Paradoxes of Christmas

j-and-m-and-jIn the ancient Church and up until rather recently, one genuflected at the two references to the Incarnation during the Mass: during the Creed and in the Last Gospel (John 1). Why was this done? It was explained to me that the mystery of the Incarnation is so deep, one can only fall in silent reverence.

There are many paradoxes and seeming impossibilities in the Incarnation. They cannot be fully solved, so they claim our reverence. We genuflected in the past, and today we bow at the mention of the Incarnation in the Creed, for it is a deep mystery.

As we continue to celebrate Christmas, I would like to list some of the paradoxes of Christmas. I want to say as little about them as possible—just enough to make the paradox clear. This paucity of words (not common with me) is in reverence for the mystery and also to invite your reflection.

  1. The Infinite One becomes an infant.
  2. An antiphon for the Christmas season says, How can we find words to praise your dignity O Virgin Mary, for he whom the very heavens cannot contain, you carried in your womb.
  3. An old Latin carol (in Dulci Jublio) says, Alpha et O, Matris in Gremio (Alpha and Omega, sitting in Mommy’s lap).
  4. He who looks down on all creation looks up to see His Mother. The most high looks up from a cradle. Of this moment, even the pagans wrote with longing and tenderness: Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem … ipsa tibi blandos fundent cunabula flores, occidet et serpens, et fallax herba veneni occidet (Begin, little boy, to recognize the face of your mother with a smile … for you, your own cradle will bear delightful flowers; the serpent will die and the plant that hides its venom) – Virgil 4th Eclogue.
  5. He who indwells all creation is born in homelessness, no place to dwell.
  6. He, to whom all things in Heaven and on earth belong, is born in poverty and neediness.
  7. He is the mighty Word through whom all things were made. He is the very utterance of God, the Voice which summons all creation into existence. Of this Word, this Utterance, this Voice, Scripture says, The voice of the LORD is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, upon many waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful, the voice of the LORD is full of majesty … The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness … The voice of the LORD makes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forests bare; and in his temple all cry, “Glory!” (Ps. 29) Yet this voice is now heard as the cooing and crying of an infant.
  8. His infant hand squeezes His mother’s finger. From that infant hand, the universe tumbled into existence. That same hand is steering the stars in their courses.
  9. He who holds all creation together in Himself (Col 1:17) is now held by His Mother.
  10. He who is the Bread of Life is born in Bethlehem (House of Bread) and lies in a feeding trough (manger).
  11. He who is our sustainer and our food is now hungry and fed by His Mother.
  12. Angels and Archangels may have gathered there, Cherubim and Seraphim thronged the air! But only his mother in her maiden bliss, could worship the beloved with a kiss (Christina Rosetti “In the Bleak Midwinter”).

Each of these is meant to be a meditation on the great mystery of the Incarnation. Please chime in with your additions to this list!

A paradox is something that defies intuition or challenges the common way of thinking. It unsettles us or startles us into thinking more deeply. The word paradox comes from the Greek para (beside, off to the side, or above) and dokein (to think or to seem). Hence a paradox is something “off to the side” of the usual way of seeing or thinking about things. If you’re going to relate to God you’re going to deal with a lot of paradox, because God’s ways and His thinking often defy those of humans. God is not irrational but He often acts in ways that do not conform to worldly expectations.

This Christmas, consider these paradoxes and learn from them. Remember, though, that mysteries are to be lived more so than solved. Reverence is a more proper response to mystery than is excessive curiosity. More is learned in silence than by many words.

Who Were the Magi?

The Gospel of Matthew says, After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem (Mat 2:1). Matthew uses the Greek term μάγοι, (magoi) and notes simply that they came from the east.

Exactly what “Magi” are is debated. The Greeks of antiquity (ca. 450 B.C.) used the term to refer to a priestly class of men among the Medes and later the Persians, but in later centuries it was used in a wider sense; it came to be applied to men skilled in hidden knowledge and magic. By 200 B.C., its meaning would include men skilled in astronomy and those given to visons and the interpretation of dreams. This expanded definition continued into New Testament times.

What is interesting is that Matthew presents these Magi as men of great dignity while other references to magi in the New Testament are generally negative. For example, in the Acts the Apostles there is a man named Simon, a man described as μαγεύων (mageoun), practicing magic:

But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me” (Acts 8: 9-24).

