Today on Perspectives, Pope Francis’ weekly general audience, the Vatican steps up its efforts in the fight against Ebola, the Eastern Churches and the Orthodox Churches celebrate Christmas and the feast of St. Andre Bessette.
In the past week, I’ve been trying to imagine what our world would be like had Jesus never been born. (Check out part 1 and part 2) It’s easy to say that The Church would not exist or that we would have no Pope. There would be no priests, deacons, religious sisters or brothers, nor there would be church buildings. But Christianity has permeated our culture to such degree that it’s really impossible to envision a world that is not influenced by Jesus and his life.
Imagine a singer, Madonna Louise Ciccone. Had Jesus never been born, her parents would not have named her Madonna. In fact, had Jesus not been born, there would be no references to Mary in our culture. There wouldn’t be a song by the Beatles called Let It Be, nor there be other songs such as Virgin Mary by Joan Baez, or Lady Writer by Dire Straits to mention a few.
In fact, the name Mary wouldn’t be a popular name. Nor would be Joseph, or Peter, John, or James. Had Jesus never been born, you wouldn’t have any friends named Elizabeth, Madelaine or Veronica. You wouldn’t have any friends named Gloria, Christian or Christina. Imagine a Latin America without the thousands of men born on December 25th named Jesús, or anyone named José María, or Marie-Josée. I guess they would still exist but their names would be Quetzalcoatl, Yupanqui or Summer.
Had Jesus never been born, we would still have the Sacred Jewish Scriptures, but would they have any references to a Messiah, a Saviour or a “virgin birth”? I guess it would depend on whether the Jesus-event was still possible in this made-up world. I suppose had Jesus not been born, we could still be waiting for the Messiah.
I can’t proceed without stating that had Jesus not been born some historical events would have been avoided: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch hunts and even anti-Semitism (at least the post-Christian kind). However these guys would still have been around: Caligula, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Saddam Hussein, Castro, Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, Suharto, Ho Chi Minh, Chiang Kai-shek, Francisco Franco, Reza Pahlawi, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Pol Pot. Would they still have committed all the atrocities they did? Likely, except that none of them could have persecuted, tortured, murdered or disappeared Christians.
What year would it be had Jesus not been born? 2014 CE? Would it be the Hebrew year 5775? Maybe it would be the year 6 billion.
Could you argue that, had Jesus not told his disciples to “go and spread the good news to all creation,” no religion would have spread throughout the world? Would Judaism still be the small monotheistic religion of a few hundred thousands? Would Judaism have survived the destruction of the second temple? Would Islam even exist? What would the Qur’an look like without its Christian references?
Had Jesus not been born there would be 120,000,000 less websites on the Internet. You could argue that since without Christianity the printing press would not have been invented, perhaps our reading habits would be quite different. Would there be libraries full of books? Even our language would be quite different. We wouldn’t say things such as “someone was a good Samaritan”, or “he’s the prodigal son” or the “lost sheep”. We would not have teachings that have entered our every-day speech such as “turn the other cheek”, “go the second mile,” “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” “carry your cross,” “washing your hands of something” or “love your enemies.”
It’s really not that easy to imagine a world without Jesus – whether people acknowledge Him as the Christ. Sure John Lennon would’ve never said, “we’re more famous than Jesus Christ” and Mel Gibson wouldn’t have made $300 million after only two weeks in the theatres, but also, there would be no great books like The Lord of Rings trilogy or The Chronicles of Narnia and Dan Brown would not have sold 40 million copies of “The DaVinci Code.”
More than that, our world would be very lacking. You could argue that there would be no charitable organizations, no public education, no universities* or even the concept of a liberal arts education. You could argue that there would be no hospitals (definitely no publicly-funded ones) and perhaps not even (ironically) no civil rights league. In fact, without Christianity, human beings would probably have no concept of civil rights. Without Christianity we would have no concept of social justice and we wouldn’t have women’s rights. We would also not have a Just War Theory and our concept of Law would be very different. In fact, our idea of equality and human dignity would be quite different. (I’ve even heard it argued that without Christianity there would be no United States of America.)
Without Christianity, cannibalism, slavery and infanticide would still exist (I guess infanticide still exists). Had Christianity not spread around the world people would still be offering human sacrifice to the gods.
