Tradition attributes the Christmas crèche or manger scene to St. Francis of Assisi, while the decorations that have become so much a part of the Christmas season in America—especially the tree and its trimmings—are generally regarded as having come into our culture via Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, consort of Queen Victoria. Yet in reading a fine collection of brief selections from the Fathers of the Church for the Advent and Christmas seasons, published by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana, I found the following introduction to a passage from one of the great Eastern Fathers, Gregory Nazianzen, in which the Italian author, Marco Pappalardo, challenges us to “put on” Christmas by reference to even more ancient aspects of the biblical account of the Lord’s birth, which undergird so much of what we think of as Christmas tradition:
“May our bodies be living crèches every day and everywhere we are called to live as true Christians. May our legs, step by step, be like those of the animals that visited the grotto in Bethlehem so that all creation could praise its Creator. May our bellies be like Mary’s when she accepted Christ and allowed him to grow within her; we can continue accepting him in the Eucharist. May our arms be like Joseph’s when they cradled, lifted, hugged and served Jesus; we can do the same daily by embracing our brothers and sisters, working, studying and serving.
“May our mouths and voices be like those of the angels, that we may always sing and give praise in a loud voice to the Word made flesh: “Glory to God in the highest” (Lk 2:14). May our ears and eyes be like those of the shepherds, who heard the angels’ song wherever they were and came to see the Child. May our intellect be like that of the Magi, who saw the star, had faith, and set off on their journey: an intellect that allows itself to be struck with wonder by a Child who is the Son of God, by the God who becomes like us so that we may become like him.
“May our hearts be like the manger that held the Eternal One, who became so little (in order) to turn our poverty into true wealth and joy. Amen.”
Eastern Christian theology has long stressed “theosis,” or “divinization,” as the goal of the Christian life. It can be a somewhat startling theme for western Christian ears, formed as we are by Augustine’s sense of the distance that original sin created between humanity and God. Yet if, as theologians east and west have long insisted, Christianity is not about our search for God (as so much pop-spirituality these days insists), but about God coming into history in search of us and our learning to take the same path through history that God is taking, then “divinization” makes perfect sense: for how could we follow God through history unless we became more and more like God?
That is why Christmas inevitably takes the serious Christian back through the history of the people of Israel, for it was in their history—the call of Abraham and his sojourning; the call of Moses and the Exodus into true freedom; the call of the prophets for the people to re-commit themselves to the service of the one, true and jealous God, who will not have false gods before Him—that humanity began to learn the habit of following God through history. That divine sojourning in our world reached its unsurpassable height when the Son of God became the Son of Mary and was laid in a manger. Thus Christmas, the annual cultural festival that perhaps most starkly distinguishes Christians from our Jewish neighbors and friends, ought to be a religious solemnity that reminds Christians of their debt to the faith of Abraham and the history of the Chosen People.
Thus, at this Christmas season, let us pray for the well-being of all who call Abraham their father in faith, and the deepening of our common reflection on what it means to be a light unto the nations.