Thus, Simon, a magos and therefore likely among the magoi (or magi), while presented in a sympathetic light, is in need of conversion precisely because of his past as a magician or magos.

The Didache also says, you shall not practice magic (μαγεύσεις (mageuseis)) (Didache 2.2).

Thus, in the time of the New Testament, being among the magoi was generally not considered a good thing at all. Matthew’s description of the Magi is a significant exception. He presents them as noble, wise, and persistent in their pursuit of the truth. They are morally upstanding in the face of Herod and more zealous than the Jewish scribes whom they consult. In the end, they worship Christ and offer him fitting sacrifices, whereas Jesus’ own people did not even offer Him a room in the inn. The situation drips with irony.

Given that the Magi are following a star, in using that term, Matthew likely has in mind their role as astronomers. He may not have intended significant references to magic, dream interpretation, or fortune-telling.

So, it is likely that they are wise men, ancient astronomers in particular.

We often think of the Magi as Kings, although the text does not call them that. This mischaracterization may be a result of conflating two Old Testament texts that are read at Epiphany:

The kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.
All kings shall pay him homage,
all nations shall serve him
(Psalm 72:10-11).

The wealth of nations shall be brought to you.
Caravans of camels shall fill you,
dromedaries from Midian and Ephah;
all from Sheba shall come
bearing gold and frankincense,
and proclaiming the praises of the LORD
(Is 60:5-6).

For the record, the text in today’s Gospel does not call them kings, but Magi. And although they offer gold and frankincense, they do so in fulfillment of Isaiah 60 as Magoi not as kings.

St. Thomas, in his Summa Theologica, sidesteps these questions about the exact identity of the magi and instead emphasizes their role. He writes,

The Magi are the “first-fruits of the Gentiles” that believed in Christ; because their faith was a presage of the faith and devotion of the nations who were to come to Christ from afar. And therefore … the Magi, inspired by the Holy Ghost, did wisely in paying homage to Christ (Summa Theologiae, III, Q 36, art 8).

So, their key identity is that they are Gentiles and have been called. Up to this point in the Christmas story, Jesus was manifest only to Jews in Bethlehem—but now the Gentiles come. This detail cannot be overlooked; it is clear that the gospel will be going out to all the world. St. Paul rejoices in this fact when he speaks of

the mystery made known to me by revelation.
It was not made known to people in other generations
as it has now been revealed
to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the
gospel (Ephesians 3:4-6).

Rejoice, fellow Christians, especially if you are of Gentile origin. The truest identity of the Magi is you. You are among the magi who seek him. Yes, wise men still seek the Lord.

Was the Star that Guided the Magi a Natural or Supernatural Occurrence?

As we continue our survey of teachings on the birth of our Lord from St. Thomas Aquinas, today we consider the mysterious star that led the Magi to Christ. In recent decades there has been a strong tendency to seek a natural explanation for this phenomenon. Some speculate that it was in fact a comet or the appearance of several planets close together in the night sky. While not necessarily incorrect, these explanations are largely set aside by St. Thomas and most of the Church Fathers on whom he relies (especially St. John Chrysostom). They observe that while the manifestation is called a star, it has qualities that stars do not possess.

Before beginning, however, I would like to state that while I agree with the conclusion of St. Thomas and most of the Church Fathers, the first two of the five points they make (see below) are puzzling to me; they seem unnecessary, if not erroneous. I mean no disrespect to men far greater and holier than I, but I cannot, in my limited sensibility, see how they are accurate observations. Therefore, I will simply share my befuddlement in the commentary.

That said, the three points that follow are clear enough and make a good case that the term “star” was used by St Matthew in a generic rather than scientific sense. It was a star-like object, but one with qualities not possessed by normal stars. The full truth about this star is mysterious. Also mysterious is whether others were able to see the star. I personally think not and would see that as further evidence that the star was not merely a natural occurrence. Rather, certain people were able to see the star and others were not.

Onward, then, to St. Thomas’s teaching on the star that led the Magi to Jesus. The question that forms the basis of today’s post is taken from St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. St. Thomas’s answers are presented in italics, while my inferior commentary appears in plain, red text.

Whether the star which appeared to the Magi belonged to the heavenly system? (Summa Theologiae, Part Three, Question 36, Article 7).