Without Christianity the lives of many people would have been quite different. Consider Francis Bacon; Charles Darwin; Cecil B. DeMille; T.S. Elliot; Judy Garland; Thomas Jefferson; C.S. Lewis; John Locke; Van Morrison; Georgia O’Keefe; F.D. Roosevelt; Eleonor Roosevelt; Teddy Roosevelt; Alfred Lord Tennyson; George Washington; Oscar Wilde; Tennessee Williams; W.B. Yeats; Charles Dickens; Duke Ellington; Florence Nightingale; John Milton; John Newton; Laurence Olivier; Lewis Carroll; Madeleine L’Engle; Madeline Albright; Natalie Cole; W.H. Auden William Shakespeare; Abraham Lincoln; Jimmy Carter; Alexander I; Nelson Rockefeller; Roy Orbison; Kris Kristofferson; Louis Armstrong; Chuck Berry; Gladys Knight; John Grisham; Gene Roddenberry; Ava Gardner; Kevin Costner; Anne Bancroft; Stephen Baldwin; G.K. Chesterton; Bernardo Bertolucci; Bono; Jim Caviezel; Frank Capra; Nicolas Copernicus; Galileo; Bing Crosby; Marie Curie; Salvador Dali; Leonardo DaVinci; Edgar Degas; Francisco De Goya; Rene Descartes; Albrecht Duher; Federico Fellini; Mel Gibson; Galileo Galilei; Graham Greene; Alec Guiness; Bob Hope; Gene Kelly; Grace Kelly; John F. Kennedy; Guglielmo Marconi; Henri Matisse; Michelangelo; Napoleon; Pablo Picasso; Arnold Schwartzenegger; Martin Sheen; Oscar Wilde; Andy Warhol; Voltaire; Johannes Keppler; Blaise Pascal; Louis Pasteur; Isaac Newton; George Frideric Handel; Antonio Vivaldi; J.S. Bach; Lech Walesa and Georges Lemaitre, all Christian. Even if none of them practiced their faith (and we know many did), it’s impossible to assume that Christianity did not influence their thoughts, their writings, their work and their actions.
What do you think? Can you think of another way that our world would be different had Jesus never been born?
I think that had Jesus never been born, we’d be missing a lot more than trees decorated with lights at this time of the year. Truly, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “without Christ, this world would be always winter, but never Christmas!”
Go now and proclaim the Good News to all creation.
*All but one of the first 123 colleges in colonial USA were Christian institutions. While these universities have lost their Christian identities, it is interesting to read the founding statements of these schools. Harvard, for example, was founded with the intention of training Christian ministers. Their motto was “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae” which means “Truth for Christ and the Church.” Harvard’s first point from their “Rules and Precepts”, stated: “Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisedome, Let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seeke it of him (Prov. 2:3).
Last time, I was imagining a world without Christmas. That would mean no Christmas music and no Christmas movies. But a world without Jesus would mean much more to our popular culture. After watching the screen adaptation of Les Miserables two years ago, I couldn’t help but thinking that this novel would be very different had Jesus not been born. Perhaps Victor Hugo never would have written it. If so, there wouldn’t be a musical called Les Mis, and this movie would not have been made. And all those wonderful songs would not exist. But had Jesus not been born, there would be many other songs missing from your playlist:
- Personal Jesus by Depeche Mode;
- Hey Jesus by the Indigo Girls;
- God is Love by Lenny Kravitz;
- Forgiven by Alanis Morisette;
- Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones;
- One of Us by Joan Osbourne;
- God or Imagine by John Lennon;
- I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For by U2;
- Jesus by Queen.
That’s just off the top of my head.
Had Jesus never been born, we would also be missing a lot of great (and not so great) films from our video libraries. There would be no:
- Jesus Christ Super Star,
- Jesus of Nazareth,
- The Passion of the Christ,
- The Last Temptation of Jesus Christ,
- The Nativity Story,
- Mary of Nazareth,
- The Life of Brian,
- Ben Hur,
- The King of Kings,
- The Robe,
- The Greatest Story Ever Told,
- The Gospel According to St. Matthew,
- Jesus of Montreal,
- Mary, the Mother of Jesus,
- Jesus (the mini-series)
- The Bible Mini-series (would be missing the whole second part which was turned into the film Son of God) or
- The Miracle Maker
We’d also be missing: The Sound of Music, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, The Hiding Place (the Corrie Ten-Boom Story), Lilies of the Field, The Miracle of the Bells, The Mission, Dead Man Walking, The Singing Nun, Sister Act, Bless the Child, Bonhoeffer – Agent of Grace, The Nun’s Story, The Shoes of the Fisherman, The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, Romero, Chocolat and Agnes of God. It’s also doubtful that all the angel movies would exist. Think of Angels in the Outfield (1994), Michael (1996), The Preacher’s Wife (1996) and City of Angels (1998), to mention a few.
How about: The Age of Innocence (1993) by Martin Scorsese; Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) by Michael Curtiz; The Assisi Underground (1984) by Alexander Ramati; Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987) by Louis Malle; Babette’s Feast (1987) by Gabriel Axel; Bachelor Mother (1939) by Garson Kanin; The Bicycle Thief (1947) by Vittorio De Sica; Blue (1992) by Don McKellar; Casablanca (1942) by Michael Curtiz; The Champ (1931)by King Vidor; Chariots of Fire (1981) by Hugh Hudson; El Cid (1961) by Anthony Mann; City Lights (1931) by Charlie Chaplin; A Man Escaped (1956) by Robert Bresson; Diary of a Country Priest (1950) by Robert Bresson; Going My Way (1944) by Leo McCarey; La Grande illusion (1937) by Jean Renoir; The Grapes of Wrath (1940) by John Ford; Groundhog Day (1993) by Harold Ramis; It Happened One Night (1934) by Frank Capra; A Man for All Seasons (1966) by Fred Zinnemann; North by Northwest (1959) by Alfred Hitchcock; On the Waterfront (1954) by Elia Kazan; The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) by Carl Theodor Dreyer; Pickpocket (1959) by Robert Bresson; The Quiet Man (1952) by John Ford; Quiz Show (1994) by Robert Redford; Rome, Open City (1945) by Roberto Rossellini; The Sign of the Cross (1932) by Cecil B. DeMille; The Song of Bernadette (1943) by Henry King; Therese (1986) by Alain Cavalier; 3 Godfathers (1948) by John Ford; You Can’t Take It With You (1938) by Frank Capra; Vertigo (1958) by Alfred Hitchcock. All these have either references to Christ, Christianity or exist in a Christian world view.
