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Christmas marks the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the central figure of the Christian faith. But why remember such an event? There seems to be a disconnection between the singular life of Jesus of Nazareth and the universal relevance of God. What has someone who lived long, long ago got to do with us today? Or with God?

That was the question that troubled C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) in 1931. After a period as an atheist, Lewis had recently returned to belief in God. God, he concluded, offered a way of making sense of the world and of human experience, which appealed to both his reason and imagination. But Jesus of Nazareth did not seem to fit into this scheme of things. He seemed superfluous. Why did belief in God have anything to do with him?

It’s a question that many asked before Lewis, and continue to ask today. Fifty years after his death in 1963, Lewis’s answer remains important. After a long conversation with his colleague J. R. R. Tolkien in September 1931, Lewis began to realize that Christianity was not primarily a set of ideas about God and the world. It was about a story – a “grand narrative”, which both captured the imagination, and opened up new ways of thinking. The Creeds arose from reflection on this true and trustworthy story, which centred and focussed on Jesus of Nazareth. When rightly understood, the imaginatively compelling story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth was about God entering the world, in order to redeem it.

Lewis explored this theme in a remarkable sermon preached in a London church during the Second World War. Lewis had learned how to dive in 1930. Although he initially saw this simply as an enjoyable and exhilarating experience, Lewis began to realize its potential as an analogy for what he was coming to see as a core theme of the Christian faith – the incarnation.

Lewis invited his audience to imagine a diver plunging into the water to retrieve a lost precious object. As we goes deeper, the water changes from “warm and sunlit” to “pitch black” and “freezing”. Then, his “lungs almost bursting”, he goes down into the “mud and slime”, before finally heading back to the surface, triumphantly bearing the lost object. God “descended into his own universe, and rose again, bringing human nature up with him.”

For Lewis, the doctrine of the incarnation shows us that God dived into our world, and came up again, bearing the redeemed creation. The exertion, even danger, faced by the diver is a mark of the value of what has fallen through deep water into the mud. Lewis invites us to think of a diving God, who plunges into a dark and distant world, to bring us home to where we really belong, and really matter.

Our culture loosely speaks of “celebrating Christmas”, yet too easily misses its real point. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis spoke of a world in which it was “always winter but never Christmas.” The incarnation tries to put into words the astonishing idea that God entered our dark and wintry world, to bring us to a better place. Instead of passively accepting a hopeless end, we are invited to celebrate an endless hope.

The Christian church recalls this great theme every year at Christmas. Its liturgy and carols set out a powerful vision of a God who enters the world in humility, which is embraced by the imagination as much as it is analysed by reason. In marking the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s death, the churches might well reflect on his emphasis on the “imaginative embrace” of faith. The theme of the incarnation is impoverished if it is reduced to a mere piece of cold and clinical theological logic.

The haunting Christmas story can resonate with our deepest intuitions about life, above all our sense that there is something immensely important beyond the borders of our experience. It has the capacity to change utterly the way in which we see ourselves, the world, and God. Lewis would urge us to trust the deepest intuitions of our hearts, and see where they lead us.

Alister McGrath is Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education at King’s College London, and author of C. S. Lewis – A Life (Hodder, 2013).