As Chrysostom says (Hom. vi in Matth.), it is clear, for many reasons, that the star which appeared to the Magi did not belong to the heavenly system. First, because no other star approaches from the same quarter as this star, whose course was from north to south, these being the relative positions of Persia, whence the Magi came, and Judea.

It is not clear to me why this should be so. At its height, Persia had regions to the south (into modern-day Egypt) and even west toward Greece; but it extended even more to the east from Judea and all the more so at the time of Christ’s birth. It seems possible—even likely—that the Magi would have come from the east rather then the south, and that the trajectory of the star would then have followed the usual course of moving from east to west.

Indeed, the Greek text says rather plainly that the magi arrived ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν (from the east). It is not clear to me why Chrysostom (Thomas simply quoted him) presumed that the Magi came up from the south. While it is certainly possible, it is not necessarily so, and if anything seems contraindicated.

Secondly, from the time [at which it was seen]. For it appeared not only at night, but also at midday: and no star can do this, not even the moon.

Here, too, I am somewhat confused. The biblical text does not seem to say clearly that the star also appeared during the day. Perhaps St. John Chrysostom presumed that the Magi could not reasonably have traveled at night and thus needed to be able to see the star by day. Without the bright light of the moon, nighttime travel was certainly difficult if not impossible. Further, the comings and goings of the Magi (visiting Herod and going into the house where Jesus and Mary were) are not things that would typically have been done in the dark of night, but rather during the day. Still, the presumption that the star appeared during the day is not proven.

Thirdly, because it was visible at one time and hidden at another. For when they entered Jerusalem it hid itself: then, when they had left Herod, it showed itself again.

This is a detail that escapes many readers: Namely, that upon the arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem, the star either became invisible or at least gave out ambiguous clues as to its location. This is not the nature of normal stars, which are stably present and visible on a clear night. The star had led the Magi this far with clarity and accuracy and yet suddenly was strangely gone from view, requiring them to ask for directions.

St. John Chrysostom saw in this a pastoral purpose of rousing the Jewish people to faith. He spoke of the star now halting and now rousing up the camp of the Jews, when it was needful (Homily 6 on Matthew). Sadly, the Jewish leaders and scholars whom Herod consulted seemed rather disinterested, despite prophecies being fulfilled before their very eyes: Kings from the East following a star and bearing gifts (see Psalm 72:10, Numbers 24:17, Isaiah 60:6).

The point here is that ordinary stars do not appear and disappear.

Fourthly, because its movement was not continuous, but when the Magi had to continue their journey the star moved on; when they had to stop the star stood still; as happened to the pillar of a cloud in the desert.

The text describes unusual movements that normal stars do not make: the star they had seen … went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.

Fifthly, because it indicated the virginal Birth, not by remaining aloft, but by coming down below. For it is written (Matthew 2:9) that “the star which they had seen in the east went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was.” … But it could not have indicated the house distinctly, unless it were near the earth. And, as he [Chrysostom] observes, this does not seem fitting to a star, but “of some power endowed with reason.”

The need for the star to be lower in the sky than any normal star is explained well here. Even the moon, a relatively closer object, is still too high in the sky to indicate a specific place. If I were to go out and look at the moon, I might perceive it as being directly over my house, but it would also appear to be directly over thousands of other houses for hundreds of miles around. In order to indicate a specific house in Bethlehem, the star must somehow have been lower in the sky or must have pointed to the house with some sort of light ray.

Consequently “it seems that this was some invisible force made visible under the form of a star.”

It seems reasonable to conclude that the star that led the Magi was not a natural star in the usual sense. Rather, the star here had some of the properties of a natural star, yet was something different, and was controlled by a power endowed with reason and a purpose to lead certain men to Christ.

St. Thomas goes on to cite a few other teachings from the Fathers and then includes his own opinion:

Wherefore some say that, as the Holy Ghost, after our Lord’s Baptism, came down on Him under the form of a dove, so did He appear to the Magi under the form of a star. While others say that the angel who, under a human form, appeared to the shepherds, under the form of a star, appeared to the Magi. But it seems more probable that it was a newly created star, not in the heavens, but in the air near the earth, and that its movement varied according to God’s will. Wherefore Pope Leo says in a sermon on the Epiphany (xxxi): “A star of unusual brightness appeared to the three Magi in the east, which, through being more brilliant and more beautiful than the other stars, drew men’s gaze and attention: so that they understood at once that such an unwonted event could not be devoid of purpose.”