You could even argue that films (and novels) such as Star Wars and Harry Potter would also not exist (or be very different) since, had Jesus not been born, the concepts of salvation-through-love and self-sacrifice are very specific to the Christian world-view.
How about TV shows like Stairway to Heaven, Touched By An Angel, 7th Heaven and Joan of Arcadia? How about any TV shows that deal with concepts of redemption, salvation, forgiveness or self-sacrifice? They may still exist, but I would argue they’d be considerably different.
Had Jesus never been born, we’d also be missing a lot of books. Other than the fact that the number-one top selling book of all times, The Bible would be missing some books, we’d also be short on many great works of spiritual nourishment and fiction. I’ll let you figure out which books would not exist. Personally, I have a whole bookshelf by my bed, which would be empty.
Had Jesus not been born there would be no sacred music; there would be no Handel’s Messiah or Bach Chorales. There would also not be any sacred art; there would be no Sistine Chapel, no Pieta and DaVinci would not have painted the Last Supper. I could probably fill a whole book by just listing all the works of art, music and literature that would be missing had Jesus never been born.
It’s clear that, had Jesus never been born, our world would be much poorer. Can you think of what other songs, films, novels or TV shows would not exist?
Next time, I will conclude my imaginary picture of what our cultural world would be like had Jesus not been born.
The drama of Jesus’ birth at Christmas introduces us to a very diverse cast of characters who bring us one of the most beloved stories of all time.
The stage is vast — covering quite a bit of territory in biblical Israel. It encompasses the power and might of Jerusalem’s temple and the sleepy hilltop town of Nazareth where a young woman, home alone, welcomes a heavenly visitor who sets the whole story in motion. The plot moves from Nazareth in Galilee to the little town of Bethlehem in the land of Judah where the dreams of prophets and message of angels are realized.
But the drama of Christmas not only involves those on Earth, but also quite an impressive heavenly troupe as well. Today let’s consider the angels of Christmas.
One need only view the wide variety of angels on greeting cards, or consider the care in choosing the appropriate angel to crown Christmas trees, or the precision in placing angels in our manger or creche scenes at home or in church to discover that Christmas without angels just isn’t Christmas.
The stories of Jesus’ infancy and childhood contain evidence of the activity of angels. In the opening moments of the gospel according to Luke, an angel informs Zechariah about the birth of his son John the Baptist, and the same angel foretells the birth of Mary’s son, Jesus. Later Luke has angels announcing the good news to the shepherds in the fields.
In Matthew’s account, an angel advises Joseph to accept Mary’s pregnancy. An angel warns Joseph of the danger he’s in from Herod, and later returns to give Joseph the “all clear,”to leave the temporary exile in Egypt and to return to Israel.
For Christians, the stories of the angels in the life of Jesus have a power which no sermon, university lecture, television or radio broadcast could ever have. When we read the story of his birth of a virgin mother, it speaks to us of the utter kindness and generosity of God, and of his creative power that draws new life out of empty wombs and barren tombs.
When we read the story of the turmoil the child Jesus brought into the lives of Mary, Joseph, the Magi, Herod, the whole of Jerusalem, and all the babes of Bethlehem — we are forced to ask ourselves whether the risen Christ challenges and moves our lives in the same way.
When we read the story of the shepherds and their vision of angelic choirs, we discover anew how God can break into our life as well. When we read the story of that incredible good news from heaven — of those words of “glory in the highest and peace on earth,” we hear an echo of the risen Christ who would say those very things to his adult disciples and continues to say to the whole church: “My peace I give to you.”
When we remember and relive the angelic roles in Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the veil that separates us from the world of the spirit is drawn back. These angelic beings stir awesome responses within us. The powerful drama of Christmas may well give us one of our deepest glimpses into the heart of God and the mind of his son Jesus Christ, who comes to pitch his tent among us at Christmas.
While I dislike having to listen to Christmas music as early as November 25th, I do like that once a year radio stations all over don’t seem to have a problem playing music that mentions the name of Jesus or that glorifies God.
This year, listening to Christmas music early in December I found myself thinking what it would be like if there was no Christmas. I have a Cuban friend who grew up in Cuba with no Christmas. She had never seen or heard of a Christmas tree. But had Christ never been born, the implications would be much worse than not having Christmas trees. Just think of the music we’d be missing!
