Have a Maximian Christmas: The Contrast of Total Darkness and Total Light

As we pass through advent, this waiting period brings two perspectives into contrast. The forces of Rome, the forces of darkness, the forces of poverty, close in on Joseph and Mary as pregnant Mary is forced to travel, and they find only animal accommodations. This period is representative of the long darkness, which may seem endless. The dark night before Christmas is representative of a long history in which a dark perspective prevails, but this nihilistic view is one that can grip us at any time. As Shakespeare’s Macbeth expresses it, after murdering and manipulating his way into power:

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

As the writer of Ecclesiastes describes it, the matter is not simply belief or lack of belief in God, as this belief alone still abandons one to the vanity of life:

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them; While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain: In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened, And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low; Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets: Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.  (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8)

William James puts the same sentiment in the modern scientific idiom:

Though the scientist may individually nourish a religion and be a theist in his irresponsible hours, the days are over when it could be said that for Science herself the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Our solar system, with its harmonies, is seen now as but one passing case of a certain sort of moving equilibrium in the heavens, realized by a local accident in an appalling wilderness of worlds where no life can exist. In a span of time which as a cosmic interval will count as but an hour, it will have ceased to be. The Darwinian notion of chance production, and subsequent destruction, speedy or deferred, applies to the largest as well as the smallest facts. It is impossible, in the present temper of the scientific imagination, to find in the drifting of the cosmic atoms, whether they work on the universal or on the particular scale, anything but a kind of aimless weather, doing and undoing, achieving no proper history, and leaving no result. Nature has no one distinguishable ultimate tendency with which it is possible to feel a sympathy. In the vast rhythm of her processes, as the scientific mind now follows them, she appears to cancel herself. The bubbles on the foam which coats a stormy sea are floating episodes, made and unmade by the forces of the wind and water. Our private selves are like those bubbles … their destinies weigh nothing and determine nothing in the world’s irremedial currents of events.”[1]

Both Koheleth and James share the perspective, which goes unrelieved by belief in God, that death and chance happen to all. Better a living dog than a dead lion (Ec. 9:4): “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun” (Ec. 9:5-6). It is not simply that hope for life beyond the grave will relieve the burden, as every indication (experiential, scientific, observational) is that life reduces to meaninglessness.  Maybe there are clear moments when the heavens do indeed seem to declare the glory of God, but what may go unacknowledged for believer and unbeliever alike, is the fear that it all amounts to a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Is the believer or even the optimistic humanist, grasping after the delusion of meaning, as the alternative is unbearable. Isn’t Nietzsche correct, that a hard-boiled honesty, in the face of the darkness, is most difficult and yet most necessary. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he insists “nothing today is more precious to me and rarer than honesty.”[2] Nietzsche recognizes our capacity for self-deception – our “will to truth” – may be nothing more than a means of escape given our proneness to self-protective delusion. If honesty and truth go hand in hand, as it seems they must, it may be that an understanding of the perspective of Koheleth, William James, and McBeth precedes a full appreciation not only of the constitution of the darkness but the nature of the light.

That is, the birth of Christ (the incarnation) can be made to fit too small of a notion, in which he does not so much change up our reality as give hope of deliverance from our perception of reality. In this tepid notion of reality and religion, the full depth of the problem of the human dilemma is not appreciated, and as a result the radical nature of the incarnation is not realized. Jesus, as I have been arguing for the last few blogs, can be made to fit a ready-made frame of truth (e.g., Constantinianism, Neo-Platonism, nominalism, nationalism, or most simply, some form of dualism). A dualism of heaven and earth or body and soul can easily accommodate, through a form of denial, the darkness which accompanies full recognition of the star of Bethlehem. Christ may be misrecognized as a mere sacrifice, as an emergency measure, as a legal remedy, as an appeaser of divine anger, but what goes unrecognized is that God come to earth in Christ is not simply dispelling a problem, ridding us of a potential future darkness, but is encompassing all creation in who he is.

Incarnation is theosis enacted. There is a union between God and world in which God has eternally attached who he is to what we are and what we are has become part of who he is. We might think of it as an innovation, but it is not an innovation that violates the true nature of the world and ourselves, but there is now a reality opened up which exceeds human possibility. The world understood through the limits of its own laws explains the darkness of Koheleth and James, but in Christ the world is no longer understood as existing according to the limits of this immanent frame.