Thus we can reasonably conclude that the star was not merely a natural occurrence. While there is no official Church interpretation to which we must adhere, St. Thomas and the ancient Fathers saw the star as a mysterious and miraculous work of God, not simply as a natural phenomenon that He permitted and then used to indicate the whereabouts of Christ.

Tomorrow we will continue this thread and ponder more about the Magi themselves.

 

Some Questions About the Birth of Christ You May Not Have Thought to Ask

Nativity with Saints Bernard and Thomas Aquinas, by Francesco di Giorgio Martini

During Christmas week we do well to ponder certain questions about the Incarnation and birth of our Lord. The questions are taken from St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. St. Thomas’s answers are presented in italics, while my inferior commentary appears in plain, red text.

Whether Christ was born at a fitting time? (Summa Theologica III, q. 35, art. 8)

There is this difference between Christ and other men, that, whereas they are born subject to the restrictions of time, Christ, as Lord and Maker of all time, chose a time in which to be born, just as He chose a mother and a birthplace. And since “what is of God is well ordered” and becomingly arranged, it follows that Christ was born at a most fitting time.

This argument is based on the authority and sovereignty of God. Simply put, God was free to choose a time; whatever God does is properly ordered and best, thus the time chosen by God was most fitting.

Moreover, at that time, when the whole world lived under one ruler, peace abounded on the earth. Therefore, it was a fitting time for the birth of Christ, for “He is our peace, who hath made both one,” as it is written (Ephesians 2:14). Wherefore Jerome says on Isaiah 2:4: “If we search the page of ancient history, we shall find that throughout the whole world there was discord until the twenty-eighth year of Augustus Caesar: but when our Lord was born, all war ceased”; according to Isaiah 2:4: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.”

The claim made that all was at peace at that time is rather sweeping and bold. Does St. Thomas mean that there was peace everywhere, even within households? We need not interpret it in such absolute terms. Instead, the claim can be understood more generally to mean that there were no known military campaigns underway or necessary at the time. During the roughly 200-year Pax Romana (27 B.C. – 180 A.D.) it is not that there were no threats to peace and no civil disturbances anywhere in the Roman Empire.

Again, it was fitting that Christ should be born while the world was governed by one ruler, because “He came to gather His own [Vulgate: ‘the children of God’] together in one” (John 11:52), that there might be “one fold and one shepherd” (John 10:16).

This is another surprising and sweeping claim, at least to modern ears. We tend to think of “one shepherd” as a reference to a religious leader, e.g., the Pope. Remember, though that today’s sharp distinction between secular and sacred leaders was largely unknown in the Middle Ages and earlier; back then, faith and governance were quite intertwined. Further, in saying that “the world” was governed by one ruler, St. Thomas has in mind the Roman Empire. He does not use “world” in a literal and absolute sense, but rather a large section of the known world.

Whether Christ should have been born in Bethlehem? (Summa Theologica III, q. 35, art. 7)

It is written (Micah 5:2): “And thou, Bethlehem, Ephrata … out of thee shall He come forth unto Me, that is to be the ruler in Israel.”

Christ willed to be born in Bethlehem for two reasons. First, because “He was made … of the seed of David according to the flesh,” as it is written (Romans 1:3); to whom also was a special promise made concerning Christ; according to 2 Samuel 23:1: “The man to whom it was appointed concerning the Christ of the God of Jacob … said.” Therefore, He willed to be born at Bethlehem, where David was born, in order that by the very birthplace the promise made to David might be shown to be fulfilled. The Evangelist points this out by saying: “Because He was of the house and of the family of David.” Secondly, because, as Gregory says (Hom. viii in Evang.): “Bethlehem is interpreted ‘the house of bread.’ It is Christ Himself who said, ‘I am the living Bread which came down from heaven.’”

Whether Christ’s birth should have been made known to all? (Summa Theologica III, q. 36, art. 1)

Our modern egalitarian notions demand that the answer here be yes, but St. Thomas says no. He does so for three reasons, each of which amounts to the argument that telling everyone about the birth of Christ and who exactly He was would have short-circuited or ended prematurely some important events and truths that save us.