Other than all the obvious religious Christmas songs that would not exist: O Come Emmanuel; Coventry Carol; Oh Little Town of Bethlehem; What Child is This?; Silent Night; Away In A Manger ; The First Noel; It Came Upon a Midnight Clear; O Holy Night; Twelve Days Of Christmas; Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; Angels We Have Heard on High; Joy to the World; Here We Come A-Wassailing; Mary, Did You Know; the Carol of the Bells or We Three Kings, we also would not have these timeless Christmas recordings:
- The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole
- Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy by Bing Crosby and David Bowie
- White Christmas by Bing Crosby
- A Holly Jolly Christmas by Burl Ives
- My Little Drum by Vince Guaraldi (from A Charlie Brown Christmas)
- Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town by Bruce Springsteen
- Christmas Shoes by Newsong
- Last Christmas by Wham! (as much as you may hate that song)
- Blue Christmas by Elvis Presley
- Winter Wonderland by the Eurythmics
- Happy X mas (War Is Over) by John Lennon
- Most Wonderful Time of the Year by Johnny Mathis or Andy Williams
- Santa Baby by Eartha Kitt
- Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms
- Wonderful Christmastime by Paul McCartney
- Home For The Holidays by Perry Como
- Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) by U2
- Baby It’s Cold Outside by Ray Charles and Betty Carter
- Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas by the Pretenders
- Feliz Navidad by Jose Feliciano
- Merry Christmas Baby by Bruce Springsteen
- Silver Bells by Johnny Mathis
- Angels Among Us by Alabama
PLUS: DrivingHome for Christmas by Chris Rea; Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee; Santa Baby by Macy Gray; Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song) by Amy Grant; Joseph’s Song by Michael Card; Do They Know It’s Christmas Time by Band Aid; Little Saint Nick by the Beach Boys; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by Mannheim Steamroller; Rockin Around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee; Nuttin’ For Christmas by Barry Gordon; You’re a Mean One Mr Grinch from How the Grinch Stole Christmas soundtrack; Grandma Got Runover By A Reindeer by Elmo and Patsy; Mary’s Boy Child by Boney M; Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24) by Trans Siberian Orchestra; Please Come Home For Christmas by the Eagles; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan; Mele Kalikimaka by Bing Crosby; Oh Come All ye Faithful by Luthor Vandross; I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas by Gayla Peevey; Christmas Time Is Here by the Peanuts Cast/Vince Guaraldi; It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas – by Amy Grant; The Chipmunk Song by the Chipmunks; All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth by Spike Jones; I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus by John Mellencamp or Aselin Debison’s The Gift (the Very First Nightingale’s Song)… phew!
However, The Chanukah Song by Adam Sandler would still exist.
Think of it: Had Jesus not been born there would be no Christmas movies either. There wouldn’t be movies called A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer nor the classics It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street.
- All I Want for Christmas (1991)
- An American Christmas Carol (TV) (1979)
- Babes in Toyland (1934)
- Bad Santa (2003)
- Bells of St. Mary’s, The (1945)
- Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1983) (TV)
- Bishop’s Wife, The (1947)
- Black Christmas (1975)
- Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988) (TV)
- A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
- Christmas Eve (1947)
- Christmas Gift, The (1986) (TV)
- Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
- Christmas in July (1940)
- Christmas Mountain (1980)
- Christmas Romance, A (1994) (TV)
- Christmas Stallion, The (1992) (TV)
- Christmas Star, The (1986) (TV)
- Christmas That Almost Wasn’t, The (1966)
- Christmas to Remember, A (1978) (TV)
- The Christmas Toy (1990) (TV)
- The Christmas Tree (1969)
- Christmas Vacation ’91 (1992)
PLUS: The Christmas Visitor (1987) (TV); The Christmas Wife (1988) (TV); A Christmas Without Snow (1980) (TV); Christmas With the Kranks (2004); Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966); Elf (2003); Ernest Saves Christmas (1988); Frosty the Snowman (1969) (TV); The Fourth Wise Man (1985) (TV); The Gift of Love: A Christmas Story (1983) (TV); Guess Who’s Coming for Christmas? (1990) (TV); A Hobo’s Christmas (1987) (TV); Holiday Affair (1949); Holiday Inn (1942); The Holly and the Ivy (1952); Home Alone (1990); Home for the Holidays (1972) (TV); The Homecoming – A Christmas Story (1971) (TV); The House Without a Christmas (1972) (TV); I’ll Be Home for Christmas (1988) (TV); It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (1984) (TV); It Happened One Christmas (1977) (TV); Jingle All the Way (1996); The Kid Who Loved Christmas (1990) (TV); The Lemon Drop Kid (1934) ; Love Actually (2003); The Little Drummer Boy (1968) (TV); The Man in the Santa Claus Suit (1978) (TV); The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941); Meet Me in St. Louis (1944); Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1984); A Midnight Clear, (1991); Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962); Muppet Christmas Carol, The (1992); National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989); The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey Nestor (1977) (TV); The Night Before Christmas (1906 and 1993) The Nutcracker (1982 and 1993); One Christmas (1994) (TV); One Magic Christmas (1985); Pinocchio’s Christmas (1980) (TV); Pluto’s Christmas Tree (1952); The Polar Express (2004); Prancer (1989); Prancer Returns (1998); Santa Claus (1959); Santa Claus, The Movie (1985); Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970) (TV); Scrooge (1935); Scrooge (1951 and 1970); Scrooged (1988); Silent Night, Bloody Night (1973); Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984); Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (1990); Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1992); Silent Night, Deadly Night III – Better Watch Out! (1989); Silent Night, Deadly Night Part II (1987); Silent Night, Lonely Night (1969) (TV); Smoky Mountain Christmas, A (1986) (TV); ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1914); U.F.O. Blue Christmas (1979); A Very Brady Christmas (1988) (TV); White Christmas (1954); The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) (TV); Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus (1991) (TV). Did I miss any?
