The Christmas we celebrate this year finds us in a state of war, on the sidelines of a dramatic situation where communities are destroyed, some people kill, and others die. Uncontrolled fury buries men and women under the rubble of their homes, hits the bewildered elderly, abandoned without support or assistance, and overwhelms children in the innocence of their daily lives.
On the sidelines, but emotionally involved, we feel the dangers knocking at our door. The consequences of the conflict are catching up with us and will weigh heavily on all of us, especially the most vulnerable sections of the population. These are realities that remind us of a distant past that we thought we had left behind forever decades ago.
Yet the Lord Jesus is born once again for us, in a situation that calls us to sternly question ourselves and to open ourselves to welcome the mystery of Christmas. How can the Creator of the universe become incarnate in such a way that is so lacking in dignity and relevance? Why did he make his own our corruptible flesh, our contradictions, our sin, even enduring the scandal of the cross? There is no other answer than to contemplate the mystery of the love of a God who out of love became a child.
For a conscience of faith the historical Jesus is the Son of God; he is the revelation of the face of the Father. At Christmas it is God who becomes man, the Almighty who becomes a child, the Most High who humbles himself and even becomes an infant in need of care. The fact that Jesus chose this way to enter history and become a man like us fully reveals the nature of the Father’s love for humanity, a love that involves sharing, participation, communion, gift and service. As we profess in the Creed, God becomes incarnate “for us and for our salvation” (propter nos et propter nostram salutem). Thus he comes to set us free; he becomes man to give us the peace to which we aspire, to reveal to us divine tenderness and fill us with his blessing.
The long-awaited one enters history
The Gospel of Luke tells how Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem for the census, in obedience to the imperial edict. But in the town there is no place for them, not even at its edge. Jesus is born like every child, but in a cave, in poverty and in solitude; the one people were expecting for centuries enters history and finds no lodging. Two poor strangers have to make do with a makeshift shelter, a truly paradoxical situation for a God who becomes incarnate.
Meanwhile for Mary “the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloth and placed him in a manger” (Luke 2:6-7). Like all children, Jesus who is born is wrapped in swaddling clothes and his makeshift cradle is in a manger, where fodder is stored for the cattle.
The swaddling clothes and the manger are a sign for the shepherds in the vicinity. The extraordinary event is announced to them by an angel: “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you. You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12). Jesus, the awaited Messiah, is the one who saves; he is Christ, the anointed one, the one consecrated to God; he is the Lord, the Kyrios, the title of God in the Old Testament. The angel also reveals the mission of that child. It is God who enters visibly into human history to be close to us; it is the Lord who first makes himself known to the shepherds who watch over the flock, to people who work, and who are of no great importance.
If the Christian life is a journey and a progressive assimilation into the life of Christ, what does the experience of poverty and loneliness that marks the entry of Jesus into history indicate to our conscience? How does it question us with regard to all that concerns closeness, solidarity with others, welcoming our brothers and sisters, simplicity, sobriety, the essential elements in our lives? What does his revealing himself to those who do not count, to those who are marginalized, to those who do the humblest jobs indicate?
God’s omnipotence is revealed in weakness
The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us (cf. John 1:14). John announces the Incarnation in these words. Jesus took on our very flesh; he became a child, that is, an “in-fant,” one unable to speak. The Word, the Word of God, has no voice except the wailing of a newborn child. Such is the reality of God’s entrance into history: becoming man like everyone else, taking on the corruptibility of the flesh, the precariousness of existence, the fragility and weakness of a child.
And yet, paradoxically, this reveals the omnipotence of God: “The fact of being a power that speaks through weakness says that it is a divine, infinite power; only God Almighty is able to speak through the language of weakness. Such language […] is not only a manifestation of power, it is not part of a game of contrasts, but is the condition for reaching man from below, from the roots. Salvation does not come to you from someone who has everything and gives something, or gives much of this everything, overwhelming you with abundance. Instead, it is the power of someone who puts himself on your level, and starting from your lowest level raises you up, makes you different; someone who makes you share in his fullness after having participated in your poverty, and who in this affective communion with an impotence and a poverty well known to you, not imaginary, suffered day by day, guarantees the reality of his fullness, which he wants to share with you” (S. Corradino, Il potere nella Bibbia, Roma, Acli, 1977, 4).
Christmas is therefore the feast of God’s humility. This is clearly expressed by the Apostle Paul in the Letter to the Philippians, when he speaks of kenosis (Phil 2:7): “becoming nothing,” “emptying oneself,” depriving oneself of divine glory. Jesus, coming among us as one of us, accepted even the poverty and humiliation of our history, even at the lowest level indeed the level of the rejected: “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:8). Jesus dies on the cross innocent, as one rejected, a condemned man, suffering the punishment of the lowest caste of criminal. It is the mystery of Christmas that unfolds in life.
