Christmas's Black Swan


Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.


For an entire generation of Americans, September 11, 2001 has become a cultural touchstone. We remember where we were on that day. I was at home that morning and I got a call from a close friend, 

Do you have the TV on? 


Turn it on.

I remember standing in front of the TV screen for what seemed like half the day, mesmerized, horrified, unable to take it in. 

A few months ago, I found myself doing the same thing. As it does every year on the anniversary, MSNBC was replaying their coverage from that morning as if it were unfolding all over again. And I was living it all over again. I hadn’t seen that footage in more than a decade, and I couldn’t turn it off. I was back in 2001, staring in disbelief, praying for mercy. 

What struck me this year though was the broadcasters’ reactions to what they were seeing. The footage was from NBC’s Today show. Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric, and Matt Lauer were relaying reports as they came in from the field and watching live footage, along with the rest of the world, of the smoking twin towers. 

And then the first tower fell. 

I knew it was coming, of course, but seeing it again was powerful. I gasped, an involuntary human reaction at witnessing catastrophic loss of life. I thought, as we all have many times over the years, of the people in that building and their final seconds. And then I realized the difference between my reaction and the broadcasters’. They hadn’t reacted at all. Not a bit. You would think that, upon seeing this history-changing event for the first time, upon witnessing the tragedy as it unfolded, their reaction would have been dramatic. Katie might have cried. Matt might have expressed some anger at the terrorists. Tom might have suggested a moment of silence for all the lives we just saw extinguished. But none of that happened. The tower fell while Katie was mid-sentence, recapping an earlier report about a low-flying aircraft in Washington DC. She finished her sentence. She just kept talking. Matt had to interrupt her a few seconds later these words: 

"Let’s go back. We just saw a live picture of what seemed to be a portion of the building falling away."

Obviously, it was more than that. The footage is clear. Part of the view is obscured by smoke and dust, but the image is plain enough. Where once stood a building, there is now blue sky. No structure can be seen in the column of space formerly occupied by the south tower. The building is gone. And yet, Tom Brokaw, NBC’s top journalist, doesn’t utter the word “collapse” for another nine minutes. The south tower fell at 9:59 AM, but it took several minutes for Tom, Matt and Katie to name the reality they had just seen with their own eyes. Below are some excerpts from the broadcast. Keep in mind, each of these quotes comes after these journalists had watched the tower disappear. 

9:59 AM
Tom: “Looks like a big chunk of it has just peeled away."

10:00 AM
Tom: “This will have an enormous structural effect. Those buildings, I think it’s fair to say, will probably have to be brought down. It’s too early to speculate on that but there’s been that kind of damage."

10:01 AM
Matt: “This footage we’re seeing right now shows that the damage is so severe. We had seen what seemed to be two fairly self-contained impact craters before and now it appears something much more dramatic has happened to at least one of those towers."

10:01 AM
Katie: “These pictures are beyond belief.”

10:06 AM
Matt: “Let’s go back to a few seconds ago. This is now about an hour after the first impact. We saw some dramatic footage of a portion of one of the twin towers — actually — it appearing to fall away from the rest of the building. Can we go to the tape now? Here we go. Right here. This is — I mean when you look at it, that building has collapsed. That tower just came down."

10:08 AM
Tom Brokaw uses the word "collapse."

Tom, Matt, and Katie are smart people. And they were seeing the same images we all saw. The tower collapsed, plain as day. But it took them several minutes to say it, to be able to report what we all just witnessed, to believe the unbelievable. 

Now, more than a decade later, this seems peculiar, of course. We know the towers fell, and we even have a hard time remembering our world before they did. But before 9:59 AM on that morning, the idea of the entire World Trade Center disappearing in a massive collapse was utterly unimaginable. The idea was so improbable, so bizarre, that it never crossed our minds, not even when we saw it happen. It took nine minutes for Tom Brokaw to believe his eyes. 

Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls such an unbelievable event a “black swan.” According to his book by that name, a black sawn is, "a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: it is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was. The astonishing success of Google was a black swan; so was 9/11."

Every event that has far-reaching impact — every black swan — is hard to believe. The 9/11 attacks, the JFK assassination, the moon landing, the Nazi holocaust. You can still find people who deny that all of these happened. Because anything that changes everything is hard to believe. Katie Couric said it for us: “These pictures are beyond belief.”

The incarnation is Christianity’s black swan. Jesus’ virgin birth is a uniquely challenging doctrine because it represents the first time in the Apostle’s Creed that humans get to observe the unbelievable. Creation was a miracle. God’s eternal, triune essence is unfathomable. But Bethlehem is where God involves a person in his miracles, where God’s unbelievable nature breaks into our world.