Not to mention all those Osmond Family and Anne Murray Christmas specials!
Truly, our world would be quite different if there was no Christmas.
Next time, I’ll continue to look at what kind of cultural world we’d live in, had Jesus never been born.
Photo Credit: (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
In 2007 I was a fresh-faced reporter at a diocesan newspaper. My editor assigned me to write a piece on the history of the nativity scene. I tracked down a priest and professor of church history and set off interview him about the history of the nativity scene.
I did not do a Google search before the interview because my interviewee was a more reliable source of information. Imagine my surprise when I asked “So where did the nativity scene originate?” and he answered “Actually, St. Francis created the nativity scene in 1223 in a small town called Greccio.”
Had I not been seated, I might have fallen over. How had I lived three years in Italy, travelled up and down the boot, (including Umbria and Tuscany) and not heard about St. Francis inventing the nativity scene?
I press “record” on my voice recorder and sat mesmerized as the story was laid out before me. Picture this: Greccio, 1223.
As he goes about his work, shepherding the faithful of Greccio and the surrounding area, Francis notices a disturbing trend: his flock are more caught up in the material preparations for Christmas than the spiritual preparation.
Disconcerted, wanting to help his parishioners remember the true significance of Christmas, he thinks hard about what he can do. Then it comes to him…but the idea is new and different; so new and different that before he does anything he asks the pope for permission.
The pope agreed with his idea, and so Francis set the ball rolling on his plan. With the help of one of the townspeople he borrows and ox and a mule. The ox and mule are taken to a cave on the outskirts of the town where Francis sets up a temporary altar. In the cave he arranges a manger, and has townspeople stand in for Mary and Joseph.
That night he leads the townspeople, by torchlight, to the cave. There he celebrates Mass and preaches about the birth of Jesus in a stable…a scene that the townspeople can now see with their own eyes thanks to Francis’ idea. Legend has it Francis was so moved with love for our Lord that during his homily he couldn’t bring himself to say the name “Jesus.” Instead he use the phrase “the babe of Bethlehem.”
Within 100 years every church in Italy was setting up a manger scene at Christmas. The Vatican is no exception: every year in mid-november scaffolding goes up in the middle of St. Peter’s square and a manger scene is built. The scene, like the Christmas tree alongside, is donated by a different region in Italy. The 2015 manger scene come from Verona and the “Verona per L’Arena” foundation, which promotes the cultural activities at Verona’s historic outdoor arena.
Let us consider the Scripture stories that speak of the birth of Christ in history, about the Word becoming flesh. How do Matthew, Luke and John explain this great mystery in their Gospel accounts? What should be our response to this mystery that is prolonged in our midst through the Eucharist? What does it mean to adore the mystery of the Word made flesh?
Matthew’s Gospel is about the scriptures being fulfilled in Jesus. In the genealogy, Jesus is the culmination point toward which Israel’s long covenant history has been leading, particularly its puzzling and tragic latter phase. Matthew agrees with his Jewish contemporaries that the exile was the last significant event before Jesus; when the angel says that Jesus will “save his people from their sins” (1:21), liberation from exile is in view.
Matthew tells us that Jesus’ birth in human history fulfills at least three biblical themes. He brings Israel into the Promised Land; “Jesus” is the Greek for “Joshua.” As Emmanuel, “God with us”, Jesus embodies God’s presence with his people (Isaiah 7:14, quoted in 1:23). As the new David, Jesus is the Messiah born at Bethlehem (2:5, fulfilling Micah 5:1-3).
In the name “Emmanuel,” we find the answer to humanity’s deepest longings for God throughout the ages. Emmanuel is both a prayer and plea (on our behalf) and a promise and declaration on God’s part. When we pronounce the word, we are really praying and pleading: “God, be with us!” And when God speaks it, the Almighty, Eternal, Omnipresent Creator of the world is telling us: “I am with you” in this Child.
The name Emmanuel is also alluded to at the end of Matthew’s Gospel where the risen Jesus assures his disciples of his continued presence: “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (28:20). God did indeed keep his promise in Jesus. Jesus truly fulfills the plan of God in word and deed, in desire and presence, in flesh and blood.
