(For our Christmas post this year, several contributors have turned in Christmas meditations. Each will be labeled separately with the name of its actual author.)
Among the chief features of Christmas is a grand paradox: one that overthrew the world. The most vulnerable thing imaginable, an infant new to the world, was the Creator and Judge of the world. The greatness of the Christian creed emanates from this stupendous reversal. There in a manger is the germ of all charity, all sacrificial love, and the brotherhood of man. That any unbeliever ever thought to look sympathetically upon the downtrodden, the lowly, poor, is merely a distant afterimage of that original condescension of divinity to our poor, nasty, brutish and lowly human estate.
Being myself the father of a newborn (pictured below), the helplessness of babes impresses my mind quite directly. The ancient world exposed and slaughtered its infants regularly. The decaying modern world slaughters them as well. The creed of the cross of Christ calls its Savior one.
And it does so on this, our most joyous day.
(And go Broncos!)
I believe it was Chesterton who said that the birth of every baby is God's way of telling the world to keep going, yet when I set the dreary faithlessness of this world against that baby who lay first in his mother's arms and then in his manger, I am invariably led to a melancholic wondering: why did he bother? The world is such an incessant Babel of human conflict, a festering sore of suffering, strife, persecution, disease and calamity. We can't think straight, or make the most obvious moral distinctions, or treat each other decently, or, where manners are somewhat in vogue, barely restrain beneath a civilized veneer the genuinely vicious contempt we hold for those who won't see things our way. Should the contempt know no moral constraints, some of the things people are capable of doing to other people are quite literally unspeakable. In fact, that baby in the manger would end up victim to one of those 'things.'
And He knew it all beforehand: that He, most perfectly innocent, would be born into the arms of the most innocent of mothers, live long enough to tell us the truth, then be tortured and murdered for it, knowing all the while that mankind would afterwards go on doing pretty much what it always has, with no end in sight. There wasn't even anything unique about a man being tortured and murdered. It has been the end of many, though this man's end was supposed to be different because it was somehow for us, not only in the way that a man might sacrifice his life for another, but in this mysterious shouldering of a burden, this taking on the sins of the world. How that can happen I have no idea. I do know that, whatever He confronted in Gethsemane - whatever He saw, felt, took into His very being - He merely sweated blood for what would have killed a mere mortal. But still we go on our way, and so still I wonder: what was the point? Why bother? What is it about you and me and all the rest of this vale of corruption that makes us worth His trouble?
To ask the question is to ask why He made us at all, and to ask that is to doubt the very nature of His love, and if I am not to doubt it then I am forced to a conclusion: that His appears to be not very much like yours and mine. It is not a thing offered in greatness of heart only later to be withdrawn at the first sign of disappointment, or meted out in stingy parcels according to how deserving you are from one moment to the next, as though He were subject to mood swings. He doesn't offer it to some and withhold it from others. It is there always and forever, without end. You can withhold from Him, but He cannot from you. On the crests of life's ocean we rise and into its troughs we fall, while He, like a lighthouse, remains in one place, that when lost we may find our way. We waver in our commitments with every wind, while He remains constant. Even in this very poor Christian, of whose evil He knew before my conception, he finds something worth taking note of, some remnant worth saving, or worth trying to save. I don't think He came for such a trivial reason as to save my life, but to save me from myself. The good of one saint outweighs my million evil thoughts and actions, and those of a million others. Love creates, and can create only what is good. God will die if He must to bring the good, to bring you and me, back to life. If this is not true of Him, then there is no truth worth having.
Every year at this time I look to that image of mother and child to change the world, and every year I must wait for the next. I look in the hope that at last the world's heart will melt into submission, and every year the world fails. For most of mankind, Truth seems so elusive as to actually be an illusion. Maybe some great event awaits mankind's future; I don't think I'll be here to see it. Since I disappoint my Master at least as often as the world disappoints me, perhaps I should narrow the breadth of my concern. The evil of the day is sufficient unto itself, and so forth.
Another of my fantastical hopes is that on my deathbed I'll be given leisure to first say goodbye to those who condescended to put up with me, and then to fix in my mind's eye that scene in the cave, the babe asleep in his mother's arms. Some hope to see the Lord on his cross, or in his resurrected glory, but not me. Any father who's ever held his newborn child wrapped in hospital swaddling clothes knows that diminution of vanity, of his masculine pride, before this miracle in all its weakness. It was at the end of a Gospel that the baby grown to a man said that He would be with us until the end of time, but He had already said it back there in the cave where He was born. In submitting to the balefully fragile bonds of human flesh, he made that flesh new, resurrecting its mortal destiny, such that we can never look at the birth of any child in the same way again. In rendering himself as vulnerable and helpless as only a baby can be to the kindness of others, he anticipates that later surrender to the cruelty of his tormentors; in casting his innocence into the cauldron of our wicked world, he points to a cross on a far-off hill, in the shadow of which that wickedness now stands ashamed. It was back there in the cave that he first announced that he was with us because he was one of us, that this life he gave us is good because he made it his own; that, though we are born to die, we cannot in the end.
"Follow me." Yes, to be led into the next life by mother and child, nothing more than one Christian's vain fantasy. But as to its impossibility, I would remind you that it is written: a child shall lead them.
