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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

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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 ancient event.

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 receive them.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles on Advent and Christmas:

Turn Your Hearts! | A Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent | Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.
The Perfect Faith of the Blessed Virgin | Carl E. Olson
Come, Lord Jesus! The Meaning of Advent | Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.
Mary Immaculate | Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen on Advent | From Through the Year With Fulton Sheen
Mary's Gift of Self Points the Way | Carl E. Olson
Immaculate Mary, Matchless in Grace | John Saward
The Medieval Mary | The Introduction to Mary in the Middle Ages | by Luigi Gambero
The Mystery Made Present To Us | Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J.
Remembering Father Alfred Delp, S.J., Priest and Martyr | A Conversation with Father Karl Adolf Kreuser, S.J.
Assumed Into Mother's Arms | Carl E. Olson
The Disciple Contemplates the Mother | Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis
The Incarnation | Frank Sheed
"Born of the Virgin Mary" | Paul Claudel
The Old Testament and the Messianic Hope | Thomas Storck
Christmas: Sign of Contradiction, Season of Redemption | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The God in the Cave | G.K. Chesterton

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 website.

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