It was unfitting that Christ’s birth should be made known to all men without distinction. First, because this would have been a hindrance to the redemption of man, which was accomplished by means of the Cross; for, as it is written (1 Corinthians 2:8): “If they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory.”

This is a daring claim: St. Thomas says that some ignorance was necessary to permit the cross (by which we are saved) to be applied.

Secondly, because this would have lessened the merit of faith, which He came to offer men as the way to righteousness. according to Romans 3:22: “The justice of God by faith of Jesus Christ.” For if, when Christ was born, His birth had been made known to all by evident signs, the very nature of faith would have been destroyed, since it is “the evidence of things that appear not,” as stated, Hebrews 11:1.

Saving faith would have been jettisoned because faith is not needed for things that are evident.

Thirdly, because thus the reality of His human nature would have come into doubt. Whence Augustine says (Ep. ad Volusianum cxxxvii): “If He had not passed through the different stages of age from babyhood to youth, had neither eaten nor slept, would He not have strengthened an erroneous opinion, and made it impossible for us to believe that He had become true man? And while He is doing all things wondrously, would He have taken away that which He accomplished in mercy?”

If the whole world had known from the start that Jesus was Messiah and Lord, He could never have lived an ordinary life in Nazareth, laboring and living among us. But these ordinary years were important indicators of His coming and living as true man.

Whether those to whom Christ’s birth was made known were suitably chosen? (Summa Theologica III, q. 36, art. 3)

Salvation, which was to be accomplished by Christ, concerns all sorts and conditions of me: because, as it is written (Colossians 3:11), in Christ “there is neither male nor female, [These words are in reality from Galatians 3:28] neither Gentile nor Jew … bond nor free,” and so forth. And in order that this might be foreshadowed in Christ’s birth, He was made known to men of all conditions. Because, as Augustine says in a sermon on the Epiphany (32 de Temp.), “the shepherds were Israelites, the Magi were Gentiles. The former were nigh to Him, the latter far from Him. Both hastened to Him together as to the cornerstone.” There was also another point of contrast: for the Magi were wise and powerful; the shepherds simple and lowly. He was also made known to the righteous as Simeon and Anna; and to sinners, as the Magi. He was made known both to men, and to women—namely, to Anna—so as to show no condition of men to be excluded from Christ’s redemption.

In effect, St. Thomas teaches here of the catholicity (universality) of the Church.

Whether Christ’s birth should have been manifested by means of the angels and the star? (Summa Theologica III, q. 36, art. 5)

Yes, it is suitable, because when teaching we begin by moving from what is known to what is unknown. Different audiences (Jews and Gentiles) were called, so different approaches made sense, as each group was differently endowed with knowledge.

As knowledge is imparted through a syllogism from something which we know better, so knowledge given by signs must be conveyed through things which are familiar to those to whom the knowledge is imparted. Now, it is clear that the righteous have, through the spirit of prophecy, a certain familiarity with the interior instinct of the Holy Ghost, and are wont to be taught thereby, without the guidance of sensible signs. Whereas others, occupied with material things, are led through the domain of the senses to that of the intellect. The Jews, however, were accustomed to receive Divine answers through the angels …. And the Gentiles, especially the astrologers, were wont to observe the course of the stars. And therefore Christ’s birth was made known to the righteous, viz. Simeon and Anna, by the interior instinct of the Holy Ghost, according to Luke 2:26: “He had received an answer from the Holy Ghost that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.” But to the shepherds and Magi, as being occupied with material things, Christ’s birth was made known by means of visible apparitions. And since this birth was not only earthly, but also, in a way, heavenly, to both (shepherds and Magi) it is revealed through heavenly signs: for, as Augustine says in a sermon on the Epiphany (cciv): “The angels inhabit, and the stars adorn, the heavens: by both, therefore, do the ‘heavens show forth the glory of God.’” Moreover, it was not without reason that Christ’s birth was made known, by means of angels, to the shepherds, who, being Jews, were accustomed to frequent apparitions of the angels: whereas it was revealed by means of a star to the Magi, who were wont to consider the heavenly bodies. Because, as Chrysostom says (Hom. vi in Matth.): “Our Lord deigned to call them through things to which they were accustomed.”