The laws and principles of nature are not violated (“nature is preserved inviolate”) but there is an innovation in which God’s power and wonder are directly manifest: “When, however, the mode is innovated—so that the principle of nature is preserved inviolate—it manifests a wondrous power, for it displays nature being acted on and acting outside the limits of its own laws” (Amb. 42.26).[3] The innovation of Christ does not change natural principles but he opens up the possibility and reality of these principles, acting in and upon nature in a new way. His divine mode of being is united with the principle of human nature, such that the ongoing existence of human nature is conjoined to the newness of his transcendent mode of being. In him, according to P. Sherwood, “the [human]nature and will are wholly divinized, not as to their nature, which re-main ever human, but according to the mode of their existence [which is divine]. This is the mystery of Christ.” [4]

Christ is acting in a manner beyond human nature, so as to demonstrate the union of the divine and human. Where God might be consigned to a kind of negative transcendence (unknown and unknowable), Jesus assumed our being and “joined together the transcendent negation with the affirmation of our nature and its natural properties, and so became man, having united His transcendent mode of existence with the principle of His human nature, so that the ongoing existence of that nature might be confirmed by the newness of the mode of existence” (Amb. 5.14). God is bodied forth in the world, accomplishing in the mystery of his embodiment a filling out of who is for the world and a completion of what the world is for him. This reveals the nature of the world and the nature of who God is. God and world, creator and creation, human and divine, are conjoined in Jesus.  

What we see in the birth of Jesus is that the created order continues: birth, life, death, and evil, account for the natural reality Jesus experienced. At the same time the natural is taken up by and in the supernatural.  Jesus is fully human and even in the midst of walking on water, curing the blind, cleansing the leper, and raising the dead, the natural order continues, but the supernatural now interacts, takes up, innovates, and makes something new of the natural. A virgin gives birth, a dead man is raised, and the grave – the natural end of man – is emptied of its contents. The created and uncreated are unified in Jesus and this is now who and what they are:

For there is nothing more unified than He, who is truly one, and apart from Him there is nothing more completely unifying or preserving of what is properly His own. Thus, even when He suffered, He was truly God, and when He worked miracles the same one was truly man, for He was the true hypostasis of true natures united in an ineffable union.

(Amb. 4:8).

The miraculous birth of Jesus marks the incarnation, a new stage in the relation of God to the world. It is not that either the divine or human become something different or something other than what they are, but the way things are – not in their being but in their mode of existence are transformed. It is not that God’s purposes have been changed, but vision is no longer constricted by the darkness. The ground and goal of creation found in Jesus Christ is nothing less than the union of God and the world (an impossibility according to Platonic, Aristotelian, or natural principles). The ground and goal are not those found in creation, but what is found in the incarnation. Jesus, as Paul says, is the first fruits (I Cor. 15:20-22), the firstborn of a new sort of humanity (Col. 1:11), that duplicates the divine image in the human. In Jesus we see the new mode for humanity, no longer enslaved to the laws of nature.

Having been wholly united with the whole Word, within the limits of what their own inherent natural potency allows, as much as may be, they were imbued with His own qualities, so that, like the clearest of mirrors, they are now visible only as reflections of the undiminished form of God the Word, who gazes out from within them, for they possess the fullness of His divine characteristics, yet none of the original attributes that naturally define human beings have been lost, for all things have simply yielded to what is better, like air—which in itself is not luminous—completely mixed with light.

(Amb. 10.41)

The world and its principles cannot contain the principle that “showed up in Mary’s belly.”[5] Given this world’s laws as final explanation the darkness prevails – this is the honest conclusion. Given the reality of the incarnation, the world is not all “sound and fury,” a vanity signifying nothing, and humanity is not a momentary bubble cast up by the sea of nature. The world is imbued and being imbued with the qualities of Christ and we are part of accomplishing this yielding to what is better – the dark world made luminous as it is mixed with the light.


[1] William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, quoted from a sermon by Stanley Hauerwas: “Advent — facing God in the face of nothingness”: https://www.abc.net.au/religion/hauerwas-advent-facing-god-in-face-of-nothingness/14119072?fbclid=IwAR0qLzOdP_YLkYVwf3WN1ul2IBbL8da9uQxNrQF2IBQIOXUaUP8E-nqbz0s

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, (tr.) W. Kaufmann (New York: Penguin, 1954) 8.

[3] Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua Vol. 1-2  Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014). Hereafter Amb.

[4] P. Sherwood, The Earlier “Ambigua” of Saint Maximus the Confessor and His Refutation of Origenism, Rome 1955, 57-58.

[5] The phrase is from Hauerwas in the above cited sermon.


Discover more from Forging Ploughshares

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

Leave a Reply