His rejection by his own people and his passion are foreshadowed by the troubled reaction of “all Jerusalem” to the question of the magi who are seeking the “newborn king of the Jews” (2:2-3), and by Herod’s attempt to have him killed. Jesus’ mission during his public life is limited “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24), and he assigns the same limits to the mission of the Twelve (10:5-6). More than the other evangelists, Matthew takes great care to note that events in Jesus’ life happened “so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled” (2:23).
The Infancy Narrative of Luke’s Gospel contains some of the most touching, well-known biblical stories in the New Testament. On Christmas night we listen with awe and wonder to Luke’s beautiful Christmas story. In Luke’s story, we watch the shepherds as they tell one another the reason why they are setting off to Bethlehem: “Let us see this thing that has happened.” Literally the Greek text says: “Let us see this Word that has occurred there.” Luke presents us with the radical newness of Christmas night: the Word can be seen, touched, experienced and felt for it has become flesh.
We must raise several questions about Luke’s story…. about Mary and about the shepherds. Did the shepherds – religious outcasts from the hillside – ever anticipate the depths of the joy they suddenly found released in their hearts that when they heard the news they hurried off to Bethlehem? Perhaps the joy really did hit their feet and they surprised themselves by singing and dancing!
After four weeks of waiting for the coming of Christ, we too should be prepared to be overtaken by joy at his arrival. If we have domesticated the announcement of his birth so that we are no longer stirred by the news, something is wrong with this picture! If we are not dancing for joy, we might have missed an important part of the whole story.
Through the mystery of the Incarnation – the Word made flesh – we are not given one new, mighty and glorious throne from which our God will rule over us, but two ways by which God will reign among us: from a crib in Bethlehem and from a cross in Jerusalem. We cannot have one throne without the other. They go together. Jesus’ coming among us at Christmas reminds us that the touch of gentleness and mercy is victorious over hatred, violence, occupying forces, weapons, and monologue.
The Word Made Flesh in the Fourth Gospel
The prologue of John’s Gospel climaxes with the announcement: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14) (in Greek literally: pitched his tent among us.) It’s a form of divine camping in our midst. This presence came about though the free love of God: “In this way the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world that we might live through him” (I John 4:9).
On Christmas Day, John’s Gospel Prologue is proclaimed instead of the rather idyllic story of the shepherds and the angels. The Word is not simply a message that we can put into words. It comes as a person, a life enfleshed and enacted. In Jesus, the message and the messenger are united. The medium is indeed the message!
Through the wonder and mystery of the Incarnation, the Word did not become a philosophy, a theory, or a concept to be discussed, debated, exegeted or pondered. But the Word became a person to be followed, enjoyed and loved! So it’s all right for us to fantasize about that person’s revolutionary dreams, for a world of peace and justice, a world where no one cries and no one goes hungry… a world where the only occupation that takes place will be the Lord’s occupation of human hearts. But more than just fantasizing, Christmas asks us to believe his revolutionary dream, and to put it into practice each day.
The Word that becomes flesh is about compassion and vision, but there is also something frightening about it, a kind of desperate insistence. Our redemption is Jesus Christ. If the future were not the promise of Jesus Christ but the predictable outcome of present sociological trends, despair would overwhelm us and even kill us.
Authentic Adoration of the Word Made Flesh
In the Eucharist, the Church joins Jesus in adoring the God of life. Adoration means being present, resting, and beholding. Beholding Jesus, we receive and are transformed by the mystery we adore. Eucharistic adoration is similar to standing at the foot of the Cross of Jesus, being a witness to his sacrifice of life and being renewed by it.
In her essay entitled “The Mystery of Christmas,” (Edith Stein) wrote:
“In order to penetrate a whole human life with the divine life it is not enough to kneel once a year before the crib and let ourselves be captivated by the charm of the holy night. To achieve this, we must be in daily contact with God. […] Just as our earthly body needs its daily bread, so the divine life must be constantly fed. ‘This is the living bread that came down from heaven.’
If we make it truly our daily bread, the mystery of Christmas, the Incarnation of the Word, will daily be re-enacted in us. And this, it seems, is the surest way to remain in constant union with God. […] I am well aware that many think this an exaggerated demand. In practice it means for most of those who start the habit that they will have to rearrange their outer and inner life completely. But this is just what it is meant to do. Is it really demanding too much to make room in our life for the Eucharistic Savior, so that He may transform our life into His own?”
The ways our words become flesh
New forms of electronic communication are everywhere and being reinvented again rapidly, but God doesn’t care. God does not buy a new iPhone or get a new app (mobile application). His communication platform is the human person. The Christmas message announces a new divine presence among us. Each day of our lives we seek the personal presence of those whom we care for and who care about us. We cannot imagine to leave friendship and love at a distance. Photographs, memories, letters, e-mail, text messages and phone calls are not enough. We want to enjoy the personal presence of those who fill our minds and let us live in their hearts. We live in God’s heart, and Christmas visibly brought among us the Son of God who cares infinitely for each of us. God did not want to live that love at a distance.
