Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
December 20, 2004
Light enters through darkness
Christians often object to the transformation of Christmastime into "the holiday season" - that thoroughly secularized orgy of consumerism, eating and drinking, and capitalist profiteering. We would rather it return to a celebration of the true meaning of Christmas - a remembrance of the birth of baby Jesus at Bethlehem.
Except that this is not the true meaning either. As far back as the fifth century, Pope Leo the Great emphasized that the Scriptures teach us "to think of the Lord's birth . . . not as a past event which we recall, but as a present reality upon which we gaze."
Christ's coming is not an isolated story, but a crucial part of our salvation. This salvation is not just my being granted a place in heaven; it is the ongoing divinization of the world. This remaking of the world continues despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. It takes faith to believe the world is being made divine when so much that we see indicates otherwise.
At Christmas, one entry point into the mystery of faith lies with the singling out of the shepherds to receive the "news of great joy." These shepherds worked in obscurity and there was no reason to believe they were more holy, more pious than anyone else in the neighbourhood. One can only conclude that they were chosen to receive the angels' message because of their poverty and obscurity, not in spite of it.
That choice tells us something about how God sees the human condition. As humans, we are not made for power or wealth or celebrity. These qualities even detract from what makes us most human. John Henry Newman, the 19th century British convert to Catholicism, wrote, "In God's sight, greatness is less acceptable than obscurity. It becomes us less." The great ones are too filled up with their own self-importance; it is the powerless who have room for God.
The person excluded from the busy-ness of important happenings in society, the person weeping over the loss of a loved one, the person embarrassed by the lack of a job or proper clothing - all these are most open to receiving the gift of joy of Christ's coming.
The wound, the humiliation, provides the space for God to enter and reside. God's entry brings peace and joy beyond expectation, beyond understanding.
Christ's birth, as St. Leo said, is not a past event, but a present reality. In accepting the gift of God's love, the gift of our being made divine through Christ, we accept the responsibility to re-create the world in God's image and likeness. Yes, we are made divine. Christ became human, not so that he might be like us, but rather so that we might be like him.
Sixteen centuries after St. Leo, we still struggle with this. We have yet to discover the great dignity that Christ bestows on us through Baptism. We may see Baptism as the initiation into the Christian club or as a washing away of original sin. But to see ourselves as being made one with the Body of Christ is too audacious.
"Do not be afraid," the angel told the shepherds. The human inclination in the face of the divine, or even in the face of messengers from the divine, is to be afraid. The divine presence reveals all our darkness in stark relief.
But it is only through that darkness that the light can get in. It is only through one who has not been blinded by their own celebrity or supposed importance that God can be revealed. So the shepherds were chosen.
Today, we are called to be shepherds. We are called to think nothing of our own importance. We must carry the humiliation and pain we have been handed; we must strive to carry the pain of others. As we accept that lowly office, the world is divinized in its quiet, unseen way, usually far from the glare of TV lights.
This is not how the TV commercials tell us to celebrate "the holiday season." Indeed, it jars our sense of what a celebration is. But allowing the Son of God to fill the space of emptiness in our hearts and in the hearts of others is what Christmas is about.
God's entry is unseen. But because of it, the world is constantly remade in God's image and likeness.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.