The Nativity of the Lord (Christmas): 12-25-16
Peace be with You,
Last week we were offered an opportunity to step back and reflect upon the reality that God has a plan in mind for the human family, and within that plan, for each individual person. Yes, you are called to take part in the economy of salvation by bringing God’s presence into the world and so bring all those you meet closer to him. This indeed is a great calling, a calling which simultaneously encapsulates and transcends any task we may undertake as we travel this earthly pilgrimage. So great is this calling that all we do must be directed towards playing our part in such a beautiful scheme, intricately conceived by Divine Providence, for this is God’s way of bestowing upon us the fullness of our dignity as human persons, that we may participate in the redemption of the world restoring it to the fullness of beauty by reconciling it to the One Who had called it into being from the beginning. However, in order that we might take part in such an august endeavor, it was necessary that we, the human family, be reconciled to communion with our Creator. And thus, today we celebrate the Incarnation of the Word through whom all things were made, who became one of us in order that we may be one with him and thus share in his saving work.
Over the course of the last several weeks, the Church has been preparing us to take part in this celebration, and she does so because she realizes that as human persons, we may look at the Christmas event and treat it as a birthday. That we might succumb to such an idea is understandable, for in fact, this is what we celebrate, the birth of our Lord. However, problems will arise if all we have in mind for today is the celebration of the birth of a child which took place in strange circumstances. Whose birth was foretold by the prophets and announced to his mother by message of an angel; whose birth took place in some remote cave because his mother and adoptive father were poor travelers; and who was laid in a manger for lack of a proper bed. For while these details make for a great story, one with the ability to captivate our imaginations such that we depict the events on our lawns and in our homes, their commemoration do not in and of themselves captivate the profundity of the event itself.
For many reasons, this day gets celebrated like many other birthdays. First, we are commemorating a birth. Secondly, we exchange gifts much in the same fashion as we would at other birthday celebrations (except in this case we all get gifts). And lastly, like most birthday celebrations we take extra time to sit down for a special meal with one another. Yes, all of the surface details make it seem like we are celebrating a simple birthday, however, if we allow ourselves to remain on the surface we will miss the gift being offered.
Consider for a moment having a bright and shiny package placed on your lap. It has all the trimmings, ribbon, a bow, and a card indicating that this gift was picked out especially for you by someone who took the time not only to buy said gift but to present it to you in such splendid fashion. You quickly untie the ribbon, place the bow in a safe spot so you can use it again next year, and tear into the wrapping with the anticipation you felt as a child, and just as you tear off the last bit of paper and the gift comes into full view your heart sinks, all the exhilaration you felt just a moment before has evaporated into thin air. Why? Because what you find inside is something you either haven’t the faintest idea how to use, or you haven’t the slightest desire to possess. For example, I might be given a bright and shiny new set of Veritas woodworking tools, but if I don’t know how to use them I won’t be excited to receive them. Likewise, I could be given a brand spanking new set of Callaway golf clubs, but if I don’t play golf they are as good as a fancy door stop. The point is, despite the saying, when it comes to the value of the gift from the point of view of the receiver, the desire to possess a gift is as important as the thought of the giver. So it is with Christmas, if all we expect to receive is an invitation to a birthday party, that’s exactly what we’ll get.
God has in mind to give you so much more this Christmas! But in order for you to receive the gift he desires to give you in its fullness, you need to understand exactly what he is giving you, and this requires a tough look in the mirror. The Church does her best to force this look in the mirror in her choice of readings for the various liturgical celebrations occurring on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. For example, at the Vigil Mass the first reading from the latter part of Isaiah proclaims that the nations will see the “vindication” of the people of God, and no longer will they be called “Forsaken” or “Desolate” (Isaiah 62:2 & 4). Similarly, at the Mass during the night, the first reading coming from the first part of Isaiah cries out “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shown” (Is. 9:1). So we must ask ourselves what situation we find ourselves in that we must be vindicated from and what place of darkness it is that we inhabit that such a splendid Light will transform its landscape. This is precisely where the hard part comes in, for what these readings are reminding us of is the reality of sin. Yes, in order to truly appreciate the gift God desires to give us this Christmas, we must first recognize the fact that through sin we have become disconnected from our source of life and happiness, i.e. we have become estranged from God. If we fail to recognize this, in reality, there is very little to celebrate on Christmas. For the truth of the matter is, Christmas is a time for sinners to rejoice, and if you’re not a sinner what have you to rejoice over?