Tomorrow we will consider several more questions related to the star and the magi.

Why Is Christmas Considered a Nighttime Event?

O Holy night! Yes, a silent night! And it came upon a midnight clear! Christmas, it would seem, is a festival of the middle of the night. Jesus is born when it is dark, dark midnight. We are sure of it. And why shouldn’t we be?

Even though we are not told the exact hour of His birth, we are sure it must have been at night. Scripture does say that the Shepherds who heard the glad tidings were keeping watch over their flock “by night” (cf Luke 2:9). Further, the Magi sought Him by the light of a star, and stars are seen at night, deep midnight. None of this is evidence that Jesus was born at 12:00 midnight but it sets our clocks for night, deep midnight.

Add to this the fact that Christmas is celebrated at the winter solstice, the very darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere. More specifically, Christmas comes when light is just beginning its subtle return. The darkest and shortest days of the year occur around December 21st and 22nd. But by December 23rd and 24th we notice a definite but subtle trend: the days are getting longer; the light is returning! It’s time to celebrate the return of the light. It’s going to be all right!

How fitting it is to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the true Light of the World, in deep and dark December. Jesus our light kindles a fire that never dies away. Indeed, in the dark hours of December, we notice a trend: the light is returning; the darkness is abating; the days are beginning to grow longer. It is subtle right now, but it will grow. And with the return of light, we celebrate our True Light: Jesus.

But light is best appreciated in contrast. We appreciate most the glory of light when the darkness assails us. There’s just something about Christmas Eve. As the time approaches through December and the darkness grows, we light lights. Yes, all through December we light Advent candles, more candles as it grows darker. Even the secular among us string up lights, in malls, on their houses, in their workplace. It’s as if to say, the darkness cannot win; the light conquers!

Lights show their true glory when contrasted with darkness. Who sees the stars in the middle of the day? Who appreciates the full beauty of light until he has experienced darkness? Yes, Christmas is a feast of the light. We confront the darkness of December and declare to it, “Your deepest days are over. The light is returning.” And we of faith say to a world in ever deeper darkness, “Your darkness cannot prevail. It will be overcome and replaced.” For although darkness has its season, it is always conquered by the light.

An atheist recently scoffed at me in the comments of this blog that our day is over; the world has rejected faith. Sorry, dear atheist friend, the light always wins. On December 22nd, the darkness begins to recede and the light begins to return. The light returns subtly at first, but it always does; the darkness cannot last.

Light has a way of simply replacing the darkness. In three months the equinox occurs and in six months the summer solstice, when we have the most light. Then the darkness will once again seek to conquer. But it always loses! The light will return. Jesus is always born at the hour of darkness’ greatest moment. Just when the darkness is celebrating most, its hour is over; the light dawns again.

We celebrate after sundown on December 24th, in accordance with a tradition going back to Jewish times (feasts begin at sundown the night before). Christmas morning is almost an afterthought. Most pastors know that the majority of their people come to Mass the “night before.” In a deep and dark December, a light comes forth. A star shines in the heavens.

We gather together in and on a dark night. We smile. We are moved by the cry of a small infant, by whose voice the heavens were made.

His little cry lights up the night. The darkness must go; the light has come; day is at hand.

We celebrate at night so as to bid farewell to the darkness. It cannot prevail. It is destined to be scattered by a Light far more powerful than it is, a Light it must obey, a Light that overwhelms and replaces it. Farewell to darkness; the Light of the World has come!

Jesus is the Light of the World.

The video below is a celebration of light. As a Christmas gift to myself I took the afternoon of December 22nd (the darkest day of the year) off so that I could photograph the triumph of light over darkness. I went to a mausoleum, a place where thousands are buried in the walls. But also in those walls are windows, glorious windows where light breaks through and Christ shines forth. Some of the most beautiful stained glass in the city of Washington, D.C. resides in that place of death and darkness. The light breaks through and it speaks of Christ.

This video shows only some of those stained glass windows (I am putting together a video of other windows to be shown later). The text of the music in this video is from Taizé, and it says, Christe lux mundi, qui sequitur te, habebit lumen vitae, lumen vitae (Christ, Light of the World, who follows you has the light of life, the light of life).

