What Christmas means, birth narratives aside
by Steve Douglas
December 17th, 2010 | 1 Comment
I love the sights, sounds, and smells of Christmas. My enjoyment of the season has grown even more since having children to share these joys with. The nativity plays, the extra desserts, the nighttime drives through the neighborhood to look at the Christmas lights, and the beautiful carols and spiritual songs all excite me. But Christmas has always seemed more than the sum of these things. If I had to name it, I’d say that underlying it all is a peaceful, reverent sense of holiness.
There will be, and already have been, plenty of blog posts written to tell inerrantists and other traditionalist Christians how Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives are different and contradictory, why Jesus probably wasn’t born in a stable or cave adjacent an inn, why he might actually have been born in Nazareth, etc., etc. Regardless of the motivations of these writings (which in many cases come off as downright Grinchly), many of them are probably correct.
But whether or not there ever was a manger, whether or not he was born in Bethlehem because of Quirinius’ census — indeed, whether or not he was even born of a virgin, the fact remains that Jesus was born. Our Lord was once a helpless baby. As a Christian I believe that the Word of God was made flesh among us, and that Word was nowhere whispered so subtly or simply than it was then. Wherever the birth narratives lie on the continuum of historicity, from accurate historiography to theological stylings of older legends and rumors to the ex nihilo literary craftsmanship of the authors, the theology remains crystal clear: in, under, and through those stories, God’s message through Jesus, that His heart lies with the humble and those through love willing to be humbled, is proclaimed.
This excerpt from Pope Benedict’s XVI’s 2006 Midnight Mass homily beautifully captures the essence of why I am touched in a fundamental way by the Advent of Jesus, historical details notwithstanding:
God’s sign is simplicity. God’s sign is the baby. God’s sign is that he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendour. He comes as a baby – defenceless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with his strength. He takes away our fear of his greatness. He asks for our love: so he makes himself a child. He wants nothing other from us than our love, through which we spontaneously learn to enter into his feelings, his thoughts and his will – we learn to live with him and to practise with him that humility of renunciation that belongs to the very essence of love. God made himself small so that we could understand him, welcome him, and love him. The Fathers of the Church, in their Greek translation of the Old Testament, found a passage from the prophet Isaiah that Paul also quotes in order to show how God’s new ways had already been foretold in the Old Testament. There we read: “God made his Word short, he abbreviated it” (Is 10:23; Rom 9:28). The Fathers interpreted this in two ways. The Son himself is the Word, the Logos; the eternal Word became small – small enough to fit into a manger. He became a child, so that the Word could be grasped by us. In this way God teaches us to love the little ones. In this way he teaches us to love the weak. In this way he teaches us respect for children. The child of Bethlehem directs our gaze towards all children who suffer and are abused in the world, the born and the unborn. Towards children who are placed as soldiers in a violent world; towards children who have to beg; towards children who suffer deprivation and hunger; towards children who are unloved. In all of these it is the Child of Bethlehem who is crying out to us; it is the God who has become small who appeals to us. Let us pray this night that the brightness of God’s love may enfold all these children. Let us ask God to help us do our part so that the dignity of children may be respected. May they all experience the light of l ove, which mankind needs so much more than the material necessities of life.