Merry Christmas, Dr. Manhattan

Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel.

In their 1985 graphic novel Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created the iconic character of Dr. Manhattan. If you’re not familiar with Watchmen, think of Dr. Manhattan as a kind of radioactive Superman: he can fly, teleport, change his size at will, and even manipulate matter on the atomic level.

And I think he has something to teach us about Christmas.

Dr. Manhattan begins his journey in the 1940s, as a young German named John Osterman. A Jewish refugee, John and his parents flee Germany, seeking haven in the United States.

While they succeed in escaping persecution, John’s father fails to re-establish his clockmaking business in this new homeland. In a pivotal scene, he throws his gears and equipment out the window, pleading that his son pursue a career in atomic physics. The way of the future.

John accepts this hard call, attending Princeton and prospering in his doctoral studies–until he finds himself caught in the radioactive crossfire of an on-campus experiment.

As one does.

The radiation immediately disintegrates John, though not forever. Weeks later, his bodily systems appear in random locations, pulsing with newfound and disjointed power. By sheer force of will, John knits his parts together into a new whole. He has a body again, one which glows and floats above the slack-jawed crowds. The man has returned as a god.

For a period, John’s story follows a predictably comic-booky route.  He takes the alias “Dr. Manhattan,” using his near-limitless powers to fight crime alongside other colorful vigilantes. Once a refugee, he now has peers and purpose.

As his abilities grow, however, Dr. Manhattan becomes more detached from these mortal relationships. Girlfriends age past his interest as he remains youthful, glowing, static. He can exist in more places than one, making love in one room while three copies of himself conduct science experiments in another. He even ceases to experience time normally; the future appears as clear to him as the past, as immediate as the present. 

Eventually, his alienation becomes locational: Dr. Manhattan moves to Mars. As the throngs of needy mortals overwhelm him, he abandons the planet on which every human has ever been born. Has ever lived. Has ever died.

I think most of us believe this is roughly how a god-man might act. If we define God by negation, we only examine God’s differences to the ordinary world, ordinary time, and ordinary people. And that categorical separation often leads to a feeling of distance. If Godhood is so different from us, deity must always be moving away into other, better things than we have the mind for.

But the idea of Christmas is this: what if deity, by definition, has a trajectory toward human intimacy? What if God–whatever He is or isn’t–always moves toward the hearts of women and men living ordinary, aging lives?

What if the trajectory of deity is always in and to, not out or away?

And what if divinity does not protect its own purity within the safety of Heaven on Mars, but moves to Earth? Finds its fullest definition as an outcast infant wrapped in rough cloth?

Neither glowing with a yellow halo nor blue radiation, but rather poorly lit, enfleshed, and wet with amniotic fluid. A dull and blotchy red.

What if God moves to Earth for no other reason than to show us He is already here?

Always everywhere.

But here, in this baby, especially.