“A miracle,” says one, “would strengthen my faith.” He says so when he does not see one. Reasons, seen from afar, appear to limit our view; but when they are reached, we begin to see beyond. (Pascal, Pensées)
Luke and Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’ birth are in many ways documents of ‘glory’. In the Nativity we see the beauty and exhilaration of the Good News in Brief. In the declaration of the angels to the shepherds we are encouraged to see plainly the revelation of God among the lowliest. And in the star and the Magi, we see an ancient priesthood brought firmly into the orbit of Israel. The world, (implies Luke and Matthew) has come under a new mode of rule, a King in the mould of David, who will bring down ‘rulers from their thrones and lift ‘up the humble’ (Luke 1:52). But the danger latent in the Nativity’s stirring moments is that the tribal minded flatten these statements into an imperialist claim that the Church has the right to reshape societies and souls in its own image. In this vein, the coming of Jesus is about the vindication of the ‘Christian community’ and the condemnation of the world’s perverted ignorance. Here, the good news of Jesus becomes a guarded position for ‘us only’ and not the treasure of the creation or of God’s people Israel. The Gospel becomes little more than a battering-ram against external ‘others’ who are still in captivity. The Church alone benefits from the Messiah. Only the Church can make his work known. As comfortable as such an imperialist reading appears to be, it actively endangers the deep secret of the Gospel.
Of what does this secret consist? In the earliest of the Synoptics, Jesus the healing preacher and Messiah, never works like the angels before the Shepherds. There is no heavenly light, no celestial visitations, no star blazing heralding the fulfilment of prophecy. There is only a man working in obscurity. Few recognised who he was and those who did were often told by Jesus not to reveal his identity. He even silences a demon that threatens to bring the full meaning of his work to light of day (Mark 1:23-24). His disciples remained baffled throughout his ministry. Even when signs of the old prophets are reproduced in flashing moments of Nativity-like clarity, his followers are left wondering, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41). In a beautifully enigmatic scene, we are told that:
“Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.”
Jesus and his disciples were in a peculiarly ambiguous position. They visibly healed, but they were invisible to much of the wider world. They served but they were hidden in plain sight. Their teacher laboured for the Kingdom of God, but that Kingdom always broke out in patches, in lives healed, in persons restored. What Mark offers us not some triumphant march of a spiritual revolution, but many fragmentary episodes of wonder which are frequently obscured by obstinate observers who refuse to acknowledge what is happening in front of them. People shrugged but at the same time ‘the news about Him went out everywhere into all the surrounding district of Galilee’ (Mark 1:28). The God in these encounters has no need for the trappings of visible glory, but works patiently at the margins, often unseen and unappreciated by the majority. But why would God behave in this mysterious way? Paul in his early musings on this point comes to a deeply frustrating conclusion; God’s glory is found in places that the world regards as the least glorious. The will of God is given its full expression not merely in Jesus the secret healer, but Jesus, the publicly humiliated criminal. The cross is the symbol of the frightening contradiction under which God desires to operate. As Paul reflects:
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach[a] to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men”. (1 Corinthians 1: 20:25).
If the perpetual temptation for the Church is that it uses the flashes of glory in the Nativity to declare a project of expansion, Paul provides a swift rejoinder. When a secret Messiah becomes the totem of public and self-aggrandizing Christianity it has denied the Cross. If the Church ceases to respect the secret worker and the marginal it has committed Peter’s denial afresh: “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” (Luke 22:54-62). To protect us from repudiation, we should read the Nativity, not just through Paul but through the Messianic secrecy of Mark. A baby of dubious parentage is born under cruel conditions and forced into obscurity and exile. He is the representative not merely of a given political climate, but of the generational suffering of his people, Israel. By surviving the murderous machinations of Herod, the Messiah comes into solidarity with all survivors and victims, in the past and to come. The slaughter of the innocents (Matthew 2:16–18) may not be a historical event, but it is an existential reflection on the eternal location of the Messiah. God’s servant is not in palaces, among priesthoods or with the obviously holy, but where there is pain, death, and distortion among people whom the powerful and the outwardly holy do not regard as worthy of consideration.
In this respect the Hidden Messiah reminds us of the beautiful and dangerous paradox of the Gospel. When the world at large encounters defeat, it is likely to fall into resolute unbelief or the most corrosive pessimism. People will say, “Look, nothing is coming to save us” or “See, the poor get poorer and the rich get richer, nothing ever changes”. But such sentiments speak more about people’s preferred modus operandi of liberation than it does the deep structure of the world. People subconsciously desire a moment of sheer Deus ex machina, when all that has gone before will be washed away. In such a scheme there is no time for a God of the margins, or the suffering patient One who works in the shadows. The servant who waits to be seen is a weak phantom, lacking the lure of earthly breakers of chains. Such people dismiss the homeless child as the Messiah because it does not accord with their inflexible vision of Messianic leadership. As a questioner in John complains: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46). But for one who worships in the light of the Cross, there can be no space for such chauvinism. For the presence of God is found in His hiddenness. As Pascal vividly observes in his Pensées:
“Instead of complaining that God has hidden Himself, you will give Him thanks for having revealed so much of Himself; and you will also give Him thanks for not having revealed Himself to haughty sages, unworthy to know so holy as God. Two kinds of persons know Him: those who have a humble heart, and who love lowliness, whatever kind of intellect they may have, high or low; and those who have sufficient understanding to see the truth, whatever opposition they may have to it.”
The point of the Gospel is precisely this: God is longing and lover, a whisper, a whisperer, the power in the heart of powerlessness, life hidden in death. The One who works in Jesus is never where we expect him to be. He is not among confirmed believers, but perceived outsiders. The Roman centurion who discovers faith in this mysterious Lord is but one life the hidden God of the margins encompasses. Where the Holy One is most denied by reason or social boundaries, there he resides in glory. When one loses faith (in loneliness, in violence, in despair) there the Messiah is crucified again for the one who cries and all the forsaken. That is the absurd God of the Nativity, discovered when hope is lost, discerned midst absence. Centuries of Christendom has made most forget about this Hidden Messiah, in favour of public expansionist faith, replete with spires missionaries, bejewelled altars and songs of spiritual victory. Christians have proclaimed the triumph of Christ without attending to what such triumph means: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:30).