Circular Letter: Advent 1996
The Child God of Christmas: Our Hope and a Sign of Contradiction
“To us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder, and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace!” (Is 8,6)
“Magi came from the east to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east, and have come to worshipHim?'” Behold, this child is God’s greatest gift to mankind. Notwithstanding, not everyone rejoiced at His coming: “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Mt 2,1-3).
The WORD-Made-Flesh is the Divine Light come into the world; “He came unto His own, but His own received Him not.” This hard mystery, namely, the rejection of the Divine Gift in Christ is the topic we propose to ponder in this Circular Letter. It would be a mute point, if only Herod were upset, but the truth is: ‘all of Jerusalem’ was upset with him; they all feared this newborn king would disturb their worldly peace and deprive them of their little kingdoms. The earnestness of the situation is further evinced in this, that the more Jesus manifested His true identity and purpose, the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven, the more fiercely was He opposed: “The rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and His Christ, saying, let us burst Their bonds, and cast Their cords from us.” (Ps 2,3). He was truly, as Simeon foresaw, “a sign of contradiction for the rise and fall of many in Israel.” (Lk 2,34).
What is the special light of grace that was rejected by so many, but which for those who believed was the cause for such great rejoicing and made it possible that in Christ they become sons of God? From year to year we see the Christmas joy wither and become more pallid in the society around us, in our families, and perhaps, to our own horror, in our own hearts. How we long that the secret of Christmas joy with its invigorating light might be rediscovered and fill our hearts anew with a peace and joy that the world knows not, nor can take away.
What did the shepherds have that ‘moved God’ to send them an angel to proclaim to them tidings of great joy for all the people? “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2,10). Was it not their selfless detachment and poverty that disposed them for the news of salvation? Behold how well they responded, “‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger…. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them.” (Lk 2,17. 20).
What hidden grace did the Magi receive in their hearts that they were willing to rise up out of their comforts and undertake such a long and difficult journey expressly for the purpose of honoring a foreign king? Surely, they understood by a divine illumination, affirms St. Leo, that this was the most foreign of kings, the king from the world beyond, Who had descended to plant a kingdom that is not of this world in the hearts of men. It was their longing for this kingdom that drew the magi. This eternal destination alone gave purpose to their every step, upon this journey and throughout their lives. When they lost sight of the star — representing Christ as the goal of life — they were greatly saddened. And “when they saw the star [anew after leaving Herod and the worldlings of the great city behind], they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Mt 2,10). They felt themselves utterly gifted by the coming of the Child, whose coming had elicited their coming and their reciprocal gifts. They were not taken aback by the simplicity and poverty of the Holy Family, but immediately upon entering into the Child’s presence, “they prostrated themselves and worshipped Him” (Mt 2,11). With their gift of gold they acknowledged the great king; with their frankincense they acknowledged their God, and with their myrrh — as later Magdalene with her precious nard oil — they confessed His redemptive passion and burial. Brief was their visit, but long lasting their fidelity.
The Gift: Ever Present, Ever New!
What the shepherds and magi received at the first Christmas — an immediate and intimate participation in the perfect gift of God’s grace in Christ — the Church celebrates in the Christmas liturgy today. It is not just the fact that God became man 2000 years ago that we are commemorating, rather the FATHER is offering to us today in His only begotten SON, born of the Virgin Mary the very same love and share in Divine Life and Salvation that became present when the Word first became Flesh; Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever!
The shepherds, the Magi have no advantage over us,.. if anything the advantage is ours, having such a host of witnesses to the truth of happiness and salvation in Christ. The choice is also ours to personally make a choice that will determine time and eternity for us. Practically, the failure to make a firm choice and commitment is really just a choice for the world.
When we choose God, He comes more than half-way, indeed, we could not even entertain the choice without His light and grace. He makes it easy for us. He becomes a child so that we might become sons of God, sharing as it were in His eternal generation. He evidently chose to become a child, so that in His generation and birth as a child be revealed Who He is in all eternity: the only begotten of the Father! “Thou art my Son, this day I have begotten Thee!”
The feast of Christmas, accordingly, is not only the celebration of God becoming man, but also the celebration of the children of men becoming the children of God. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world so that we can live by Him.” (1 Jn 4,9). That which sets Christianity apart from every other religion and ideology in the world is its transcendent vision of God and of our transcendent call to share in His Holiness through Jesus Christ. The liturgical celebration of the Mass brings us into direct and immediate contact with God; when we liturgically celebrate Christmas Mass, we really participate in the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God, and so become participants in the very nature of God (cf. 2 Pt 1,4).