As you view this video depicting the Life of Christ, ponder that although stained glass begins as opaque sand, when subjected to and purified by fire it radiates the glory of the light which can now shine through it. So it is for us. Born in darkness but purified by Christ and the fire of the Spirit, we begin to radiate His many splendored Light shining through us to a dark world.

The Light wins. He always wins.

A Knock at Midnight – A Homily for Christmas Mass

No Room at the Inn, Simon de Vos

In this reflection, perhaps we can consider just a single line in the Gospel, one that both challenges our love and acts as a sign of God’s humble and abiding love for us: For there was no room for them in the inn.

I. The Scene There is a knock at midnight. Joseph, speaking on behalf of both Mary and Jesus (who is in her womb still), seeks entrance to the homes and lodgings of those in Bethlehem. Although the Jewish people in those days placed a high obligation upon the duty of hospitality to the stranger and passerby, the answer repeatedly given is, “No room here.” Mary’s obviously advanced pregnancy and the imminence of delivery seem to make little difference.

It is indeed a cold night, not so much in terms of the air temperature, but in terms of the hearts of the people. Surely someone could make room for a pregnant woman! But no; no room at the inn.

Yes, it is a cold night. The only warmth to be found is amongst the animals. An old Latin antiphon for Christmas says, O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum iacentem in praesepio (O great mystery and stunning sacrament, that animals would see the newborn Lord lying in a feedbox). Here in the manger, warmth will be found, among the animals. It is sometimes said that man can be brutish, but the reality is that we can sink even beneath the beasts, doing things to ourselves and to one another that even animals do not.

Scripture says,

The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know me, my people do not understand … They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him (Is 1:3-4).

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (Jn 1:10-11).

There was a knock at midnight. The animals received Him and gave warmth, yet we, His own people, knowing Him not received Him not. But in this midnight darkness and cold, the light and warmth of God’s love will shine forth. The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone (Is 9:1).

II. The Stooping – Surely God stoops low to come from lightsome heaven to our war-torn, dark, cold world. As He stoops, He stoops to the lowest place, being born not in a palace or even in a comfortable home. He stoops to a manger. God will defeat Satan’s pride with humility. All who will find Him this fateful night must also stoop.

This stooping of God is illustrated even in the very topography of the area. The towns of the Holy Land were built on the tops of the tall hills (something we almost never do here in America). Where land is relatively scarce, this is done so as to leave the fertile valleys for agriculture. Bethlehem was perched on higher land and the shepherd’s fields lay below. The streets of Bethlehem were steep and built on tiers or levels. Thus, the back lot of many homes and buildings dropped steeply down and beneath the buildings. Beneath the buildings the people hollowed out caves where animals and tools and tools were kept.

It was in such a place, down under, where Joseph and Mary sought hasty shelter, for it was a cold and dark midnight and Mary’s time had come. God stooped with them to be born, among the animals and agricultural implements, in the damp cave under some house or inn.

Those who want to find our God must stoop low. Even to this day, when one visits Bethlehem and wants to see the place of Jesus’ birth, one must first enter the church through what is called the “Door of Humility.” For security reasons, this door was built to be only about four feet high. One must stoop greatly to enter through it. Yes, we must stoop to find our God. The site of the birth is at the other end of the basilica, under the altar area. Here again, more stooping is required; down steep stairs, through another low and narrow door, and into the cave. To touch the spot, one must kneel and reach forward into a narrower part of the cave. Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, says the inscription. The only way to get there is to stoop.

Yes, our God stoops; He stoops to the lowest place. To find Him and be with Him we, too, must be willing to stoop. God hates pride. He just can’t stand it because He sees what it does to us. He comes to break its back, not with clubs and swords or by overpowering, but with humility. Darkness cannot defeat darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot defeat hate; only love can do that. Pride cannot defeat pride; only humility can do that. So God stoops.

Tonight, God calls us with this same humility. He could have ridden down from Heaven on a lightning bolt and stunned us into fearful submission. Instead He goes to the lowest place. He comes quietly, non-violently, without threat, as an infant. Even in this lowly way, though, He is still calling.

So there is a knock at midnight. Scripture says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20). An old song says, “Somebody’s knocking at your door! Oh Sinner, why don’t you answer?”