It is with this reality in mind that in 381 upon this very same occasion, St. Gregory of Nazianzus proclaimed to the people of Constantinople: “This is our feast, this is what we celebrate today: God’s coming to the human race, so that we might make our way to him, or return to him (to put it more precisely), so that we might put off the old humanity and put on the new, and that as we have died in Adam so we might live in Christ” (Oration 38, 4). This deep and profound reality is what the Church proclaims in the gospel she selects for Mass on Christmas morning. There, we find John’s famous prologue, which in John’s gospel serves in place of a birth narrative. This is because John is less interested in the historical facts surrounding the birth of Christ and more focused on the person who is being born. Thus John proclaims, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…And the Word became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1:1-5 & 14). We see here that John is concerned with getting a couple of few key points across.
First, the Word is God, and thus, the One who has become flesh is also God. Secondly, as God, John connects him to the creation of the world. In fact, this is precisely why John uses “Word” to describe the person of Jesus. The Greek word John is using is “Logos,” meaning reason, or creative action; a term used by Neo-Platonists in the same metaphysical sense that John is using it here in order to convey that Jesus is the very creative action of God. Lastly, we see that for John, to say Jesus is the Word is at the same time to say that Jesus is the Light of life, i.e. he is the proper object of the reason, the One towards whom all minds should be fully attentive to in order to live life to its full.
These are themes which often get picked up on by the Fathers of the Church when discussing our salvation. For example, Augustine will comment on the light John speaks of by saying that it is “the light of rational minds, which distinguish men from animals and precisely makes them men” (On the Trinity, Bk 4.3). He then goes onto explain that when John speaks of the light overcoming the darkness, “the darkness is the foolish minds of men, blinded by depraved desires and unbelief,” thus, in order “to cure these and make them well the Word through which all things were made became flesh and dwelt among us” (On the Trinity, Bk. 4.3 & 4). Thus, we what we see in John and in the comments of Augustine, the commemoration of the birth of Christ necessarily implies the celebration of our salvation, the two cannot be thought of exclusive to one another, for when they do, one loses its full meaning.
My friends, today we celebrate the Love of God which became Incarnate for us. But only when we fully appreciate that we are not all we have been created to be can we truly begin to appreciate what God has come to accomplish in the Incarnation and what it is we celebrate today; “not celebrating what is ours, but what belongs to the One who is ours—to our Lord; not celebrating weakness, but healing; not celebrating this creation, but our re-creation” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 38.4). This re-creation is precisely the gift God desires to give you this day, for “by nature we are not God; by nature we are men; by sin we are not just. So God became a just man to intercede with God for sinful man…So he applied to us the similarity of his humanity to take away the dissimilarity of our iniquity, and becoming a partaker of our mortality he made us partakers of his divinity” (On the Trinity 4.4). Today, God wishes to take you into and share with you his very life, don’t turn away from this gift, run towards it with your whole mind, heart, soul and strength with open arms and be surrounded in the loving embrace that awaits to meet you!
Praying for you and yours to enjoy a very blessed Christmas Season,
Your servant in Christ,
Tony Crescio is the founder of FRESHImage Ministries. He holds an MTS from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a PhD candidate in Christian Theology at Saint Louis University. His research focuses on the intersection between moral and sacramental theology. His dissertation is entitled, Presencing the Divine: Augustine, the Eucharist and the Ethics of Exemplarity.
Tony’s academic publications can be found here.