Light shines in the darkness
The life was the light of men and shines in the darkness (cf. John 1:4-5). The life that the Lord gives is light for all the people of the world; it illuminates every life, giving joy, hope and a future. For a humanity assumed by Jesus, there must be a tomorrow. If the Lord became a wayfarer like us, fragile like everyone else, fatigued and suffering on a journey similar to ours, our living, suffering and wandering have a new meaning. There is light and joy in our life. For the Christian, the joy of living is not just one emotion among many, but has its own deep theological roots. In our hearts there is joy, there is the good of divine creation, there is the beauty that comes from God, there is the very life of God, there is illumination from above. Opening oneself to the light for every Christian is a commitment, a responsibility, a duty that comes from union and communion with the Lord and with one’s brothers and sisters.
However, John says: “The light shines in the darkness,” because there is darkness in the world. He continues: “Darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Despite the fact that human history and the very life of every person are marred by darkness – the darkness of selfishness and disengagement, of corruption and hypocrisy – the Word of God is for us a great source of hope that our time must not obscure. The horrors, the devastation, the deaths of the conflicts that touch us closely and which continually affect us, and even more the many conflicts in the rest of the world that are seemingly forgotten, are not the last word in the history of humanity. The Word who has pitched his tent among us is a Presence given for ever, because he is from the Father, and he will be with us “until the very end of time” (Matt 28:20).
But again, “his own did not receive him.” He is not welcomed because the eyes of men are turned elsewhere. Yet Christmas returns to question us about our readiness to welcome him here and now. How do we orient our lives, how do we go out to meet our brothers and sisters? If we open our hearts to them, we become children of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus, and in him of all humanity. Christmas is the celebration of fraternity.
Who welcomes the Lord who is born?
Mary and Joseph are the first to welcome the Lord Jesus: the mystery of the circumstances of that birth must have disturbed them. On their journey they have nothing with them needed for a newborn child. They consent to live the mystery of God’s will in a situation which does not relieve them of any of the commitments and responsibilities of daily life. They are poor parents, like many, struggling with problems that make them similar to many of the parents in the world. But they are listening people, accepting of God’s plan that enters their life and turns it upside down. It is the mystery of God that makes their life different from the one they had cherished in their hearts.
Then there are the shepherds who welcome Jesus: simple, poor, humble people. They are a people without lineage and without rights, without an identity except marked by toil, a people who know of the world only the color of the sky, the grass in the meadow, the milk from their sheep, the time of shearing the wool and how to carry a newborn lamb on their shoulders. Yet it is this people who watch the flock. Shepherds are the first to discover the mystery of God in the Son of Mary.
Later come the Magi, educated people but free from all forms of presumption, they are on a quest. They know the Scriptures of the Jewish people and they know how to recognize the signs of heaven. Above all they know how to set out when they discover a star that guides them and, after a long journey, beyond their experience and knowledge, they too encounter the child who is born.
Let yourself be transformed by the mystery of Christmas
What will our next Christmas be like? Dietrich Bonhœffer, Lutheran pastor, martyr to Nazism, enlightens us: “God is not ashamed of man’s baseness, He enters into it. […] God loves that which is lost, that which is not considered, the insignificant, that which is marginalized, weak and afflicted; where men say ‘lost,’ there he says ‘saved.’ […] Where men look away indifferently or haughtily, there he sets his gaze full of incomparable ardent love. Where men say ‘despicable,’ there God exclaims “blessed.” Where in our lives we have ended up in a situation in which we can only be ashamed before ourselves and before God, […] there God is close to us as never before, there he wants to break into our lives, there he makes us feel his approach, so that we understand the miracle of his love, of his closeness and of his grace” (“Sermone della 3a Domenica di Avvento”, in Id., Riconoscere Dio al centro della vita, Brescia, Queriniana, 2004, 12f). footnote?
Let us ask the Lord Jesus who is born for us the gift of welcoming the mystery of Christmas and allowing ourselves to be transformed by his coming. “You can live without bread, without a home, without love, without happiness: you cannot live without mystery. Human nature is made like this. You cannot escape the mystery when you are made in the image and likeness of God” (L. Bloy, “Introduzione”, in P. Van der Meer, Diario di un convertito, Alba, Paoline, 1969, 9).
With best wishes for a Holy Christmas.
La Civiltà Cattolica