The hidden gift of Christmas

From a vantage point near the top of a large hill in Canada, my wife and I lingered to gaze late last summer upon a breathtaking view of the St. Lawrence River.

Dec 18, 2014

By David Gibson
From a vantage point near the top of a large hill in Canada, my wife and I lingered to gaze late last summer upon a breathtaking view of the St. Lawrence River. The weather was perfect that day, and as a visit to Quebec City drew to a close, we wanted to inhale this marvellous scene one last time, knowing it soon would become little more than a memory for us.

Naturally, we photographed the scene in order to take a bit of it home with us. We knew, though, that our life was about to return to normal.

A familiar scene captivates Christians in a similar way, and at Christmastime, they spend time gazing upon it. The scene depicts Mary, Joseph and the newborn Jesus. Shepherds are on hand, too, having received “good news of great joy” from an angel, who told them:

“This will be a sign for you: You will find an infant, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:10, 12).

The scene adorns countless Christmas cards, conveying the season’s warmth. And families bring children forward after Christmastime Masses to view their parish’s crib scene. They linger, and nowadays (who knows?) they may even photograph it with smartphones so as to take a bit of it home with them.

The great hope of Christmas, however, is that life will not return to normal after its celebrations draw to a close. Christmas stirs hearts; its welcome scenes attract our gaze. But Christianity affirms that the meaning of Christmas is not outside believers’ lives, ready to be left behind, the way the St. Lawrence River or Mt. Rainier or the Grand Canyon get left behind when a vacation ends.

Christmas invites Christians not just to celebrate Jesus’ birth for a few days, but to give birth to him repeatedly in the year ahead. The hidden gift of Christmas is its commission, its mandate to Christians.

The child in the manger on Christmas is the Word of God made flesh. As Ireland’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin once put it, entering into “the mystery of the Word made flesh” involves seeing “how we can sanctify the world around us, in all its corporeity, its bodily-ness, in its concrete expressions.”

The Gospel reading heard by those participating in the Mass of Christmas Day proclaims that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14). Notably, that biblical statement comprises two essential, interrelated points: first, that the Word of God “became flesh”; second, that the Word of God “made his dwelling among us.”

Focusing on the statement’s second part, allow me to inquire what difference it makes that the Word of God “made his dwelling among us.”

The child Jesus “remains forever the sign of God’s tenderness and presence in our world,”

Pope Francis remarked during a May 2014 visit to Bethlehem. Like every other child, the infant Jesus was “vulnerable.” He needed “to be accepted and protected,” the Pope pointed out. He stressed that “today, too, children need to be welcomed and defended from the moment of their conception.” Pope Francis considers today’s children, like the infant Jesus, a sign for the world. “They are a sign of hope, a sign of life, but also a ‘diagnostic’ sign, a marker indicating the health of families, society and the entire world.” The Pope continued:

“Such a frank and honest diagnosis can lead us to a new kind of lifestyle where our relationships are no longer marked by conflict, oppression and consumerism, but fraternity, forgiveness and reconciliation, solidarity and love.”

In the pantheon of gods honoured by the ancients, there may have been those who were remote from human beings, arbitrary in their actions or supremely proud. But the Word of God made flesh reveals that the one God is not absent but very much present in the actual circumstances of human lives.

God “does not stay aloof from his creation but is involved, although mysteriously, in human history,” according to Passionist Father Donald Senior. The American biblical scholar said, in 2013, that the God of the Bible “is a God who self-communicates, a God who is not self-contained but one who wishes to reveal himself to the world.”

Communication tends to improve a hundredfold whenever it is possible for two people to hear each other’s voices and, even better, speak face to face. This is where emails and text messages fall short. They have a capacity to hide feelings and emotions, and to reduce communication to its barest essentials.

Indeed, though, the Word of God made flesh communicates face to face. He is known as Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.” Dwelling among people and walking alongside them, his face reveals the face of God. Recent popes call it a face of love and mercy.

Once again, though, the presence of the Word of God is a call to action. It is a call impelling Christians to do whatever they can to reveal the loving, merciful face of God to others.

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