Over the site of our Lord’s birth, to no one’s surprise, is a church, the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It is, of course, a beautiful church, with soaring arches and ruts in the stone floor from the countless numbers of pilgrims who have filed through over the centuries to reverence the sacred place where our Lord was born and where the Virgin Mary placed Him in the manger. What is strikingly different about this church, though, is the entrance. We would expect a grand portal, huge doors to be thrown open welcoming pilgrims, surrounded by all the saints and angels adoring the Christchild. But what we find is quite different. Instead, a very low door in the wall is the route through which all the pilgrims must enter, stooping down to enter through the low doorway. The only one who can enter unhindered is a child.
This is, after all, the mystery of Christmas – that He who is great and mighty above all became a little child. This is why, for centuries, every single Mass ended with the prologue to the Gospel according to St. John, that profoundly beautiful reflection on the incarnation of the most high God, at which every Catholic in church genuflected at the words, “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” – et verbum caro factum est. In fact, today, during the Creed, we too will bend our knees in honor of Christ’s becoming man, humbling ourselves to the ground as He humbled Himself in taking on our human nature. Christmas, it would seem, is all about children. Who better can capture the joy of Christmas, the sense of anticipation and desire, than a child? Christmas is all about children, because Christmas is all about a child, a little child who is God Himself. To gaze upon the Christchild and confess that He is both truly God and truly man is an act of faith, and here too children show us the way. Children do not hesitate to believe what to us seems impossible, what seems beyond the confines of merely human reason. To believe that God has become man, we must become like a child, bending our heads in humility to enter through that low door at Bethlehem.
To believe this reality challenges our intellect, challenges our human reason, but it does not contradict. St. John tells us, “the Word was made flesh.” For Christ he uses a term loaded with connotations – to call Christ the “Word” is to say that He is reason and rationality itself, and yet that eternal Reason, eternal Wisdom, becomes a little child, not yet naturally capable of the use of reason at all.
Christmas fills us with joy, a joy indescribable and untouchable. Even after the thrill of presents fades, even for the most hardened of non-believers, something of the joy of Christmas continues to thrill the heart and raise the spirits. This is our invitation from the Lord, an invitation to experience His joy, His love, and His peace.
One of my friends wrote in her Christmas letter this year, “Christmas is the time when we remember everything we have ever loved.” I thought that this line encapsulated a lot of truth about Christmas. This is the time when we come back to everything we have ever loved, when our heart goes out even to those we have not seen in many years in the form of Christmas cards or text messages, and fond memories fill our hearts. Christmas fills us with longing and with love. But why, we should ask, does Christmas have this power? Christmas, I mentioned earlier, is about a Child, the divine Infant in the manger, who is Love itself. Christmas calls us back to everything and everyone we have ever loved because Christmas presents us with the arrival of Love in the world, not in the abstract, but Love concretely present as a person, our Lord Jesus Christ, present as a child in the manger.
That trembling expectation we experience when we think about this reality is really the expectation not only of the Divine Infant, but of our Redeemer. Christ’s nativity is no accident, no mere decoration of our fallen world. Rather, He comes in order to change the very order of creation itself. Yes, this excitement we experience reaches its fulfillment in the knowledge that the little Child we behold in the crèche has come not just to receive the adoration of ox, ass, shepherds, and kings. Rather, all creation and all mankind bends before Him not only because of Who He is, but Who He will be – our Redeemer, Who on the Cross will give His life for us and after three days in the tomb will rise again, trampling upon the chains of death. Our redemption from our sins is already present there in the manger in the form of a little child.
God could have redeemed us in any way He desired, but He chose, as the most excellent way of redeeming us from our sins, to take our sins upon Himself, which He chose to accomplish by becoming man. In the nativity scene at Bethlehem, God does not merely take on the appearance of humanity. No, He who existed from all time truly became a man, just as much a human being as you or I. God was not content to redeem us in the way of a president issuing a pardon. What He does in Christ’s nativity is so much greater. He becomes one of us, taking upon Himself our sufferings, our pains, our griefs, our sadness, and sharing as well in our joys and delights.
And so, my brothers and sisters, Christ’s nativity is not only an event before which we tremble with expectant joy, the joy of a humble child, but it is an event in which we are called to participate. Christ has become man so that man might become divine! He invites us to take on His nature by confessing our sins, receiving His forgiveness, and by receiving His most holy Body and Blood both today and every Sunday throughout the year. It is no accident, after all, that we celebrate the birth of the Savior by coming to that most holy sacrament where Christ is made present, not as a child in the manger, but in the glory of His Resurrected Body, present under the appearances of bread and wine.
In the Eucharist, Christ present in His Body and Blood, we are able to find every day of the year the great joy of Christmas – that the almighty and eternal God would so humble Himself – humbled, this time, even more so than the Infant in the manger, but humbled even to the point of disguising His eternal Godhead under the appearance of the most humble elements of food and drink the ancient world had to offer: bread and wine. We would not expect to find our God and Savior present in the humble elements of bread and wine, but we would not either expect to find Him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a feeding trough. Everything we have ever loved is present here in the person of the divine Child, the very same Christ who is just as improbably present in the form of bread and wine. Everything and everyone we have ever truly loved is present here as well, because Love Himself is present here, Love Who is God, calling us to Himself. The same Christ who was born into the humble stable of Bethlehem wants to be born into your heart through the reception of Holy Communion.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson, S.T.L.
Parish Church of St. Charles Borromeo, Fort Wayne
In Nativitate Domini, A.D. MMXVI