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