Newness under the Son
Is there nothing new under the sun? Is it the case that all of life is an ordered and predictable cycle? That what has been is what will be and what is done is what will be done (Eccl. 1:9)? This sense of the unending monotonous repetition of human experience is not confined to the early agricultural society in which Ecclesiastes was composed; it is known to us here in the twenty-first century. I drive the children to school today, and I will do the same tomorrow. My husband goes to the grocery store tonight only to return later in the week. The media reports the depressing stories of climate change and pandemic and will report the same next month.
The quotidian often feels monotonous and even oppressive, and this makes us seek difference and change. A new sweater brings a jolt of delight. Walking a different route to work means noticing different houses, people, dogs. But these novelties are fleeting—the sweater is only briefly new for so long and the delight wears off. The new route becomes the old route before too long. The sense that what has been is what will be sinks in. We wonder, is anything really new? Is anything truly novel? Is there any release from this cycle?
Christmas answers these questions with a resounding “yes.”
On Christmas we remember that Mary did something new. She contained the uncontainable, she created her creator, she was the burning bush unconsumed. She ushered God into time, flesh, and human experience on Christmas. And her son was someone new. Jesus Christ united the divine and human within himself, something that had never happened before in the history of the world. The Incarnation is the ultimate novelty.
This is a novelty that cannot be overstated or overestimated. We tend to focus on the death and resurrection parts of the story and with good reason. But the birth of God into creation, by and through a mother’s body, not only sets the rest of the story into motion, it is, in itself, an injection of the newest newness into the cosmos, breaking all cycles of return and repetition. New possibilities are born as well—if this newness is manifest, then change is possible, release from the oppression of human routine is available. We are not condemned to make the same mistakes or perpetuate the same crimes.
Each of us shares this quality of unqualified novelty with Jesus Christ. Despite the seemingly unending repetition to our daily existence, we, too, are utterly new. Our creation—our conception and birth—is a new event for the world. We come from nothing, ex nihilo, and then we are here. We are not, like Christ, a perfect union of divine and human, but our entrance into the world is, like Christ’s, an entirely unprecedented and pristine event.
Something truly new is the most miraculous of miracles. This pure and unequivocable newness disrupts the pattern and circumvents the cycle. The truly new—the entrance of God into the world and our own births—never wears off. The world-changing events of the Incarnation are forever. And through these events we, in our newness, are beckoned to eternity.
The truly new is, by definition, truly hopeful. We remember this on Christmas when we sing:
Today the Virgin comes to the cave
to give birth to the Eternal Word.
Hear the glad tidings and rejoice, O universe!
The newness of the divine and the human united in Christ is cause for the universe to celebrate and to hope. So is the advent of a new human life, of the entrance into the world of each of us and all those who are yet to be born.
In many places in the world today it is a choice to have children in the sense that couples might take steps to prevent a pregnancy—or end one. There are many “reasons” to have children, to the extent that the decision to procreate (or not to procreate) is ever strictly related to reason. This assent to a new human being is an act of hope. The hope that this child will grow and flourish. The hope that the world will be safe and kind to the child. The hope that the child will know the truth and goodness in the world. The hope that the child will know God. This hope is, of course, tinged with darkness and sadness. The world will not always be safe and kind to our children. They will suffer, and our hearts will ache over this suffering, as did Mary’s. To be born is to be condemned to suffering and death. But childbearing involves an appreciation for the new and the accompanying hope that what is true and good about human life is larger than its darkness or sadness. Christmas is the celebration of the liberating newness and perpetual hope that comes through Jesus Christ’s entrance into this world—and our own. There are new things under the Son.
Carrie Frederick Frost, PhD, teaches at Western Washington University and Saint Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary. She is the author of Maternal Body: A Theology of Incarnation from the Christian East and serves on the board of International Orthodox Theological Association and Saint Phoebe Center for the Deaconess. She thanks her birth reading group for the generation of the ideas included in this essay.