In his book Chance or Purpose: Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith, Cardinal Schönborn reminds us of the apparent insignificance of humanity living precariously on this tiny planet that seems lost in the sheer immensity of a universe made up of billions of galaxies that seem to stretch into infinity. As people of faith who believe in a Creator, this mind-boggling immensity of the universe implies an almighty God of corresponding astounding power and infinite greatness. As such we can well understand the Israelites’ fear and terror when God was said to descend on Mount Sinai and they begged Moses: You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we shall die. This abject fear of the divinity characterized most primitive peoples and the fact that our contemporary world seems to have lost its fear and terror of God nay be far from commendable.
Among these is the increasing number of people for whom this is a non-issue as they simply don’t believe in a god or creator—unless, of course, that god is one called evolution! But what of those who do believe and yet no longer fear their God and Creator? Well, just as there is a “good” fear of God and a cringing and dehumanizing “bad” fear of God that reflects a distorted image of God, so no longer fearing God (in his immensity and power) can be good and bad. In either case, the feast we are celebrating is implicated in a direct or indirect manner. For, although the incarnation and birth of the Savior was integral to our salvation and freeing us from our sins, Christ taking human form and being born an infant also had the purpose of liberating us from that abject and unholy fear of a god thought to be merciless, vindictive, and punishing.
In this I am reminded of Saint Benedict’s call to the abbot that he seek to be loved rather than feared. Now what is true of the worthy abbot is perfectly true of God who does not wish to be feared in a manner that would keep us distant from him—as did Adam and Eve in the garden after their disobedience. And so the extent of God’s desire to be loved and not feared, is manifested in his assuming human form and being born a tiny non-threatening, and helpless infant. Thus Saint Aelred can say, you fear the Lord of angels, but love the little Child. You fear the Lord of majesty, but love the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. You fear him reigning in heaven, but love him lying in a manger.
However, as we know, this gentle and non-threatening infant would become the same gentle and non-threatening grown man whom children would spontaneously seek out to be touched and blessed. Even when his creatures rejected him, mocked him, beat him, and crucified him, he refused to use his infinite power and greatness to defend himself, but humbly bore our cruelty to convince us of his unyielding love and his sole desire to be loved in return—rather than feared and reluctantly obeyed. It is thus only when our love for God drives out our fear that this lack of fear is good. When we lack true love of God and presume on his gentleness and compassion, our lack of fear is an insult to so loving yet so awesomely powerful and fear-inspiring God. May our reception of the Christmas Eucharist enkindle in us an ever-deeper love for the One who desires to be loved and not feared, and shield us from that presumption and ingratitude in which our lack of fear would be a heinous insult to the almighty, infinite, and yet gentle and loving God.