One of the most influential books in C.S. Lewis’ journey to faith was G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. In the latter part of this wonderful book, Chesterton proposes that three truths lie at the heart of Christianity – and that all three are crystallized in the Christmas story. Just look at the characters.
First, the shepherds. Shepherds are simple people – local folk. They are not world travelers or political leaders; they are likely men who have lived their whole lives in one geography. In a brilliant survey of the history of mythology and religion, Chesterton shows that humans intrinsically long for “the consecration of concrete things.” What compels the common person toward religion is a sense that everyday things might somehow be charged with sacred importance. “The human instinct for a heaven that shall be as literal and almost as local as a home… is the idea pursued by all poets and pagans making myths. [It’s the idea] that a particular place must be the shrine of the god or the abode of the blest… that the return of the ghost must be the resurrection of the body.” The Christian story is the fulfillment of this intrinsic longing in humanity. The “concreteness” of spiritual life that human beings long for – hinted at in Greek and Roman mythology where the world of the gods intersects with our own – is finally fulfilled at Bethlehem.
Second: the Magi. Or, as the Bible calls them, “men from the East” (Matthew 2:1). These men were thinkers – philosophers, astrologers, meaning-seekers. And the Christian story is “a philosophy larger than other philosophies… It has something for all moods of man, it finds work for all kinds of men, it understands secrets of psychology, it is aware of depths of evil, it is able to distinguish between ideal and unreal marvels and miraculous exceptions, it trains itself in tact about hard cases, all with a multiplicity and subtlety and imagination about the varieties of life which is far beyond the bald or breezy platitudes of most ancient or modern moral philosophy. In a word, there is more in it; it finds more in existence to think about; it gets more out of life.” The wise men traveling to the manger on the first Christmas represent the philosophical truthfulness of Christianity. Advent invites any and all meaning-seekers to come to Jesus and find the most subtle and satisfying philosophy ever proposed.
Third: the evil King Herod. He, too, is a character in the Christmas story – though not a celebrated one. Herod’s hostile aggression toward the male children in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18) reminds us of the truth of conflict. “While it is local enough for poetry and larger than any other philosophy, [Christianity] is also a challenge and a fight. While it is deliberately broadened to embrace every aspect of truth, it is still stiffly embattled against every mode of error. It gets every kind of man to fight for it, it gets every kind of weapon to fight with… but it never forgets that it is fighting. It proclaims peace on earth and never forgets why there was war in heaven.” Christianity is a fighting religion – not militant like Islam, but revolutionary like every good hero story.
So Chesterton summarizes the “trinity of truths” at the heart of Christianity: mystical truth, logical truth, and fighting truth. The story of the Incarnation melds poetry, philosophy, and power. “It is simply not true to say that other religions and philosophies are in this respect its rivals… Buddhism may profess to be equally mystical; it does not even profess to be equally military. Islam may profess to be equally military; it does not even profess to be equally metaphysical and subtle. Confucianism may profess to satisfy the need of the philosophers for order and reason; it does not even profess to satisfy the need of the mystics for miracle and sacrament and the consecration of concrete things… No other birth of a god or childhood of a sage seems to us to be anything like Christmas.”