Wednesday, December 31, 2008
[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 1 January 2009]
An angel of the Lord stood over them and the glory of the Lord shone round them. They were terrified, but the angel said, “Do not be afraid. Look, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Lk. 2:9-10
“So that’s where the trapdoor leads!” exclaims Mike as we troop through the small sacristy at the back of the church. He and Chris peer down into the mysterious and hitherto unsuspected depths of the basement, a bright yellow gate the only thing keeping them from tumbling down the steps in their curiosity. One mystery leads to another.
Like St. Nicholas in “The Night Before Christmas,” the guys are not distracted by the unexpected in their path, but get straight to their work — their annual duty of setting out the parish’s collection of Nativity scenes in the daily chapel. They carefully unwrap each piece — a roundly joyous Holy Family from Peru, Roman centurions to guard Bethlehem’s gate, an elegant marble carving of a remarkably serene Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms as they flee for their lives.
As the sets emerge from their bubble wrap cocoons, Mike and Chris chatter animatedly about how they are going to arrange things this year, recalling what they’d done in years past, and through it all re-telling for themselves the story of Christ’s coming to earth. For me, it’s not only a window on what they know about their faith, but sets a rich table for my own contemplation of the Nativity.
This year, they have used Christ’s perilous flight as a backdrop to joyous scenes of the shepherds and the kings. I’m reminded that the cross was not the first time the Son had obediently subjected himself to the perils of earth at the Father’s will.
Christopher, my aptly named “Christ-bearer,” carefully removes each figure of the infant Jesus, readying them to hide, awaiting the first Mass of Christmas when he will tuck them into their places. For a moment, he places the marble statue of Mary and Jesus fleeing into Egypt on the altar. Just as he cannot separate the infant from His mother, in that fleeting moment I see the sacrifice of the Incarnation as inseparable from the sacrifice on Calvary. “This is my body, which I have given up for you.”
We’re enraptured by the gentle baby, not to mention the angels singing in the heavens and the wise men bearing gifts, but do we really grasp the enormity of this first sacrifice? Christ chose freely to become human — coming not as a man speaking with authority, but as a helpless infant unable to hold up His own head or meet His own most basic needs. Through Him all things were made, yet He submitted to our human limitations, not for three days, but for years.
His willingness to yield to the Father’s will a second time in His passion and death is all the more powerful to me seen in the light of that first surrender at Bethlehem. It takes courage to undertake such a sacrifice again knowing what it might entail; He’d already placed himself, helpless, in our hands once before.
St. Augustine, preaching to a packed church on Christmas day, recognized that Christ’s human birth provided a grounding for his crucifixion: “Your faith, which has gathered you all here in this large crowd, is well aware that a Savior was born for us today. He was born of the Father always, of his mother once...And the reason he was prepared to come through this latter birth was so that he might become obedient to the death and by dying might conquer death.”
Each morning, at the close of Morning Prayer, the Augustinians pray, “Through the cross you brought joy to the world.” This Christmas, as I hear of angels proclaiming “joy to the world,” I am brought to see the cross. One mystery leads to another.
God sent his angels to shepherds to herald the great joy of our Savior’s birth. May he fill you with joy and make you heralds of his gospel. Amen. — From the solemn blessing for Christmas Mass at Midnight