The feast of Christmas reminds humanity of one profound message: that God has mixed with the human family, and loved them all- the women and the men, the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor, those who love and those who hate, those who are beautiful and those who are not. And only God, himself, knows who is close and who is far from him. From now on, we can recognize God, not in the power and glory of our temple worship, our power, prestige and numbers. At Christmas we are taught where to find God: in the midst of humanity, in the thick and thin of the human race, in the smile and tears of a newborn baby, in the suffering of strangers, in the cherished gift of friendship. From now on, anyone who really understands that God has become human will never be able to speak and act in an inhuman way.
The highpoint of Jesus’ self-communication is in the Eucharist. Let us remember that the Word did not become an e-mail, an SMS or text message, or some kind of divine oracle uttered from some distant heaven long ago. Through Mary, the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. The Word became close to real people in real time. May the Lord bless you, as your own words become flesh.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO Salt and Light Catholic Television Network
(CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis’ ‘Urbi et Orbi’ Address on Christmas Day 2014
Dear Brothers and Sisters, Happy Christmas!
Jesus, the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, is born for us, born in Bethlehem of a
Virgin, fulfilling the ancient prophecies. The Virgin’s name is Mary, the wife of Joseph.
Humble people, full of hope in the goodness of God, are those who welcome Jesus and recognize him. And so the Holy Spirit enlightened the shepherds of Bethlehem, who hastened to the grotto and adored the Child. Then the Spirit led the elderly and humble couple Simeon and Anna into the temple of Jerusalem, and they recognized in Jesus the Messiah. “My eyes have seen your salvation”, Simeon exclaimed, “the salvation prepared by God in the sight of all peoples” (Lk 2:30).
Yes, brothers and sisters, Jesus is the salvation for every person and for every people! Today I ask him, the Saviour of the world, to look upon our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria, who for too long now have suffered the effects of ongoing conflict, and who, together with those belonging to other ethnic and religious groups, are suffering a brutal persecution. May Christmas bring them hope, as indeed also to the many displaced persons, exiles and refugees, children, adults and elderly, from this region and from the whole world. May indifference be changed into closeness and rejection into hospitality, so that all who now are suffering may receive the necessary humanitarian help to overcome the rigours of winter, return to their countries and live with dignity. May the Lord open hearts to trust, and may he bestow his peace upon the whole Middle East, beginning with the land blessed by his birth, thereby sustaining the efforts of those committed effectively to dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.
May Jesus, Saviour of the world, protect all who suffer in Ukraine, and grant that their beloved land may overcome tensions, conquer hatred and violence, and set out on a new journey of fraternity and reconciliation.
May Christ the Saviour give peace to Nigeria, where [even in these hours] more blood is being shed and too many people are unjustly deprived of their possessions, held as hostages or killed. I invoke peace also on the other parts of the African continent, thinking especially of Libya, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and various regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I beseech all who have political responsibility to commit themselves through dialogue to overcoming differences and to building a lasting, fraternal coexistence.
May Jesus save the vast numbers of children who are victims of violence, made objects of trade and trafficking, or forced to become soldiers; children, so many abused children. May he give comfort to the families of the children killed in Pakistan last week. May he be close to all who suffer from illness, especially the victims of the Ebola epidemic, above all in Liberia, in Sierra Leone and in Guinea. As I thank all who are courageously dedicated to assisting the sick and their family members, I once more make an urgent appeal that the necessary assistance and treatment be provided.
The Child Jesus. My thoughts turn to all those children today who are killed and ill-treated, be they infants killed in the womb, deprived of that generous love of their parents and then buried in the egoism of a culture that does not love life; be they children displaced due to war and persecution, abused and taken advantage of before our very eyes and our complicit silence. I think also of those infants massacred in bomb attacks, also those where the Son of God was born. Even today, their impotent silence cries out under the sword of so many Herods. On their blood stands the shadow of contemporary Herods. Truly there are so many tears this Christmas, together with the tears of the Infant Jesus.
Dear brothers and sisters, may the Holy Spirit today enlighten our hearts, that we may recognize in the Infant Jesus, born in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary, the salvation given by God to each one of us, to each man and woman and to all the peoples of the earth. May the power of Christ, which brings freedom and service, be felt in so many hearts afflicted by war, persecution and slavery. May this divine power, by its meekness, take away the hardness of heart of so many men and women immersed in worldliness and indifference, the globalization of indifference. May his redeeming strength transform arms into ploughshares, destruction into creativity, hatred into love and tenderness. Then we will be able to cry out with joy: “Our eyes have seen your salvation”.
With these thoughts I wish you all a Happy Christmas!
In the Jubilee Year of 2000, John Paul II made a very insightful statement. He said: “Our Christian witness would be hopelessly inadequate if we ourselves had not first contemplated the face of the Lord.” The same might be said of our fully entering into the Christmas season. Christmas is a time in which we are invited to fix our gaze on Christ in a new and fresh way. It is a time of jubilee, of celebration and the challenge to renew our Christian witness in the mystery of the Incarnation. The Eternal Word, the Son of the Father took on flesh and came to dwell among us in time.
