The great advantage to thinking about God in legal terms, is that nothing has to change. If what happens between us and God is entirely external, a matter of arranging things such as the avoidance of eternal punishment or the enjoyment of eternal reward, then the world can go on as it is. In the legal model that dominates contemporary Christian thought, the secular world of things becomes nothing more than an arena, the stage on which we act out our moral and psychological dilemmas, waiting only for our final grades to be issued when we die.
In the contemporary world-view, Christ’s death and resurrection change nothing within the day-to-day world. Their effect is entirely and completely removed from this world and reserved for the next. This is a great advantage for Christian thought, for everything of significance becomes theoretical, removed from the realm of practical discussion. Not only does Christ’s work change nothing in this world, it changes nothing within us other than by moral or psychological suasion. And we therefore need argue or labor for nothing other than abstractions. The inert world of secularism is left intact.
This is to say that if “accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior” only brings about a change in my eternal disposition, then it is largely meaningless in this world. Everything Christians do in this world would be but tokens of eternity.
But this is not the teaching of the New Testament or classical Christianity. When St. Paul says that in Baptism we are “baptized into the death of Christ,” he does not mean to suggest that this only brings a change in our eternal disposition. The historical death of Christ is also a transcendent event and is made truly present in the waters of Baptism and in the life of the believer. Christianity, in its true and original form, is decidedly realistic in its teachings. Bread and wine truly and really become the Body and Blood of Christ, etc. The miracles of Christ are more than moral lessons – they are genuine invasions of this world by the Kingdom of God, the in-breaking of heaven to earth.
This spiritual realism is the foundation for the sacramental life of the Church as well as all ascetical and mystical practice. Orthodox Christians pray in order to unite themselves to Christ, not to advise Him or persuade Him. Every feast, like the sacraments themselves, is present tense, an indwelling of this world by the spiritual reality that it represents.
And so our salvation in this world represents a transformation, the union of earth and heaven. The feast of Christmas, seen in this light, is a feast of transformation. There is nothing “legal” about the event. Our status in the eyes of God does not and has not changed – for we have always been beloved of God. It is because He loved us that He sent His Son into the world – that we might be transformed. We prepare ourselves for the feast of Christmas through prayer, fasting and acts of generosity because we expect to be changed. We expect ourselves to be the birthplace of God. It is there that the angels will sing and the wise men kneel. It is there that His most dear Mother will cradle Him in her arms and give Him the milk of our humanity. And it is there, in turn, that we ourselves will drink the gift of eternal life.
But there is no moral to be drawn from the story, no psychological improvement expected. And for secularists (or secularized Christians) who might witness the Feast, their conclusion would be, “Nothing happened.” For the transformation wrought by Christ remains largely indiscernible to the outside viewer. It will ever seem “useless” to the world.
Christ went about His life as fully God and fully man. And He was as much fully God before the working of His first miracle as He was the day after. None of His miracles were of any particular use (except for the few who were healed). But most of the blind people in Israel at the time remained sightless. Thousands of paralytics were never able to walk. And with but a very few exceptions, everyone who entered a grave during His ministry remained there and passed into dust.
What good did Christmas do?
The temptation is to defer the “good” of Christmas to an abstract theoretical reality. The greatest example of this abstraction has come through the evolution of the forensic (legal) model of the Christian faith – by far the dominant form of popular, contemporary Christianity. Believers are told that their religious actions have been met with approval by God and that their eternal life is secured. What remains to the Church in such an understanding is to concentrate on moral and psychological well-being and improvement. And yet, it is quickly noted that moral and psychological actions have no effect on eternity (for we are saved by grace and not by works), so that the moral and psychological benefits are simply temporary and of value only to the believers. These sentiments (feeling good about morality and psychology) are the currency in which the contemporary Church trades.
But the transformation that Christ works in the world, sometimes known in the heart, is a treasure hidden. There is no argument that can prove it. Just as the disciples could not prove the resurrection, so we can only witness and say what we have seen. What we see and witness however will remain hidden to others. The mystery of Christ in this world is sometimes made manifest, a saint is allowed to show forth, an icon weeps. But the mystery remains hidden for a purpose.
The redemption of the world does not come with observation (Luke 17:20). Were the Kingdom of God forced on the world its precious freedom, required by love, would be forfeit and all would be for nothing. But love preserves the freedom of the world at the cost of the obvious. And so it is the pure in heart who see God.
Our hearts are not made pure by sentiment, nor can they be pure as a simple matter of legality. Instead, we fast and pray and labor to give, and the Kingdom suffers violence (but not the world), and the Kingdom yields its precious pearl to the eyes of the pure.
This is the Christmas that is alone worth pursuing – illegal and buried deep in a darkened world. What darkness could comprehend it?