Isa 52:7-10; Hb 1:1-6; Jn 1:1-18
There’s a story told about St. Anthony of Desert, the “Father of Monasticism,” that seems appropriate for Christmas Day. As the story goes, St. Anthony’s reputation for holiness grew to the point that he began to receive letters from famous people asking for spiritual counsel. Even Emperor Constantine and the royal family wrote to him. St. Anthony, however,
made nothing very much of the letters, nor did he rejoice at the messages. But he was the same as he had been before the Emperors wrote to him. But when they brought him the letters he called the monks and said, ‘Do not be astonished if an emperor writes to us, for he is a man; but rather wonder that God wrote the Law for men and has spoken to us through His own Son’ (Life of Anthony, s. 81).
St. Anthony’s nonchalance toward the imperial letters is a bit shocking–all the more shocking, of course, when we think about our own spontaneous reactions toward celebrity. If a major-league player so much as autographs a baseball for us, we encase it in glass and make it a conversation piece; if we receive a letter from the president, we frame it and display it above the mantle (at least if it’s a president we voted for); if we wind up in the waiting room with a Hollywood actress, we post a picture of FB and we relate every word she spoke—often to our friends’ annoyance.
St. Anthony, as we now know, didn’t go in for this sort of thing. But what interests me most is that St. Anthony doesn’t attribute his remarkable indifference to any contempt for Emperors or celebrities as such. No. As he explains it, he remains unimpressed because he has discovered something far more awe-inspiring: the fact “that God has spoken to us through His own Son.”
This, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is the staggering fact of Christmas. This is what Christians have celebrated—have marveled at—for more than 2,000 years. Our Scripture readings savor of the awe that this fact inspires; in them we hear the words of men who have never quite been able to “get over” the fact of Christmas. The Letter to the Hebrews, almost as if unable to contain its excitement, blurts out this fact in its very first verse: “In times past, God spoke in various and partial ways to our ancestors and the through the prophets; in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son …”
But our amazement goes beyond that bare fact that God has spoken to us. It’s also what he spoke. It’s the fact that the Word God addressed to us is the word of salvation and adoption. As the Gospel of John recalls, “To those who did accept him, he gave the power to become children of God.” He came to save.
But there’s more. It’s not only that God spoke. Nor only what God spoke. It’s how God spoke. It’s the fact that the Word himself became a wordless infant, that He was born in poverty, that He became a refugee in Egypt, that he grew up to become a laborer in a backwater town, and that he finally met the cruelty and hatred of men with love and forgiveness.
2,000 years have gone by, and we still haven’t quite gotten “comfortable” this arrangement. Nor should we. The 20th-century novelist and playwright, Dorothy Sayers, expressed this same wonder when insisted that the real drama of Christianity is
not beautiful phrases, not comforting sentiments, not vague aspirations to loving-kindness and moral uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death—but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that one might be glad to believe. (Creed or Chaos).
The fact of Christmas is staggering. Yes. Hard to believe? Perhaps. But if hard to believe, then only because it’s too good to be true.
On the other hand, I know that it takes some effort to maintain this sense of awe and gratitude outside of Christmas morning. The pull of gravity leads us to take the mystery for granted, to grow slack in our religious practice. So if today is your first time to be at Mass in a while, bear with me as I make a brief appeal from the Gospel.
The Gospel of John proclaims: “And the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” The word for “seeing” here (ἐθεασάμεθα), is not used to express intellectual perception—e.g., I “saw” it was a good idea. Scripture always means by this word physical sight. Because the Word became flesh, John the Evangelist could quite literally “see” His glory. The shepherds could touch him. The three Kings could offer him gifts in Bethlehem.
But where do we “see” Christ nowadays? Where do we touch him in his concreteness? The answer of Christians has always been: His body, his Church. For it’s in her concrete teachings that we find a safeguard against all our rationalizations and moral blind-spots—and, if we’re honest, we know we all have them. It’s in confession that we can let him touch us and heal us, just as he reached out to heal when he walked on earth. It’s in the Eucharist that we receive Him, body, blood, and all. The Church wasn’t an afterthought, a “Plan B.” Christ assumed a human body so as to gather us into his mystical body. The Church, no less than the wordless infant, is part of the staggering fact of Christmas.
And on this beautiful Christmas morning, we do well to wonder at both.