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: Five tips for reading the Word of God

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!