The true spirit of Christmas joy, then, which overflows in song and in the giving of gifts issues forth from our intimate sharing in the most perfect gift of God. In the measure that our life is focused on and ordered to this reception and sharing in Christ’s life in the Father, Christ’s eternal peace and joy are ours. It was this effusion of divine goodness over mankind that occasioned the spontaneous outburst of joy among the heavenly hosts above Bethlehem’s plain “And suddenly there [appeared] a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased!” (Lk 2,13-14). The divine pleasure is simply with those who accept the gift. How important it is to understand this. Otherwise, we might be inclined to think that the offer of eternal, divine life, being so supremely great, must needs be very difficult and remote. The truth of the matter is, that it is so simple, so humble and so accessible that even the least of shepherds can approach, adore and share in the gift of eternal life.
The Spirit of the World
The shepherds and the Magi accepted and rejoiced at the gift offered. Others heard about the event — Herod, the high priests and scribes, indeed, the city of Jerusalem — and rejecting Christ judged themselves to be “unworthy of eternal life” (cf. Acts 13:46), and are remembered only for their opposition to the mystery of Christ.
Do we take it sufficiently to heart: absolutely everything depends on this question: Who is Jesus Christ? And what does His coming mean to me? What should it mean for the world? When Moses presented the Law to Israel, he said, I present to you today a blessing and a curse, a blessing if you keep the law, and a curse if you turn your back upon it and reject it. (Ex) “Therefore, we must pay closer attention [to Christ] to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For if the message declared by Angels was valid and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (Heb 2,1-3).
Since Christ is the same yesterday and today, we will find the same choices being made for and against Christ, back then as well as today. To those who believe, He gives the power to share His divinity. He comes unto all, but not all receive Him. The spirit of the world denies that God has come in the flesh, it separates Christ from the Father, it denies the transcendence of God and therefore denies our hope for a share in the eternal life of God. It is in the very spirit of the Antichrist, though, to give nominal lip service to the goodness of the man Jesus Christ, while denying His divinity. What concerns us here is not the response of particular individuals, but the spirit behind world religions (some even pretending to be Christian) and world movements which are incapable of participating in the Mystery of Christ(mas), inasmuch as they deny His divinity, the foundation of the mystery.
Everywhere we turn today this world-spirit, which is the spirit of philosophical liberalism and relativism, is prevalent and surrounds us. Is it not clear that happiness cannot be found in a muddled mind, in a “I’m okay, you’re okay!” moral ethic where everything is okay, where everything is grey and banal? Is it not clear that happiness cannot be found in false choices? Gratification, yes, but happiness, no! Paradoxically, liberal philosophy and relativism produce chaos and tyranny because error is the slavery of the mind. This is the intellectual seedbed of modern thought which has spawned one totalitarian state after another (beginning in a special way with the French Revolution during which the enlightened masses were led to fall down and literally worship the goddess of human reason) and which most recently has brought forth the New Age, which is the summation of all anti-Christian thought.
What is needed for the rediscovery of Christmas joy in society would be a host of Joshua-souls who stand up and breast society, and say: “If you be unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the river, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!” (Josh 24,15).
Christ is the revelation of the Father Who dwells in inaccessible light. To reject Christ is a choice for darkness. To express Herod’s politics in a ‘positive’ proposition, it comes down to this: here is an absolute affirmation of this world as the ultimate good, the ultimate foundation and the alpha and omega of all human searching for happiness. Discourse utterly breaks down in the face of this dogmatic creed, for dialogue is not really possible, where all reference to Christ, to the divine are pure equivocations. When you get past the lip service, (and how convincing it can appear,… did not Herod spend 46 years building the temple? And yet it was a monument to his own glory. Some 46 years later an angel will strike down Herod’s godless son for godlessly gloating at being proclaimed a god! (cf. Acts 12,21-22)). There is no substance to the discourse of the world, though it is full of signs and wonders; the world simply denies the transcendence of God and so leaves no room for Christ, and therefore none for Christmas joy. The world will never learn: Adam’s choice for ‘happiness’ has never brought anything but sadness and despair.
