Have you ever had the feeling you’re missing what’s right in front of you? That something important is hiding in plain sight? In his new book, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ [interview | 20 quotes], The Gospel Coalition co-founder and vice president Tim Keller helps us avoid this by displaying Christmas truths in a fresh light. For believers and unbelievers alike, the Christmas story can become so familiar that we feel there’s nothing new to consider. Addressing this attitude head-on, Hidden Christmas rouses us to the truth that “Christmas, like God himself, is both more wondrous and more threatening than we imagine” (3).
In his engaging style, Keller interacts with a series of well-known Christmas passages with both clarity and depth; he seeks to be edifying to believers and compelling to unbelievers. Seeing Christmas as “the one moment of the year when our secular society and the Christian church are, to a degree, thinking about the same thing” (4), Keller encourages us not to overlook the fact that the message of Christmas is nothing less than the gospel in miniature. Ensuring the truths of Christmas are less hidden in our own hearts will make us more aware of opportunities to share the good news with others.
Opening with an examination of the light and dark motif found in Isaiah’s proclamation—that “on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isa. 9:2)—Keller frames the incarnation as an inbreaking of divine light into our world. The world is fallen, shrouded in the darkness of rebellion, but the true light (John 8:12) has shone forth bringing life. In contrast with secular humanism’s conviction that we’re able to overcome the darkness by our own will, Christmas tells us that only a light from outside us can save us.
When I picture light penetrating into darkness, it’s often a violent thing. For those enveloped in darkness, it’s an assault on their senses. Eyes squinting, we instinctively flinch from the jolt. Yet here with the Christmas story, we have the most dramatic intrusion of light imaginable. It’s the story of the holy One, the Son of God in flesh arrayed, breaking into realms of darkness to reclaim his fallen bride—the unapproachable God approaching his enemies. Our instinct should be to flinch from the threat, as we see the Old Testament saints doing whenever God draws near as a pillar of fire, a whirlwind, or a cloud of glory.
But when God became man, his entrance into the darkness was disarming rather than jarring. A baby is not threatening. Why the difference? Keller asks and answers:
Why would God come this time in the form of a baby, rather than a firestorm or whirlwind? Because this time he has not come to bring judgment but to bear it, to pay the penalty for our sins, to take away the barrier between humanity and God, so we can be together. Jesus is God with us. (54)
That’s the difference.
Reflecting on this truth from a vulnerable, human point of view, I can’t help but be amazed by God’s tender approach in the incarnation. I’m reminded of the poignant imagery in Walt Wangerin Jr.’s short story “An Advent Narrative” (in Ragman and Other Cries of Faith), in which he envisions God contemplating how he’ll enter humanity (pictured as a frightened and fragile young woman) to save her:
Then how can I come to her, to feed and to heal her by my love?
I could, of course, ignore the doors and walls and windows, simply appearing before her as I am. I have that capability. But she hasn’t the strength to see it and would die. She is, you see, her own deepest hiding place, and fear and death are the truest doors against me.
Then what is left? How can I come to my beloved? Where’s the entrance that will not frighten nor kill her? By what door can love arrive after all, truly to nurture her, to take the loneliness away, to make her beautiful, as lovely as my moon at night, my sun come morning?
I know what I will do.
I’ll make the woman herself my door—and by her body enter into her life.
However could she be afraid of her own flesh, of something lowly underneath her ribs?
I’ll be the baby waking in her womb.
How does the light break into the darkness? “For to us a child is born” (Isa. 9:6).
Call of Christmas
Keller beautifully displays multiple facets of the gospel within the Christmas story. In fact, insofar as it’s the fulfillment of God’s promise to save his people, the Christmas story is the heart of the gospel. Keller’s extended exposition of what it means for Jesus to be Immanuel—God with us—is an enriching section in which the core truths of the gospel are spelled out. He invitingly writes:
The purpose of the incarnation is that we would have a relationship with [Jesus]. In Jesus the ineffable, unapproachable God becomes a human being who can be known and loved. And, through faith, we can know this love. (53)
Beyond considering the many aspects of God’s gifts to us at Christmas, Keller also takes the time to consider our response to these gifts, holding up the faith of Mary and the shepherds as models to emulate. I especially appreciated Keller’s look at Mary from the first chapter of Luke. Faced with the unbelievable news that she, a virgin, would mother God’s Messiah, she doesn’t respond with blind faith. “She doubted, she questioned, she used her reason, and she asked questions—just as we must today if we are going to have faith” (82). Keller encourages us not to fall for the lie that faith is a thoughtless endeavor; it’s a “whole-person experience” (81) involving intellect, evidence, experience, and, most importantly, a work of God. Often it occurs over a period of time as God works us over and prepares our hearts to believe. Once realized, however, faith is an experience that should evoke praise and wonder, for who among us can claim to have deserved this great gift? In all this, Mary is “a model of what responsive Christian faith looks like” (81).
Keller has established his place as one our most helpful theological and cultural commentators. With Hidden Christmas, he applies his gifts to a subject that’s at once overly familiar and often neglected. Hidden Christmas is a book that lifts your eyes to Jesus. I commend it as a resource to shine a fresh light on the true meaning of Christmas.
Tim Keller. Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ. New York: Penguin, 2016. 160 pp. $20.00.