Every Christmas season I venture into midtown Manhattan to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center and to light a candle at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Some childhood traditions, such as these, will never leave. A few weeks ago, as I was walking to the Cathedral, I passed by Radio City Music Hall. The overwhelming horde of people between the Avenue of the Americas and 50th street was certainly a result of the fact that it was the Saturday before Christmas, and that dozens of teenage girls were trying to catch a glimpse of One Direction on its way into NBC studios to perform on SNL. Yet, as I weaved my way through this crowd, I noticed it was predominantly due to the vast amount of people waiting outside of Radio City Music Hall to see the annual “Christmas Spectacular.” I smiled recalling the countless times my family went to see that show when I was a child. Though the performance has varied since its inception in 1933, this NYC Christmas tradition has one thing that has remained in every performance for the entire 80 years. After the Rockettes have captured the audience, the curtains rise for the final scene, the “Living Nativity.” It’s not exactly like the Nativity play at a Catholic elementary school down the street from your house. This final scene allows Jesus’ birth to come alive in a way that is so real it is almost haunting. During the scene, a clear screen descends in front of the actors, actresses, and animals, and projects ‘One Solitary Life’. As the words slowly scroll on the screen, a booming voice relates the story aloud:
He was born in an obscure village
The child of a peasant woman
He grew up in another obscure village
Where he worked in a carpenter shop
Until he was thirty when public opinion turned against him
He never wrote a book
He never held an office
He never went to college
He never visited a big city
He never traveled more than two hundred miles
From the place where he was born
He did none of the things
Usually associated with greatness
He had no credentials but himself
He was only thirty three
His friends ran away
One of them denied him
He was turned over to his enemies
And went through the mockery of a trial
He was nailed to a cross between two thieves
While dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing
The only property he had on earth
When he was dead
He was laid in a borrowed grave
Through the pity of a friend
Nineteen centuries have come and gone
And today Jesus is the central figure of the human race
And the leader of mankind’s progress
All the armies that have ever marched
All the navies that have ever sailed
All the parliaments that have ever sat
All the kings that ever reigned put together
Have not affected the life of mankind on earth
As powerfully as that one solitary life
When the screen is lifted and the light shines on the once darkened figures in the background of the screen, the audience is most often left speechless; some even moved to tears. The ineffable mystery of Christ’s life is laid bare before the audience – a story so simple, so ordinary, and yet utterly incomprehensible in an extraordinary way. It is so ordinary it is construed by many as absurd and unbelievable. Yes, the particularity of Christ’s birth is contrary to all reason; yet it is the intensely particular and scandalous declaration of faith that defines everything Christians believe in.
Since last Saturday, I have been revisting this poem and have made it the focus of my centering prayer this Christmas. When I reflect on the poem, my eyes trace and retrace the words one, solitary, and life. I allow myself to be taken away by the astounding nature of this phrase and all the simplicity and complexity bound up in those three words. It is perhaps the most scandalous Christian conviction to claim that an omniscient, mysterious, and eternal God became fully manifest in a human being. The preposterousness of it all still summons my heart with mystery and awe. What makes this one solitary life scandalous, first and foremost, is the particular; that the last thing we expected from the ineffable God is to be born as a baby, in a particular moment and place in time, to a particular peasant woman named Mary. For a deity to enter humanity seems outrageous, let alone for a deity to be born in a stable; to a poor, fleeing, refugee family.
Many theologians refer to this as the ‘scandal of particularity,’ and it seems to me that this phrase has both varying definitions and is open to an array of interpretations. In my understanding the idea of the ‘scandal of particularity’ is a way of looking at how the unknowable God is known to us. What is scandalous is not that God is human. What is scandalous is that the God, who is human, is at the same time the God who is beyond anything we can conjure up in our minds, or fathom in our hearts. What is scandalous is that this one solitary life is too particular to be accidental. We should be scandalized by the incarnation and by the particularity of Christ’s birth and life. It not only challenges our understanding of God – but it teaches us something about our own humanity that we might not be willing to acknowledge.
I have begun to realize that whether it is in the developing of our theology, or in our own personal spiritual existence, we tend to resist the scandal of particularity not for what it says about God, but what it says about us and our humanity. What is so great about this one solitary life, is that that we are all included in it. In the context of this poem, solitary does not mean alone or separated, as it might in another situation. The scandal of particularity retains the singularity of Christ’s incarnation, while simultaneously reminds us that the simplicity of Christ’s life is not all that uncommon and hence it demands a universal response.
It is hard, given our human condition, to not privilege certain particularities over others. Some offer reflections claiming that the ‘scandal of particularity’ is about salvation, or that God has chosen a particular group of people over other. Some focus on the particularity of Christ’s gender, his nationality, or his time in history. But what I find most scandalous is exactly what is written in the poem; he did none of the things usually associated with greatness.
This is the greatest scandal. If we take Jesus’ one solitary life seriously, it creates a paradigm for how we ought to live our lives. To revel in the scandal of particularity is then in many ways to consider Christianity as a challenge, a vocation for what Dean Brackley, S.J. called ‘downward mobility.’ I conclude with his words that I, yet again, return to and make my prayer. As I pray these words I recall this story of Christmas is our story, it is a story so human it is Divine, and it demands our response. For all this Christmas, let us recall the scandal of this one solitary life.
“I invite you to discover your vocation in downward mobility. It’s a scary request… The world is obsessed with wealth and security and upward mobility and prestige. But let us teach solidarity, walking with the victims, serving and loving.”
Meg Stapleton Smith is a master’s candidate in Ethics at Yale Divinity School. After graduating from Boston College in 2013, she was Director of Campus Ministry and a Theology teacher at Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence, MA. Her current research interests lie mainly in Salvadoran liberation theology and contemporary Christian social ethics.