If all were right in the world, Advent would be solemnly kept as a season of penance and meditation on the four Last Things, its four weeks representing mankind’s waiting four thousand years for the Messiah; Christmas would be celebrated devoutly (and riotously) for twelve days, from December 25 to the Feast of the Epiphany; and “merry Christmas” would be a familiar greeting until the Feast of the Purification, the fortieth day after the Savior’s birth, when Christmas trees are removed from homes. There is a reason that the Church has given us forty days of Christmas, beginning and ending when it does - the mystical number of forty symbolizing eternity. In keeping with Jewish custom for all firstborn males, forty days will pass before the Babe of Bethlehem is taken by the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph to the temple at Jerusalem, possibly with an offering of two turtledoves (Luke 2:24), where He is presented to Simeon the Righteous and greeted with the Nunc Dimittis.
I’m not very good at observing the liturgical calendar, generally, and I just barely manage to do the minimum for Advent and Christmas most years. It’s a real failing and embarrassing proof that I’m still a barely converted Catholic. But a few years back we decided to celebrate Christmas a little bit differently, and the change has been a positive one for our family. I heartily recommend it to you as well.
In many Christian countries, the traditional gift exchange takes place on the twelfth day of Christmas - January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, wherein the Magi bring their gifts to the Christ Child. While Christmas solemnizes the gift of God to men, Epiphany specifically recalls the gifts of men to God. So a family gift exchange is quite natural on this day. Our gifts to each other are gifts to Christ, whom we see in our neighbor.
Moving the gift exchange to January 6 also has some very practical advantages. First, you can really focus on Christmas devotions and avoid the commercialization almost entirely. There are traditionally three Christmas masses celebrated. We attend midnight mass with the entire family, little ones and all, at a parish two hours away and don’t get home until the wee hours of the morning. We sleep a little, and then some of us also attend the last mass of Christmas Day closer to home. It’s important not only to keep Christ in Christmas but to keep mass in Christmas. Second, insofar as shopping is necessary, you can do this after December 25, avoiding the crowds and taking advantage of “post holiday” sales. Third, this custom will help revive the long forgotten “twelve days of Christmas”, which ought to be the very heart of the Christmas season.
Christ is born! Glorify Him!
What precisely are we celebrating at Christmas? We celebrate the Son of God becoming man at a particular time in history. Sometimes the choice of that specific moment in time looks to us like a sheer historical accident, a mere chance arrangement of millions of actors working out their lives with little thought for the ‘big picture.’ But that’s only a worm’s eye view, as it were.
The saints teach us that God designed the entirety of creation, from the very first moment, primarily with a view to uniting the divine person of the Son to creation; for allowing the Second Person to take on the nature of one of those creatures. Such a glorious elevation of created being to union with the Divine is, as it were, the very point of it all. So, while we fallen humans are most grateful for the passion, death, and resurrection by which Christ redeemed us, the entire economy of the created order pays homage to Christ in the Incarnation, for in a sense that is the why of everything else.
Perhaps, looking at the matter without earthly prejudice, it is surprising that it was not in God’s design that He should take on angelic nature and become an angel. But angels are not many individuals of all the same nature, every angel is the entirety of his own species, since they have no matter by which to distinguish one individual from another given one specific nature. Hence, had God become angelic, He would perforce be an angel of a species distinct from every other species of angel, and thus His union with the order of created intelligences would be in a sense extrinsic: a mere multiplicity of new natures. God instead chose to stoop even further, and unite himself to human nature, joining with the lowest of all those creatures that have rational natures, thereby taking on that very same created nature that we all share. Thus, while there is nothing in man that merits such an honor, we celebrate with joy that very condescension by which God came to Earth in the form and nature of “one of us”. Truly, “God with us” in name and in deed.
When we must speak about Christmas, it is very nearly a given that what we say will be to some extent unoriginal, and the danger of banality always haunts the mind of the conscientious writer, tempting him to say nothing at all. Irony is no good--worse than no good. Silence would be better than irony. Charles Williams says, "The false smile of irony spares us for a while from the true smile of heaven." Williams, in context, almost seems to regard that use of irony as inevitable, but there I don't agree.
So, since I have decided to write something about Christmas, I will say what many have said before. Christmas, this year especially, though for no specific reason, reminds me of the humble gratitude I owe to God. For the gift of His Son, for the gift of eternal life, but this year I am especially thinking of the kindness and generosity of the people of God that have followed me all the days of my life. I recently said to my children, wryly (there's that irony again), "Oh, I was a real joy as a child." Meaning, "I was a stinker."
Yet the love of God was there. Year after year from my parents, who did not have to adopt me in the first place, and who might well have been excused for asking God how they got landed with such a difficult child after their first selfless decision. Yet they seem not to have regretted it. From my Christian high school teachers, who taught me that steady, strict discipline is by no means incompatible with overwhelming, generous kindness. And in college from the many families who welcomed me into their homes for Thanksgiving and Christmas when it was difficult or impossible to get back home. My childhood and youth were graced with many who loved, including many who are dead, whose faces I can see now, and for whom I owe most humble and hearty thanks. And now there are my beloved husband and family who love me every day.
Blessings to all our W4 readers. You all know of various reasons and arguments that have been discussed here repeatedly for believing in God and in Jesus Christ His Son. Here I present to you, rather, only a passing thought: To whom do you give thanks for all your many blessings if not to God? It is not only the people. Where does their love come from? And is there not, somewhere, a sense that Someone deserves thanks for the people?
A Merry Christmas to all.
Thanks be to God for His unspeakable Gift.