The paradox of Christmas

Avatar

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: From rare books to online resources, archdiocesan library has long history of service to students

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

National Library Week, observed this year from April 4 to April 10, is the perfect occasion to highlight the essential role of libraries and library staff in strengthening our communities – and our very own Cardinal Stafford Library at the Archdiocese of Denver is no exception.  

Since 1932, the library has served as a religious, intellectual, and cultural resource for seminarians and students at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver.

As the library of the seminary, we are always responsible for the four dimensions of the priestly formation of our seminarians. The library is charged with being responsible to all the divisions of the Seminary: the Lay Division (Catholic Biblical School and Catholic Catechetical School), the Permanent Deacon Formation Division, and the Priestly Formation Division, said Stephen Sweeney, Library Director. 

In addition to being one of the main resources to the seminary, the Cardinal Stafford Library serves the needs of other educational programs in the Archdiocese of Denver, including the St. Francis School for Deacons, the Biblical School, the Catechetical School and the Augustine Institute. While the library is currently closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was previously open to anyone, giving people access to more than 150,000 books, audios, and videos. 

The Cardinal Stafford Library was named after Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, Apostolic Penitentiary at the Vatican and former Archbishop of Denver from 1986 to 1996. He was a dedicated advocate of the library and of Catholic education.

In 1932, the library was established by two seminarians, Maurice Helmann and Barry Wogan. While they were not the first seminarians to conceive the idea of establishing a library, they are considered the founders for undertaking its organization.  

Since its founding, the library has grown and compiled a fine collection of resources on Catholic theology, Church history, biblical studies, liturgy, canon law, religious art, philosophy, and literature. Special collections include over 500 rare books dating back to the early 16th century and many periodicals dating back to the 1800s. The oldest publication in the library is a book on excommunication published in 1510. The Cardinal Stafford Library is also home to various relics and holds bills personally written by some of those saints.  

Over the past few years, the library has undergone a process of beautification through various renovations that include improvements in lighting, flooring, and even furniture restoration. During these difficult times, libraries are doing their best to adapt to our changing world by expanding their digital resources to reach those who don’t have access to them from home. 

The Cardinal Stafford Library provides a community space; we subscribe to about 200 print journals and have access to literally thousands more through online resources available on campus computers, Sweeney added. “I have been the Library Director for almost 11 years. I absolutely love my work, especially participating in the intellectual formation of the faithful from all of the dioceses we serve”.  

For more information on the Cardinal Stafford Library, visit: sjvdenver.edu/library 

Featured photo by Andrew Wright