by Gjergji Evangjeli
In Book II of the Republic, Plato lays the foundations of what will become the lengthiest and most important part of the dialogue, i.e. seeing justice in the city as a macrocosm for the individual person. The first issue he chooses to take up in this regard, however, is how the gods are represented in Greek mythology. After everyone agreeing that a god would be perfect, Socrates asks whether, in order to take human form, a god would have to give up a greater thing (his or her own superior form) for a lesser thing. Thus, he concludes, the gods would never do such a thing.
A Christian reading Republic 381a-e may simply chuckle at these words and move on, but only because we listen to the drama of the Gospel with semi-deaf ears and fail to capture the radical strangeness of the words. A cursory examination would lead one to conclude that Plato’s analysis is not silly, but utterly correct and if he is correct about the Greek understanding of divinity, then how much more correct should he be about the All-Good, All-Powerful, and All-Knowing God, who created the world from nothing?
Whenever December rolls around, “Christmas” is practically plastered everywhere you look. Of course, it is a commercialized and slightly skewed notion of Christmas, but Christmas nonetheless. One thing that one can easily trace from when the Feast of the Nativity was first being celebrated to the latest pop songs tangentially related to Christmas, however, is this seemingly constant talk of joy and cheer. I do not mean to sound dour, but for being so prevalent, I think it would be healthy to ask why. Surely it cannot be the presents; people do receive presents on Christmas, but they do so at other times of the year also. Yet, no one springs up with “Joy to the World” on those occasions. Almost certainly, it is not the weather; no one leaps for joy at having to spend a half hour scraping ice off his or her windshield in the morning frost.
Certainly, there is only one correct answer. The reason why joy is so prevalent during the Christmas season is because it is the only possible response to the Mystery of the Incarnation. “For God so loved the world that He gave His Only-Begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). Joy is our response to God’s ineffable, indescribable, and infinite love for us, a love so great that God the Son, the Eternal God, co-equal in Divinity and Majesty with the Father accepted to empty Himself and take on the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7) so that we might have life.
Though Plato’s analysis is undeniably correct, he did not have—as we do not have—an appropriate understanding of God’s love for us, a love that accepted humiliation through the kenosis and even more poignantly through a horrific death on a Roman cross for our sake. The God who loves us revealed in this way only a small sliver of what His love for us entails. When we come face to face with this reality, we cannot do anything but drop our body to its knees and allow our soul to blaze with love and joy.
Hence the question of what you and I will be celebrating this Christmas. Is it presents and eggnog and nice music and seeing the family? Or is it the eternally more valuable love of our Lord, which we try to reciprocate to our loved ones, thus mimicking His eternal and invaluable gift to us by giving them contingent and finite gifts?
This our country—this our world—is a very curious place, partly because we give thanks for what we have on Thanksgiving and are ready to trample over others in order to get more stuff just one day later. As we approach Christmas, it is easy to slip into the materialistic fallacy that what is really important is presents and parties, but no present can ever be more valuable than God’s presenting Himself to us as one of us, and no party can ever be more valuable than the joyous celebration of the Nativity with our brothers and sisters in Christ.