Billions of babies have been born during the past 2,000 years. A few of them, who happened to be of royal blood, had the privilege of having their birthdays celebrated with some pomp and ceremony in their own countries. With their deaths and the passage of time, not only have their birthdays, but the people themselves, been forgotten.
There is but one child whose birthday has been celebrated, not only in his own country, but also throughout the entire world and in every age for almost 20 centuries. Perhaps we have become so used to Christmas that we cease to wonder and ask ourselves: why? What is the difference between the child who was born in a cave or stable 2,000 years ago and every other child who has been born since or will be born into this world of ours?
Christmas is the birthday of God made man. A quick run through the theology of the Incarnation – the taking flesh by the Word of God – might help us to see Christmas as more than a worldly festival and a commercial feast.
For a short period after the death and Resurrection of Christ, Christians simply accepted on faith the fact that He was God as well as man. Then the intellectuals got going and began to ask themselves, “How could God become man?” And the first few centuries of the Church are strewn with heretics. They were all trying to explain how God could become man. They fell into error.
It was in correcting these errors that the church, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, finally gave us the concise doctrine which may be called the very heart of Christian theology today regarding who the babe really was.
The Catholic church teaches that Jesus Christ, from the first moment of his conception, was truly God and truly man; that the second person of the Blessed Trinity, who had a divine nature from all eternity, in time assumed or took, a human nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary and is therefore fully and completely God and fully and completely man. You might say, “Well does it matter that much? Why not let us just enjoy Christmas without annoying us with a lot of theory? Does it make that much difference to our lives?” Well, if it doesn’t, it should.
You see, if the Christ child in the crib was not both God and man, then the man who died on the cross 33 years later was not both God and man and you and I have not been redeemed. And, if we have not been redeemed, then we can’t get into Heaven!
Christmas is not just the vague commemoration of a single event that took place 2,000 years ago, dressed in fun. St. Paul said that, “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of a woman, to redeem us and to make us adopted sons.”
We are still living in the fullness of time. We are still today being redeemed by the Blood of Jesus. The angel said to Joseph, “She (Mary) will give birth to a child and you must call his name Jesus, for He will save his people from their sins.” In the Acts, St. Peter says, “There is no other name under Heaven by which we can be saved.”
So, this is the wonderful exchange which took place at the Incarnation. God assumed our nature so that He may communicate to us a share in his divine nature or sanctifying grace. Without that grace, we could not enter Heaven and without the death of Christ, we could in no way have ever won back for ourselves the grace which Adam had lost. And without the crib we could not have had the cross.
Christ had to be born that He might die. In fact, He is the only man who was born to die. We all die, but we are born for life. Christ was born into this world so that He might die for us. Our salvation is not an automatic process.
If we are to benefit from the salvation which Christ won for us, we must live in such a way that we are worthy of it. And that is the significance of the life of Christ between the crib and the Cross. It was not sufficient to open for us the gates of Heaven. He had to show us the way to get there. He did that by living life according to the values of God. In his life, we can find every value.
Perhaps, this Christmas, we might dwell on one in particular, his detachment from things of this world. St. Paul tells us that, whilst He was rich before, He became poor for our sakes.
Christ could have come into the world as a rich man, a man of power and worldly influence, but He didn’t. Surely, there is a lesson for us in this. Western society has become so materially minded that men measure success in terms of the making of money. And yet, when God came down into this world to show us what He considered a perfect and successful life, He came as a relatively poor man, who had the necessities of life, but none of the extras to which modern man pays so much court. He was born in a stable; He worked at a trade; He died almost naked on a cross, and he said, “I have given you an example that as I have done so also you should do.”
The silent babe in the manger has so much to say to us if only we will listen!
First published inThe Interim December 1988.