Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
December 21, 2009
Christmas wonder weaves a magical spell
The miracle of Our Saviour's birth assures us life, indeed, has meaning
FR. THOMAS RYAN, CSP
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
Every major festival day in the Christian calendar has a particular emotional "feel" to it. On Good Friday it's sorrow. On Easter Sunday it's joy. And at Christmas it's wonder.
We gather by the soft glow of candlelight and sing songs that help us touch the mystery of how God's promise to us is fulfilled. I'll never forget an Advent retreat during which a film of the birth of a child was shown.
The mother was on the delivery table, puffing, pushing, sweating. The husband was wiping her brow, gently speaking encouraging, reassuring words in her ear. And suddenly the space between her legs was filled with an emergent head.
My mind, within this Advent context, saw there Mary, Joseph and the newborn son. "My God," my heart responded, "your wisdom is too deep for us to fathom. I can only stand in wonder."
When a child is being held upside down by the ankles, still covered with amniotic fluid and is swatted on the behind, even the faithful mind reels to see there the Creator of the universe. Only true power, utterly confident of itself, would dare think of coming packaged so vulnerably.
The stable looks quaint in the Christmas cards, but it was not a nursery done in pastel colours with soft, stuffed animals all around. No, there were real animals and, while it's poetic to think they warmed the baby with their breath, the reality is more smelly, as anyone who has been around a barnyard knows.
A MANGER FOR A CRIB
The crib in which the child lay was a manger, a feeding box for animals, made of rough planks. The scene is one of privation. The evangelists who wrote the story already knew the fate of this child whose body would one day be stretched out on the rough planks of the cross.
The two young adults involved were people in love caught up in the excitement of the birth of a child. But they were poor, and life was uncertain with challenging days ahead.
"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us," says the prologue to John's Gospel The grace of God appears in such a way as to challenge all our preconceptions of God. "God the great force of the universe" we can live with. "God the just judge with the stern demeanour whom we will face at the end of time" is another all-too-familiar image.
But a God who appears in this delicate and vulnerable infant, in this child at play, in this man who largely lives within the constricted area of Palestine and who gathers a group of believers distinguished by their unimportance? So, yes: wonder.
As the poem Richard Crashaw wrote:
Welcome all wonders in one sight!
My work in the field of interfaith relations has only made me more aware of how radical is this assertion of Christian faith called the Incarnation. The eternal Word of God is enfleshed and makes our humanity with all its limitations the sanctuary of the divine, unquenchable Spirit, joining our nature to that of God.
In her pregnancy and birth, Mary gave him what as God he did not have: the capacity to die. And he gave us what we did not have as human beings: the capacity to live forever.
Centuries later, the Church fathers, in seven ecumenical councils spread over more than 300 years, would wrestle with this event to come to some coherent, if partial, understanding of the relationship of humanity and divinity in the person of this child born in Bethlehem.
What the feast of Christmas does is to validate our most powerful and hopeful instincts. Do we wish to believe that life has a purpose? Christianity tells us that indeed it does.
Do we seek to break out of the bonds of fear to enter into relations of profound personal intimacy? Christmas urges us to do so.
COMMUNITY OF FELLOWSHIP
Do we struggle for a new social order, for community, which bestows both fellowship and freedom? Christianity assures us that such a community is possible and encourages us to work towards its realization.
Do we wish to be liberated and reconciled to everything and everyone around us? Christian faith proclaims that such liberation and reconciliation have already occurred.
Do we perceive that just possibly the universe is animated by love? Christmas proclaims that love is so passionate and so faithful that by human standards it would be judged mad.
Wonder. And then comes the question: How shall we respond to such an inestimable gift?
(Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C.)
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