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“The most Earth-like planet ever discovered is circling a star 600 light years away” is the exciting news announced by NASA scientists earlier this month. “We are homing in on the true Earth-sized, habitable planets,” said the astronomer who leads a project using NASA’s Kepler Star Telescope that was launched three years ago. It is exciting news that has set the scientific community humming with all the possibilities that this suggests. This news, however, is nothing compared with the astonishing claim that we celebrate today – the news that the angels announced is nothing less than the assertion that at a particular moment in time God visited this planet and forever changed the course of human history.
One of the great dangers of Christmas celebrations is that we can get so caught up in the delightful pictures of a baby-in-manger surrounded by friendly animals that we miss the stupendous miracle of God’s engagement with us in actual time and place. Most people are happy to celebrate a “season of peace on earth and good will among men” but struggle with this “scandal of particularity.” That should come as no surprise because so much more is at the heart of the miracle of the Incarnation. When we begin to glimpse the outrageous truth that the God who created and sustains this immensely complex universe made up of millions of stars and planets would stoop so low as to take on the form of a fragile baby all we can do is fall to our knees in awe.
J. B. Phillips (Bible translator and Anglican clergyman) wrote a short story for children, called “The Visited Planet,” in which he described Christmas from the point of view of the angels as part of his effort to avoid the dangers of over familiarity. He also wrote an essay, “The Dangers of Advent,” in which he repeatedly warns about a kind of indifference that many Christmas celebrations can produce. We can sing the carols and enjoy the gifts but we may miss the “quiet but explosive significance” of God’s awe-inspiring insertion into human history.
But nothing can change the fact that the little baby – born in such pitiful humility, cut down as a young man in his prime – now commands the allegiance of well over two billion people all over the world. Although they have never seen him, he has become friend and companion to innumerable people. This undeniable fact is, by any measurement, the most astonishing phenomenon in human history. It is a solid rock of evidence that no agnostic can ever explain away.
That is why, behind all of our fun and games at Christmastime, we should not try to escape a sense of awe – almost a sense of fright – at what God has done. We must never allow anything to blind us to the true significance of what happened at Bethlehem so long ago. Nothing can alter the fact that we live on a visited planet.