CHRISTMAS, 2008 | Fr. James. V. Schall, S.J. | December 25, 2008 | Ignatius Insight
"Dearly beloved, today our Savior is born; let us rejoice. Sadness should have no place on this birthday of life." -- St. Leo the Great, Pope, d. 461 A.D., Sermon on the Birthday of Christ, Christmas Office.
The antiphon for the Office of Readings for Christmas Day reads: "Christ is born for us: Come let us adore Him." This antiphon does not say "May Christ be born," let alone, "May He be born 'for us.'" It states rather an "is," a fact. Christ is born. Christ is born for us.
Why does it not say, "Christ "was" born for us?" We know He died on the Cross in Jerusalem thirty-some years after His birth. It is because the Christ who was born of Mary in the time of Caesar Augustus is not dead. He is risen. He was born to conquer death, which He did.
But here on the Feast of the Nativity, we celebrate the birth, the Nativity of Christ. To comprehend it all, we take one thing at a time. Pope St. Leo, speaking of the same event, the same fact, says that a "savior" is born to us. He is identified as "Christ the Lord."
Another antiphon reads: "A little child is born for us today; little and yet called the mighty God." It adds, "Alleluia," almost as if that is about the only thing we human beings could say once we realize what has happened once among us.
Yet another antiphon describes more of the scene: "Joseph and Mary, the mother of Jesus, were filled with wonder at all that was said of the child." They are filled with wonder both because of the Child and because of what was said of Him. If the two persons closest to the event were filled wonder, so are we. This wonder means that we are to understand what is going on. The Birth is also addressed to our minds. We are supposed to think about it.
"Dearly beloved, today our Savior is born; let us rejoice." Often when St. Paul uses the word "rejoice" in speaking of the events in Christ's history, he repeats himself, "Again, I say, rejoice." About some things, when we have affirmed something once, we simply must affirm the event again, and again, as if we are astounded at what the words describing it mean.
In Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, we read: "He (the Father) sent his Son, the eternal Word who enlightens all men, to dwell among men and make known to them the innermost things of God. Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, sent as a man to men, speaks the words of God..." (#4). When He was twelve, in the Temple, this same Jesus told His parents that He must be "about" His Father's business, as if He had business to be about.
The "innermost things of God" are His Father's business. Christ Himself is the "only-begotten" Son. His proper life is eternal life, within the Godhead, in which God is not alone, but full of the life of Father, Son, Spirit. It is into this life we are all invited in our very creation, in our births.
At the Mass of mid-day on Christmas, we read that the "Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us." There is no "dwelling amongst us," no "pitching one's tent amongst us," unless there is a becoming one of us. So He was "sent," as St. Leo says, as "man to man." Moreover, man is the being who is endowed with logos; man speaks. So what does this Word made flesh speak? He "speaks the word of God." He can do this because He is the Word of God.
"What does it mean to 'rejoice' at such a proclamation?" We are curious to know. St. Leo says: "And so at the birth of our Lord the angels sing in joy: Glory to God in the highest." Surely if angels can sing, so can we. Indeed, it seems almost the only right thing to do. We are a unity. We cannot know something glad and, except for the moment of silence in which we comprehend it all, simply sit there.
When we respond with everything in us, as St. Augustine said, we sing. Cantare amantis est. "To sing is characteristic of the one who loves," or in Josef Pieper's translation, "Only the lover sings." We do associate Christmas with singing "on high" and rightly so. Adeste fideles, laetae triumphantes.
It is interesting that in English the word is "re-joy-ce," contains the word "again" as if to be joyful once is not enough, which it isn't. Moreover, it means that we do not "cause" that over which we find joy in the first place. Ours is not an action but a re-action to something "given" to us. "A Son is given to us: Come let us rejoice."
In Robert Southwell's poem, "The Nativity of Christ," we read: "Gift better than himself God doth not know; / Gift better than his God no man can see. / This gift doth here the giver given bestow; / Gift to this gift let each receiver be."
God does not know a gift better than Himself. If He did, He would not be God. Men have long searched for a gift better than God, but have not found it. A gift can only be offered, not demanded, not required. This is why the spirit of Christmas is of a special nature. It is the "season to be jolly," to be joyful, full of joy, but only because it is here where we learn that we have nothing—especially nothing ultimate—unless it is first given to us.
We are essentially "receivers," "gifts." We do not begin by making ourselves. This is what conception and birth mean. We begin by realizing that we already are, and are what we are. "What is it that you have not received?"
On Christmas Day, I will say the Mass at dawn at the parish my brother and sister and their spouses attend in California. The antiphon for this Mass is: "Lux fulgebit hodie super nos, quia natus est nobis Dominus." "Today the Light will shine upon us because to us the Lord is born."
I entitled this reflection, "Christmas, 2008." I did so not because there really are 2008 Christmases, but always the same Christmas. "The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us." Because of this dwelling amongst us, the world can be what it was intended to be.
The Communion antiphon for Christmas Midnight Mass reads: "The Word of God became man; and we have seen his glory." Those who do not see this Light walk in darkness. "Lux fulgebit hodie super nos, quia natus est nobis Dominus."
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles on Advent and Christmas:
What In Christmas Season Grows: On the Days Leading Up to the Nativity of the Lord | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his website.
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