What In Christmas Season Grows: On the Days Leading Up to the Nativity of the Lord | Fr. James V.
Schall, S.J. | Dec. 19, 2007 | IgnatiusInsight.com
What In Christmas Season Grows: On the Days Leading Up to the Nativity of the Lord | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. |
Dec. 19, 2007
In Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, we find the following
stanza: "At Christmas I no more desire a rose / Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled
mirth; / But like of each thing that in season grows" (I, 105). Today, of
course, we can order roses for Christmas from the local florist. He will get
them from a hot-house or flown in from some distant spot where they are in
bloom. And if we run ski slopes during May, we can manufacture our snow when
late spring storms fail to fall on slopes in Colorado or the Alps. Yet,
Shakespeare is right; we know things better if we wait till their time.
My own childhood memories of
the days leading up to Christmas were ones of waiting and expectancy. These are
both great categories of finite being. Without the waiting, the reality of
Christmas is not nearly so wondrous. Some things we cannot have unless we wait
for them to be what they are. I sometimes suspect that this unwillingness to
wait is the besetting sin of modern times. It has something to do with the
replacing of a hope rooted in the divine by a hope transferred into a human
project, something discussed in detail in Pope Benedict's latest encyclical.
Often I think that purely
"human" history--a history conceived as depending on no transcendent
order--means letting us human beings conjure up for ourselves the best way of
live. Then, once we have produced what we think we want, we find out not only
that we do not want it, but that it is not worth having once we get it. God has
a purpose in letting us attempt to make our own world. He long ago discovered
that, if free beings like ourselves are warned about some route not to travel,
the first thing we know is that they are busy traveling on it as if that is the
only way to go. I have often thought that God does not bother to prove us
wrong. He lets us do it ourselves. We only have to look with cold eyes at the
results of our own confabulations.
What then does "grow" at
Christmas? What is it that appears? We know that what appears is the Child in
the manger. Once in a while, we will hear someone complain of God: "Just why
did He take so long to get here?" Why did he let us flounder for so long? And
why, once He came, did He come in such an insignificant place and in such an
ordinary manner? A human birth for the Godhead, really! The very fact that we
can ask such questions, however, indicates that we were not ready for Him when
He did come. He did not appear on our terms. Yet we must suspect that, on His
part, God came when He knew that "the fullness of time" had arrived. What He
had planted was evidently ready to grow whether we liked it or not.
Cosmic history, the record
of man on this earth, and the revelation to the Jews, all of these things
seemed to indicate no hurry on God's part. Yet, they were but preparations for
the event we know as the Nativity of the Son of Man in this world, at a certain
time and a certain place. They happened during the reign of Caesar Augustus, in
Bethlehem, among the Jews, when the whole world was at peace.
This event itself, however,
occurred in the way it did because of the relation of the human race to God, a
relationship already present in God's plan for creation itself. Even though the
human race appears (and disappears) sequentially in this world, one at a time,
by individual births (and deaths), the race itself was created for a purpose
that was beyond the merely human. Every human person born into this world bears
in his very being a destiny that draws him to his divine origins. The Christmas
events are related to this purpose and carry it out.
The verb "to grow" means
that a living thing directs itself to the fullness, to the flourishing of its
own being. If a toad grows up to be a chicken, we do not call it "growth." We
call it a monstrosity. A connection exists between what a thing is and what it
ought to come to be. It comes to be ultimately because of what it ought to be.
This "growth" is especially true when it comes to ourselves. The hitch with us
is that to be what we are intended to be, we have to get into the act
ourselves. No one, not even God, can make us what we ought to be if we do not
choose to be what we ought to be. This is why everything in the divine dealings
with our kind passes through our minds and our wills. God, as it were, does not
want us unless we want Him.
But what am I driving at
about Christmas and its proper season, called in song "the season to be merry?"
The refrain in Shakespeare is that we like things to come to be and blossom in
their proper season. We do not expect or want them out of season. Obviously, we
speak here of a society that knows the rhythms of seasons, of planting and
harvesting, of growing and dying. What sense does it make to ask about "what
grows at Christmas?"
He who is born at Christmas
is already nine months on this earth in His mother's womb. A new-born baby is
already growing when he is born. When we speak of Christ's birth, however, we
have to ask precisely "who is born?" If He is but another Hebrew child, well
and good. Obviously, He is in fact a Hebrew child. But He is also sent for the
rise and fall of many in Israel. Or, perhaps, He is not sent for this purpose;
rather because He was sent, individual persons will make choices about who He
is—some for, some against.
When we look back on this
particular birth, we recognize that it happened some two thousand years ago. It
begins to look like the accomplishment of Christ's purpose will likely rival
the preparations for His coming in the first place. Yet, we know that God's
"time" is "now" always "now." We also celebrate Christ as a now, not just as an ancient event, even if it was an
What interests me here,
however, at this Christmas, is the question: What is growing as a result of
Christ's nativity? We know that He did not live very long, only thirty-three
years. He was crucified by the Romans in cahoots with some Jewish authorities
in very strange circumstances. He was killed under Roman juridical procedure.
His two major disciples, Peter and Paul, were also later killed in Rome itself.
It seems like a few judiciously chosen deaths should have spelled the end of
this obscure incident. Christ said that His word would be like a seed that fell
on the ground. The best seed would produce a hundredfold. His "word" would not
pass away. He is also called the Word.
Christ's birth seems now
like "long ago." How can we talk of something so old to be still growing? It is
not my purpose here to speak of missions, of missionary activity, or the lack
thereof. The author "Spengler," in a recent Asia Times article, remarked that it was curious that there are no
evident Christian missions directed to the Muslims in the West, whereas Muslims
in general are busy seeking to "convert" Christians.
The very notion of
"multiculturalism" means that we should not try to convert anyone to anything
as, it seems, no one needs to change from what he is to what he is not. A great
secular fear does exist that Christians will somehow now rise up and try to
convert others to itself. This "rising" would, of course, be a violence of the
articles of political tolerance and correctness. We don't really expect it to
happen. Few think Christianity needs to be taken seriously for what it really says
of itself. They "choose" to think this.
What is "growing" at
Christmas? In his book, Jesus of Nazareth,
Benedict XVI often repeated his central theme. The world is not
particularly different if Jesus of Nazareth was simply another Jew born at a
certain time. But the world is radically different if He is who He said He was,
namely, that He was sent by the Father into this world to redeem us. For the
past four hundred years, if not longer, we have reduced who "He said He was"
from the Son of Man, the Second Person of the Trinity, to just another prophet,
to a political fanatic, to a deluded maniac, to someone who never existed. The
pope spelled this sequence out in his lecture at Regensburg.
In conclusion, however, the
Nativity of Christ means nothing less than that the Second Person of the
Trinity became man and with His birth dwelt amongst us. We have not and cannot
change this fact. This Nativity still dwells amongst us. That is, the way of
salvation that God planned for us to understand and choose is still offered to
us. No one will be saved who does not choose to be saved. No one will be saved
other than through Christ's redemptive actions.
No one exists who was not
created for eternal life, which cannot be received by anyone unless he wants
it. No relation to God is forced on us because there is no real happiness for
man apart from the choices he makes about what he is. We like each thing that
in season grows to be what it is. For us, "to grow" is also "to choose." And
"to choose" is not just to choose what we can concoct for ourselves. Rather it
is to choose what is really the best and noblest for us.
This is ultimately what the
Nativity is about. Because of it, we can choose to be what we were intended to
be, something greater than what we could ever imagine for ourselves. But it is
a gift. If we do not know what gifts really are, we will never understand or
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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy
at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007).
Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!