The story of Herod teaches a further truth, as history has also proven time and again: when the goal in Christ is denied, the persecution of Christians inevitably follows. Christians are slow to grasp this, although we live in the Century of the Martyrs. No doubt we are slow in this regard because we would so like to believe that we can believe in Christ and have the world too. The Church, though in her gentle and perennial wisdom, has always understood this. And this is why she celebrates the feast of St. Stephen the First Martyr as the Second Day of Christmas! This is why she celebrates the feast of the Holy Innocents on the Third day of Christmas. And on the 4th Day of Christmas we celebrate St. John who writes: “I John, your brother, who share with you in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the Island called Patmos on account of the word and the testimony of Jesus” (Apoc 1,9). The Christ Child is a sign of contradiction for the rising and falling of many.
The Echo of the World’s Wisdom
It would already be useful to ponder these matters, if it only helped to steel us in our firm confession of the Faith. But our purpose goes even deeper. The frequent occurrence throughout the history of the Church, and particularly the universal revival of so many Gnostic errors in the present hour warns us that the wisdom of the world, (see the New Age) enjoys an appeal that is not simply historical in nature, but whose errors echo some deepest longings inscribed in the human heart. There is something in us as man — deeper than Original Sin, — that makes us vulnerable to the wisdom of the world. Since this proclivity is inscribed in our very nature, we do well to take the challenge seriously so as to be armed against it. Sadly, we find the defenses of Christianity deplorably down; what we verify is a nearly universal contagion, such that the very best of souls are somewhat infected by this worldly spirit, whose signs, alongside ambition and restlessness, are the necessary fruits of sadness and despair.
It is innate to children of man to be constantly pining for paradise (lost); after all, everything we freely do is undertaken in view of the goal of happiness. So subtle is this longing for the world, that even when we are bemoaning our lot before our Lord, we ask Him if He will not re-establish the kingdom here and now. This very longing is our susceptibility; it belies how we still image (conceive) the Kingdom of God to be some idealized form of justice in this world. But God’s kingdom is not and cannot be of this world, but is a mystery of peace and joy in the Holy Spirit that transcends everything that has entered into the mind and heart of man. This means that the Kingdom of God can only be truly embraced in the obscurity of faith.
The search for paradise (lost) is the drama of every human heart. Yet, God had something better in mind when, born in a stable, He proposed to save the world into the Life of the Trinity. Only in the measure that we consent fully to the weakness and foolishness of God lying in the Manger can we really become participants in His divine strength and wisdom and be filled with His Life, which is the Christmas joy of the angels.
Yet, the weakness and foolishness of God has a certain vulnerability about it, such that foolish think that they can outmaneuver God with their violent plans. In the parable of the tenants, Jesus tells how the renters resolved to kill the only son and heir to the king, so that the kingdom be theirs! Herod was among the first to implement this evil wisdom in the slaughter of the innocents. Here he was foiled by the intervention of the Holy Angel, sent to warn Joseph to flee with the Child and His Mother to Egypt. How true it is that Christ became like us in all things, — with the exception of sin — even to the point of renouncing His divine power and to receiving the Father’s help as do the rest of the child of men: “This poor man cried and the Lord heard Him, and saved Him out of all his troubles. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him and delivers them. Oh taste and see that the Lord is good! Happy the man who takes his refuge in Him” (Ps 34,6-8).
While the world was yet dead in sin and laid low in despair God sent His holy angels to Abraham, to Jacob, to Moses and to the Prophets in order to prepare a people for Himself, to prepare the world for the coming of a Savior, who is Christ the Lord! While we were yet sinners God chose us in His ineffable love and called us to share in the eternal dignity and glory of His only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ. If this is how he treated us while yet sinners, “will He not [now] give us all things with Him?” (Rom 8,32). It is this mystery of life, our only hope and salvation that we celebrate at Christmas. Let the world fall away as it may, like so many Esau’s selling their eternal birth-right for a bowl of lentil soup if it so desire. But let us be totally renewed with the infallible conviction that our every hope for life, for goodness and happiness has been made man of the Virgin Mary and lies now in the Manger. Any one who is capable of loving a child, of loving this, the Christ Child, may come and adore and receive the gift of eternal life.
The final beauty of Christmas is that God really did become man. And this can only mean, that when we come to adore the Christ Child and so begin to share in His divinity, we do not lose anything of our humanity, but rather regain our own humanity anew in Christ. It is Christ that reveals man to himself, who recreates man in Himself, the New Adam. Thus, our divinization in Christ will make us more human than we could ever have been without the mystery of the Incarnation. And this means that our happiness joy and rejoicing will embrace our whole nature, body soul and spirit. And it shall be a pure joy that wells up from the heart like an artesian well, and we shall laugh and be glad.
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