    Am I wrong?

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Excellent point. We’ve conflated Christmas carols with the original story. I don’t read Greek, though I do see that Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase explicitly has a choir singing.

  18. Bonnie Smith says:

    Thanks be to God for his great gift of salvation!

  19. Susa says:

    Thank you Holy Spirit for this being the first thing I did this morning. How touching this message. How poignant God took your dad yet replaced him with your love of Trinity. Happy Birthday Jesus and Christmas Blessings to you and your heart.

  20. Enrique R. Vicuna says:

    I too lost my father as a child. Growing up without a father, Joseph, Mary’s husband, became my role model of what a father should be. I was the second youngest of six children; our widowed mother raised us to reverence Christmas as a symbol of hope that, all though this world promised us hardships and pain, a greater promise awaits us–brought about by the birth of our Savior. And now, as a father of four and a grandfather, I cherish Christmas even more–I hold on to it; relish it, and praise God for His amazing grace!

  21. Tom King says:

    Philip, I’ve read your many good words in our small Adoration Chapel since 1992, but the doors were closed this year. So,now I read from home. Your words today on God-made-man who died for all our sins and transgressions since the “eaten fruit”, whatever that was (pride?), our sins big and small were absolutely forgiven for the asking. I worry about those who don’t ask, but C.S. Lewis gave us a plausible answer in his, “The Great Divorce.” Thanks for your inspiring words this day. If Jesus came among us, He left us a lot more than a short life in B.C./A.C. He gave us a life that lasts forever. Tom

  22. Diana Wallis says:

    I find your message comforting, as someone else who doesn’t have much nostalgia about Christmas. You make me feel less alone about that. (My childhood home was not a happy one, and Christmas never lived up to the hype.)

    Reinforcemant of faith–kind of what I need–so thank you for your words and, more than anything, your honesty.

  23. Roxy Wiley says:

    How helpful to grasp a bit of the mind of God regarding the Incarnation. Thank you. Merry Christmas!

    2020 has given us much to unravel in the Evangelical world. May God give you wisdom and insight as you put your thoughts into words. Happy 2021!

  24. Becky Ritchey says:

    Remarkable commentary!
    I too lost my father suddenly a few days before Christmas, when I was a young adult, and there’s been a shadow over the last 39 Christmases.
    Thank you for this wonderful perspective.

  25. Jeff Keener says:

    Thank Phillip! On a very long list I found this perhaps to be one of your most impactful writings I’ve seen! Your comparison of how “history ” sees the world compared to how it’s viewed in Holy Scripture is right on…and to me a fresh way to view things.
    Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas!

  26. Thank you, Philip. This is just what I needed this morning marking the invasion of love and light into our dark world.

  27. Jody Davison says:

    How comforting it is to imagine the tiny fingers of baby Jesus, the same yesterday, today and forever. “Our fears today, our worries about tomorrow, or where we are – high up above the sky, or in the deepest ocean- nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God demonstrated by our Lord Jesus Christ,” who suffers alongside us and exults with us with each new dawn. Merry Christmas! Romans 8:18

  28. Eddie Chu says:

    Thank you, Philip, for posting this on Christmas morning when many of us are spending time relatively isolated when it’s customary for families and friends to gather physically. We need to remember the presence of Christ in our lives as we miss the physical presence of our loved ones.

  29. Paul Barnfather says:

    Thank you for your carefully considered words, as always.
    Have you thought about producing another volume of ‘Grace Notes’?
    May I recommend Charlie Mackesy’s 18 minute presentation of the Gospel on the HTB/YouTube channel to you? Very down to earth, and his drawing on a flip-chart is excellent.

  30. Cindi Baird says:

    So needed! So amazing is our God and our Christ. Glory to God on high!!

  31. […] The birth of Jesus was so important that it split history into two parts, disturbing the universe (Finding God in Unexpected Places). — Read on philipyancey.com/disturbing-the-universe […]

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