Have you noticed how natural it is for us to fix our gaze on the face of a newborn child? When they are awake or asleep there is a natural desire to look upon their face and to contemplate the very gift of humanity that is before our very eyes. There is also the opposite reaction when we witness the struggle and suffering of humanity on the faces of children and are moved with compassion.
I have also realized that in the many years of priestly ministry I have never failed to try and extend my hand and make the sign of the cross on the forehead of a young child. It is a sign of blessing from God who has made us in his image, secondly it is a reminder of the introductory ritual of baptism when the cross is traced on the forehead of the child by the priest, the parents, and the godparents as a sign that this child is being dedicated to Christ. It is also a sign of Christ’s love which has fully embraced our humanity through the sign of our redemption: the cross.
The celebration of the feast of Christmas recalls through faith the moment in history when the “The Word became flesh”. The Word who is the Son of God took on our humanity. This statement of faith we find in the opening Prologue of John’s Gospel on Christmas day.
The birth of Christ 2000 years ago invited the gaze of Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. However it was the angels who announced the true significance of this mystery:
I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:10-12)
From this moment in history, until the end of the ages this good news of great joy, is the fact that God is now present to us in a unique way, through his Incarnate Son, “God with us,” Emmanuel. God is no longer distant, revealing himself only through the signs and wonders of the Old Testament, or his Word being proclaimed by the prophets. With the Incarnation of Christ, he has taken on our humanity and entered the world. The mystery of the Trinity has come close to us so that we may contemplate His face through the mystery of the Incarnation.
The circumstances of the Incarnation, Christ’s birth in Bethlehem are significant. He was not born into a world of joy but one of suffering. Nor was he born into riches or security but into an experience of poverty and homelessness. In fact the circumstances in which we reflect on His Incarnation are no different even today from the squalor and poverty of Bethlehem. As one spiritual writer stated “there is Incarnation always, everywhere.” For Christians his Incarnation now in us finds its expression in a spirituality of communion and solidarity.
At the dawn of the millennium John Paul II invited the Church to be a home and school of communion. A spirituality of communion indicates above all the hearts contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity dwelling in us, and whose light we must also be able to see shining on the face of the brothers and sisters around us. A spirituality of communion also means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the “Mystical Body” (the Church) and therefore as “those who are a part of me.” This makes us able to be in solidarity with them to share their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship. A spirituality of communion implies also the ability to see what is positive in others, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God: not only as a gift for the brother or sister who has received it directly, but also as a “gift for me.” Finally, a spirituality of communion means to know how to “make room” for our brother and sisters, bearing “each other’s burdens” and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy.
There is the burden of human need always and everywhere in our society. Yet during the season of Christmas it seems that we allow ourselves to become more aware of them and to be moved by them. The one challenge is to see the face of Christ always and everywhere in those we meet regardless of their life’s situation and to develop this spirituality of communion and solidarity.
As we contemplate the face of Christ, it is also essential and indispensable to affirm that the Word truly “became flesh” and took on every aspect of humanity except sin. Yet from another perspective the Incarnation of Christ is truly a kenosis – a “self-emptying” of the glory and divinity he possessed as the Son of God from all eternity. As John Paul II states, this truth may be more problematic for our own modern culture of rationalism as it has the tendency to deny the faith in the divinity of Christ.
The Incarnation of Christ, his becoming human, lays the foundation in our society for a vision of the human person which moves beyond the limitations and contradictions of this world and places us in relationship with God. This is another gift of the Incarnation. The gift of the human person created in the image of God and redeemed through Christ is the eternal message and gift of Christmas.
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI writes:
Most of us in the world today live far from Jesus Christ, the incarnate God who came to dwell amongst us. We live our lives by philosophies, amid worldly affairs and occupations that totally absorb us and thus are a great distance from the manger. In all kinds of ways, God has to prod us and reach out to us again and again, so that we can manage to escape from the muddle of our thoughts and activities to discover the way that leads to him. God comes to us as man so that we might become truly human.
I was reminded of this very truth in the context of a visit to grade one class in the days leading up to Christmas. When things got busy and hectic in the parish I had the habit of simply going over to the grade school to visit the kindergarten and grade one classes. This one day when I dropped into the grade one class the teacher had gathered the children to talk about Christmas and the gifts that each of them hoped to receive. She told the children that on her lap in a small chest there was a gift from Jesus for each of them. They could come up one by one and look inside but they could not tell the next classmate or speak about it until all of them had peered inside the chest to see the gift. So I watched this drama unfold, one by one the children came up to look inside and as they turned around with this look of excitement on their faces and heir hands over their mouth. I saw this repeated until the teacher motioned for me to come forward and look into the chest. To my amazement there was a mirror in the chest and I gazed on a reflection of my face. As I turned around there was giggling and excitement with the children. Then the teacher began to explain to them that the gift of Jesus for each of us at Christmas was that the Son of God became human like us that we might learn what it means to be human.
A simple way of teaching this profound mystery of the Incarnation, however, it is also a reminder of what the true gift of Christmas is and how we can live this mystery by accepting our humanity and living this gift in a spirit of communion and solidarity with others.
Most Rev. William McGrattan
ArchBishop of Peterborough