It is odd that I seem to have never written about this, in spite of having spoken about it so often. Thirty years ago, friends had invited me to come along on a sailing trip in the Tyrrhenian Sea, which is the part of the Mediterranean bordered by Italy in the East and Corsica and Sardinia in the West. It’s where you find the Island of Monte Christo, which is actually not inhabited at all. The real prison island is Capraia, which it is not far, but Alexandre Dumas must have thought that Monte Christo would work better for his novel.
My story begins with an unfortunate choice for an anchorage the afternoon before, giving rise to the need to get out and spend the the night on the open sea, sailing towards Monte Christo, as rising winds and an unsteady sea had made it impossible to stay were we were. Later, I was alone on deck during the last watch of the night, as the wind was calming down while the new day had yet to begin. And then, in the hour that was to follow, it happened: I would see the creation of the world, the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, with my own eyes. It would be just between God and me, so that I would forever know that this is how he created the world.
It really felt like this. I was alone on deck, with the only light coming from a small bulb in the compass so that I could keep the course. Utter darkness surrounded me. No features at all, no stars, no moon. I could not even see the water that surrounded me. There was no horizon. Just darkness in all directions, with the sounds of the wind blowing through the darkness. The uneasy weather was calming down as the chaos of the night slowly subsided. Now the boat was feeling steady as I held the tiller, with the wind in its sails tightening the sheets and giving me the longed-for feeling of stability and safety. And then, it began. There was light. It was nothing like the light of the day, but it was light above, and it was separate from the darkness below. The light grew brighter and now the darkness separated from the light as a clear line appeared marking the horizon. Then I could see the waters below and the waters above, the ocean and the clouds, clearly discernable from each other. A new day had begun. Eventually, I could see land on the horizon: the island that was our next destination. The sun rose, and my shipmates were out of their bunks and were sitting with me in the cockpit, and we enjoyed another day of our holiday. I knew that I would never forget the way this day had begun. I had seen the creation of the world.
I always tell this story when I want to speak of the truth of the creation account in Genesis. It takes the experience of the beginning of a new day and reminds us that each day, and in each moment of each day, God’s creative power is the reason for the existence of the universe. The creation of the world is not a moment in time, 14 billion years ago. The universe has its being through God—the past and every moment of its present. The physical past exists together with our present. Indeed, we are constantly reminded of this as we observe the earliest light from the beginning of the universe still arriving at our telescopes from the farthest distance of space. I see this as the most important insight of modern cosmology: we are surrounded by the past in the night sky.
There is something else that modern science has brought to our full attention, and this is the special place of the being of persons in creation. However, the knowledge comes as a challenge to us. “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless,” is how one physicist has put it: Steven Weinberg. While every act of ours has meaning and importance, while every experience in the world reveals the world’s meaning to us, this meaning seems real only in as much as we find it for ourselves. It seems that modern science has fixed this great chasm between us and the universe.
At Christmas, we remember how this chasm has been bridged. Each person’s birth is a new creation and a new beginning, but Christmas celebrates a new beginning for all creation. In the coming of Christ into the world, the whole world was created anew, in this personal relationship between God and humanity. The meaning of the world is not revealed in the formulas of physics that make the world predictable but pointless, but in the incarnation of the Word of God that makes the greatest point of all in its unpredictable freedom: the revelation of the love of God in its fullness. It has entered into our relationships, and it unites our search for meaning with God’s purpose for the world he created and always creates anew.
The Christmas story is not just an uplifting story about peace and joy. Instead, we remember that the meaning of the world, the reason for creation has been shown to us. We celebrate a new creation, a new world in which peace and joy are truly possible.