III. The Saddest Thing – When human history is complete and the last books are written, one of the saddest lines in all of that history will be this one: For there was no room for them in the inn. No room, no room. How strange and sad for this world that God simply doesn’t fit. He doesn’t fit our agendas, our schedules, our priorities. No room; He just doesn’t fit.

Scripture says,

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (Jn 1:11).

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believe in his name, he gave the power to become children of God (Jn 1:12).

What could be sadder than to miss this gift to become the very children of God? Yes, the saddest line that will ever be written of this world is that there was no room for Him in the inn.

What of us? Is there room for Jesus in the “inn” of our hearts? If there is, Jesus comes bearing many gifts. There is a knock at the door this very midnight. It sounds like Jesus! Oh Sinner, why don’t you answer? Somebody’s knocking at your door.

Make room for Jesus. Every year He comes knocking. He stoops low and invites us to find Him in the lowly places of this world, in the lowly places of our own life. What are the things in your life that may be crowding out Jesus? What obstacles and preoccupations leave little or no room for Him? What keeps you from recognizing Jesus and opening the door wide when He comes?

If you’ve already opened the door to him for many years, praise God and ask the Lord to help you open wider. Even though many of us have invited Jesus in, we’ve given him poor accommodations, perhaps relegating him to the couch or the floor.

Make room for Jesus. Make more and more room for Him in the inn of your soul. I promise you that what Scripture says is true: Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believe in his name, he gave the power to become children of God (Jn 1:12).

If you will receive the gift of Him tonight and make greater room for Him in your heart, I promise you total victory and transformation in Christ Jesus. There will come to you the increasing gift of transformation into the very likeness of God. Tonight is a night of gifts and Jesus stoops low to give us a priceless gift: the power to become children of God. Is there room in the “inn” of your heart?

It’s midnight and there is a knock at the door.

 

What Does It Mean to Find the Perfect Gift?

Jesus said many paradoxical things. For example: Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Mat 10:39). For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it (Mat 16:25).

The basic rule of life the Lord announces is that when we want something too much, or very insistently on our own terms, we can never possess it. Rather, it possesses us. Only when we let go of our obsessions are we free to enjoy the true gift the Lord is offering. Indeed, many of our insistent and worldly expectations become the cause of our resentments. Some of God’s greatest gifts come to us in unexpected ways.

C.S. Lewis wrote,

Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead …. Even in social life you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making …. Give up yourself and you will find your real self … [but] [y]our real self will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Christ (Mere Christianity Book 4, Ch. 11).

At Christmas we often think of gifts, what to give and what we will receive; but this misses the truest point of Christmas, which is to look upon our Savior, Messiah, and Lord. He became flesh to show us our truer self. In thinking of Him and looking to Him, we find our truest self. The truer self we find, though, may be very different from some of our grander, worldly notions. Indeed, those self-delusions must be lost, pruned away; they must die for our true self to be found.

We have to stoop low to find Christ; we must seek Him humbly, and look for Him in humble places. He is found in Bethlehem, a tiny village in the shadow of the great Jerusalem. Even there He is in no comfortable dwelling, but out in back, down at the lowest end, in a cave behind a house, a place where animals are kept. Having descended into that cave, we must stoop still further, peering down close to the ground into a manger, a feeding trough. There we see Him.

Yes, there He is, devoid of earthly glories but with heavenly light shining through Him! Seeing Him, we see ourselves. Having descended, dying to earthly notions of life, having “lost” our life, we find it; and we see our own truest glory on the beautiful face of Christ.

Scripture says, For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor 4:6) And we, who with unveiled faces reflect the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into His image with intensifying glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18).

Here is the perfect gift, that we should decrease and He should increase; that dying to our own glories and shedding the masks we like to wear we can now reflect His glories.

Perhaps a picture will help. For this, we turn to the master of light and darkness in painting: Rembrandt. In his “Adoration of the Shepherds” (above right) see how Christ is the true source of light. His light is reflected on the faces of those around Him. This is our greatest glory and our perfect gift, to reflect the glory of the Lord with faces unveiled. To reflect this glory, the shepherds had to journey through the darkness, stoop down low, and die to their expectations of where a King should be born. In the darkness they see Him and they reflect His glory with unveiled faces. The greatest gift, the perfect gift of Christmas, is pictured here. They reflect not their glories, but His.

May the perfect gift of Christmas be yours, be mine, be ours.