The paradox of Christmas

By Ashley Crane

We expect Christmas to be a happy and joyous time—a time of merry-making, gift-giving, and extravagant jollification. And it is right and good that it be so. We are, after all, celebrating the most important birthday ever. This feast is second in importance only to Easter in the Church’s calendar, and, like Easter, the Church celebrates it with an octave (an eight-day long celebration of the feast) followed by the rest of the Christmas season, which lasts until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (the Sunday after Epiphany). While the classic song misses the mark by pointing merely to marshmallows, caroling, and ghost stories, many of us would probably agree that Christmas is indeed the most wonderful time of the year. There is something inherently magnificent and glorious about it, and even our secular culture recognizes this and tries to cling to some vague idea of Christmas while simultaneously rejecting Christ.

But when we truly strive to keep Christ in Christmas, we find that the magnificent glory of Christmas comes packaged in profound humility. We celebrate with lights and feasts and merry gatherings, but the real event that we commemorate was stark and quiet and hidden. In our familiarity with the Christmas story it can be easy to miss the dramatic paradoxes.

Consider: The Light of the World (John 8:12) is born into the darkness of a cold December night. The all-powerful, eternal Word, who was with God in the beginning and is God, and through whom all things were made (John 1:1–3), comes into the world as a helpless, speechless baby. The Bread of Life, who will give his flesh as true food for eternal life (John 6:54–55), is laid to rest in a feeding trough for animals. The eternal high priest who reconciles us to the Father (Hebrews 5:5–10) appears on the scene not in God’s Temple in Jerusalem, but in a humble town six miles to the south. God’s promise to establish a dynasty and everlasting throne for David (2 Samuel 7:16) is fulfilled not in a palace, but in a small cave.

The humility of the Nativity expressed in these paradoxes sets the stage for the humiliation of the Cross. Christ rests in the wood of the manger before he dies on the wood of the Cross. He is wrapped in swaddling clothes in the cave before he is wrapped in his burial clothes and laid in the tomb. And the innocent babe sleeps peacefully in his Mother’s arms before those same arms cradle the lifeless body of the spotless Lamb of God as he rests in the sleep of death.

This is the ineffable humility of our God. He could have done it some other way, but this is how he chose to show us his great love and tenderness. Saint Paul expresses this mystery in his letter to the Philippians:

“[Christ Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross”
—Philippians 2:6–8

This is the glorious mystery of the Incarnation—that God “emptied himself” in order to join his divinity to our humanity so that he could elevate our humanity to have a share in his divinity. This is the glory of Christmas—this humility beyond our words and our comprehension.

Saint Augustine offers a powerful reflection on this humility:

“Man’s Maker was made man that
He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast,
the Bread might be hungry,
the Fountain thirst,
the Light sleep,
the Way be tired from the journey,
the Truth might be accused by false witnesses,
the Judge of the living and dead be judged by a mortal judge,
Justice be sentenced by the unjust,
the Teacher be beaten with whips,
the Vine be crowned with thorns,
the Foundation be suspended on wood,
the Strength be made weak,
the Healer be wounded,
and that Life might die.”
—St. Augustine (from Sermon 191)

This is why the Son of God became man and was born of the Virgin—to die. He lived to die and then to rise again and break the bonds of death. And the true meaning of Christmas—the real Christmas spirit—is that we must do the same. It is not enough to merely remember and to celebrate his birth. We, too, must take up our crosses and follow in his footsteps.

There was “no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7) not because the innkeeper didn’t like the looks of the tired travelers from Nazareth, but quite simply because the whole town was full due to the census. On our part, we may not mean to push God away or reject his love—we may just not have much room in our hearts or minds or lives for what he is asking of us.

As we continue to celebrate the birth of the Savior throughout this Christmas season, let us take time amidst the festivity to make room—to imitate our humble Lord and empty ourselves. For the peace and joy of Christmas come only through the sacrifice of the Cross, and it is only by sharing in his humility and dying to self that we can hope to share in his glory.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.