In his classic book of Christian apologetics, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis warns against the position–common today among spiritual-but-not-religious types–that Jesus was a fine ethicist (“Love your neighbor”) but that his relevance for the modern world pretty much ends there.
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
As we approach Christmas, we are inundated with reminders that the child born in Bethlehem is much more than a Good Man. As Lewis insists, we must decide: “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.”
In last Sunday’s Gospel [Mt 11:2-11], we heard of John the Baptist sending his disciples to ask Jesus who he is:
When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ,
he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question,
“Are you the one who is to come,
or should we look for another?”
John the Baptist’s question really is the question, isn’t it? It is the starting point from which all faith proceeds. Jesus himself later poses it to his own disciples when he asks, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” [Mt 16:13] (Interestingly—or perhaps exasperatingly—the first response Jesus receives from his own disciples is: “Some say John the Baptist.”)
In just a few days, we will ask another variant of the question, this time before the manger. As the Christmas hymn has it, “What Child is this?” The answer arises like a great light amidst the darkness of fear and doubt. Even for those of us in whom the seed of faith has already been planted–and who have know many an Advent to fly too quickly by, lost in a thousand distractions–the question remains relevant, for the answer is infinite. As faith grows, fear and doubt give way ever more to wonder and joy.
That joy–the joy of the Good News, the Joy of the Gospel–“fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus,” as Pope Francis recently wrote. That same joy fills us to overflowing and compels us to share the source of our joy.
Speaking of sharing the source of our joy, sometime in the 1960’s, a school teacher in Dublin made audio recordings of her students recounting various stories from the Bible. Three decades later, someone makes a CD out of the recordings and releases them in Ireland. Finally, in 2000, someone had the great idea of using the audio as a soundtrack for an animated short. The result was Give Up Yer Aul Sins, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2001 (Best Animated Short). In it, little Mary eagerly tells the story of John the Baptist, including Jesus’ answer to John’s question (in little Mary’s words): “Are you really God, or a shockin’ Holy Saint?”