The mystery of Christmas


The accounts of the birth of Christ are inexhaustible. All through our life, our faith finds resources in them for nourishing itself and converting itself to become more and more a faith in the God of the Gospel. There, Christians find their God and discover themselves, and the truth of their own heart.

Christmas introduces us to the paradoxes with which the Gospel is strewn from beginning to end: the infinite God is there in a little child; the Almighty God is present in the weakness of a new-born infant; the Word becomes crying. Has it been emphasised enough how much these accounts are in profound coherence with the rest of the life of Jesus? Mistakenly, some people set them aside, as if they were the residue of a form of religion still too affiliated to the fabulous. Are we embarrassed by the appearance of a star? We have to look at the point to which it is leading us: to a naked infant in a crib. Above all let us see what these accounts are celebrating: God who expresses himself not through force or violence, but through a being who is helpless, and totally surrendered.

At Christmas, let us also have the courage to listen to the word of Jesus: “Whoever sees me sees the Father” (John 14.9). As a result, the fear of God, fear which insinuates itself so easily, no longer has grounds for existing. Saint Peter Chrysologus writes that God became a child so that we might cease to be afraid of him.

Many contemporaries of Saint John, both Jews and Greeks, could have written, “In the beginning was the Word…” Only John, the Christian, who had touched with his hands the Word of Life, can write, “The Word became flesh”. By “flesh” we are to understand weakness, finiteness, mortal created ness. Here is the scandal of the Christian faith. A scandal that is not restricted to Christ’s birth, nor even to his earthly existence, but continues in his way of being present today. From this, Saint Augustine draws a whole understanding of the sacraments.

The Word took flesh, became flesh (John 1.14). And so God is linked to a process of becoming. He is not the unchangeable one that the philosophers imagine. His transcendence does not consist in remaining aloof, far from human beings. The transcendence of the God of the Bible is to penetrate human history and to bring newness to it. Where everything was old, worn out, apparently exhausted, with no future, the Word brings freshness, newness, zest for Life or quite simply what Christians call forgiveness. For if John writes, “The Word became flesh” with the connotations of weakness and finiteness that we have pointed out, he does not say, “we have seen his misery”, but “we have seen his glory”. An intense beauty, which John calls “glory”, shines forth from the incarnate Christ. In his manner of living in the midst of our world, in accepting human limitations, in a total surrender into the hands of his Father, in receiving his existence day by day, glory shines forth. The face of God reveals itself.

Matthew does not tell us anything very different when he gives us the long genealogy of Jesus. The reader concludes that the history into which Jesus enters is complex and far from perfect. Who is this God who does not fear getting involved in the history of human beings, with its density and even its darkness? He is the God of the Nativity, of the Cross, of the Resurrection, but also of the sacraments. Through the Eucharist, he even mingles with our body, as Saint Gregory of Nyssa dares to say.

It was to take time for Christians to draw the full conclusions of this way of taking history seriously. It is not even sure that the process is complete.

Why are we touched by the accounts of the Nativity? When we read them something resonates inside us, like an appeal to let go of our shell, and to get rid of our armour and our self-sufficiency. Our hearts are made for trusting. Charles de Foucauld expresses this in his memorable prayer, “My Father, I surrender myself to you… for it is a necessity of love for me to give myself, to place myself without reserve into your hands, with an infinite trust, for you are my Father.”

Very often, the heart only opens up in the presence of someone humbler than ourself. Let us not forget: it is the Wholly Other that is present in the crib. But that child prevents us thinking of transcendence as distance or as a threat. Open to his presence, we shall not lose our liberty. We shall be led to make of our lives a “creation with”. Yes, Emmanuel is there, in that child: “God-with-us”.

Last updated: 9 December 2005