Though he couldn’t have known it, Aristotle had the key to understanding Christmas. His master achievement was a profound understanding of human happiness. It is as though he grasped as much as can be grasped by human reason alone.
Men are designed for greatness, a greatness that few ever achieve. True human happiness consists, simply put, in living virtuously. And virtuous living is the fundamental requirement and the necessary context for that deepest of human longings—true friendship.
Aristotle was keenly attuned to the realm of the divine. Of two things he was absolutely certain: the divine is the origin of the human; and the human at its best approaches the divine. The latter is a paradoxical truth at the center of human existence: the more perfect a human life, the more it stretches beyond the human and almost touches the divine. One who sees deeply into human greatness can as it were see through it, to something beyond. For men can become like gods. Such a profound truth Aristotle saw.
The Other Direction
Going the other direction becomes more complicated. Do gods take an interest in the struggles of men? Here, writing in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle is more tentative:
For if the gods have any care for human affairs, as it seems they do, it would be reasonable both that they should delight in that which was best and most akin to them and that they should reward those who love and honor this most, as caring for things that are dear to them.
Remarkably, he has confidence—though not certitude—that the gods will reward those who become like them.
But this is as far as far as it goes. Surely the possibility of God and men entering into some sort of shared life never entered his mind. Right?
This is a subtle matter. In some sense the possibility of God and men becoming friends does enter his mind. It enters his mind as a possibility to be rejected: “when one party is removed to a great distance, as god is, the possibility of friendship ceases” (also from the Nicomachean Ethics). It is not that the notion was inconceivable to him. Rather, there was simply no ground to consider it a real possibility. For God and men to be friends an apparently unbridgeable gap would have to be bridged. For as Aristotle often points out, friends share one life together, and there is nothing for which they so yearn as to be together.
And this, then, is what Aristotle has to say about Christmas, about its deepest meaning. If men are ever to become more than just somewhat-like the divine, if we are ever (tremble at the words) to live one life with him, and thus be his friends, then something very specific has to happen. And there is no human ground to expect that it ever will.
And, behold, that is exactly what happened. The first Christmas.