This was given at Saint Mary, Mother of God, Washington, D.C.
Over the past four weeks of Advent, the Church has meditated on the coming of her Messiah. Tonight, in the beauty and majesty of her sacred liturgy, she celebrates that coming in the birth of Our Lord in the Bethlehem stable, and seeks to do him homage by her worship and praise and adoration. We, who have longed for the coming of the Christ child, receive now our reward in the babe in the manger. God is made Man to redeem us and bring us back to himself. Our Advent prayer – Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! – is answered; God has taken on our flesh and nature, and come amongst us. He who is above all things has condescended to our lowly state to save us from ourselves and bring us back to the fullness of our human nature: eternal life in him.
Throughout our Advent pilgrimage we were accompanied by the message of the prophets. The coming of the Messiah was proclaimed by them, for us to hear afresh, in order that we might better prepare for this very moment. Isaiah spoke to us of a shoot arising from the stock of Jesse (Is. 11). Zechariah, of the holy king who brings salvation (Zech 9). Saint John the Baptist, alerting us at once to both the imminent arrival of the Messiah, and to real conversion in our lives (Mk 1).
After all this preparation, we must now ask ourselves some searching questions. Are we ready for what this night brings? Are we ready for the birth of Christ, not simply in some lofty abstract way, but in our hearts? Are we ready for him to make his home in our lives, not as a lodger or guest, but as the master of the house; the King of kings and the Lord of lords? Have we truly heard the message of the prophets and prepared ourselves to receive the one who, even as a helpless infant, desires to save us from death itself?
These are serious questions. As we now enter into this magnum mysterium – the great mystery of the Lord’s incarnation – we are challenged to acknowledge that mystery not simply by our words, but by our actions. We are challenged to acknowledge that this babe whom we greet is none other than God himself – the incarnate Word – and, by so doing, recognizing that nothing in our lives can ever truly be the same again.
It is tempting in this day and age to set aside such an inconvenient truth. Surrounded as we are by myriad philosophies and lifestyles, offering endless choices, all to be held equal, it is a radical choice to accept this baby as God and his teaching as divine. Nevertheless, it is a choice that is fundamental to the authentic Christian life. Too often we hear the Christian religion spoken of as if it were a constitution to be afforded a somewhat greater degree of flexibility than the law of the land. By reducing Christ and his teaching in this way, we deny the very point of Christmas and undermine the incarnation. The Church calls us here not simply to keep the birthday of a great man, but of God. Christians come here to celebrate the enfleshment of God in the person of Jesus Christ: perfectus Deus, perfectus homo – perfect God, perfect man; two natures in one person. As our Holy Father said last week, ‘God has willed to share our human condition to the point of making himself one of us in the person of Jesus, who is true man and true God’ (18 December 2013). Thus, we are gathered to profess our faith in the divinity of Christ, who has humbled himself to share in our humanity. Our choice is black and white; we cannot truly rejoice at Christmas unless we accept Christ for who he really is.
Who, then, does he claim to be? In the first chapter of the gospel of Saint John we read, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (Jn 1). We rehearse these lines at the end of Mass, as Cardinal Wuerl has reminded us, so that we might conclude with a new beginning. That new beginning is God’s affirmation of the divine nature of Christ. The Word (λόγος) who is from the beginning, takes on our flesh (σὰρξ). Before anything was made, in other words, God existed. In the book of Exodus, the voice of the burning bush declares to Moses, ‘I am that I am’ (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה; Ex. 3: 12). Christ, in his own words, claims this title for himself. ‘Before Abraham was’, he says, ‘I am’ (Jn 8: 58). ‘I am the bread of life’, he tells us, ‘the living water’, ‘the light of the world’, ‘the good shepherd’. Christ uniquely proclaims himself as God, and so we cannot accept the authority of any of his teachings without acknowledging his extraordinary claim.
In the old testament Moses never claimed divinity for himself. In the writings of Islam, Mohammad never made this claim. The Buddha never claims to be God – he simply claims to have found a way. Christ claims this unambiguously. He claims to be God; he tell us that he has not come simply to show us a way, but to be the way, to be the truth, to be the life (Jn 14: 6). If we kneel before the fragile babe in the crib tonight, and if we wish to celebrate Christmas for what it really is, then we must profess this to be true. And if we do, then tonight we must once more turn to him without reserve, giving ourselves over to his firm but gentle rule. We must echo the words of his blessed Mother, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word’ (Lk. 1: 38). In truth, either we are with him, or against him (Mt. 12: 30).
As if to provoke us into a response, the English author C. S. Lewis said, either Jesus of Nazareth is who he claims to be, or he was a lunatic on the level of a man who says he is a poached egg, or – worse – the Devil of Hell. And if that foreign perspective is perhaps a little vulgar, President Reagan put it thus: ‘It is impossible for me to believe that a liar or charlatan could have had the effect on mankind that he has had for 2000 years’. Aut Deus, aut malus homo – this babe, lying before us, is either God or a bad man, and this night we are called to decide – each one of us – which we believe him to be.
This is our decision, this is our choice. We cannot sit on the fence, or adopt a nonchalant attitude – what Father Robert Barron calls the ‘meh’ approach. We have to decide if we believe this night to be the moment upon which all of human history is hinged, or if it is an elaborate plot that has misled billions of people for thousands of years. The stark reality is that either the whole of western civilization – our treasures of art, culture, education, the family – are founded on this astounding and life-giving truth, or they are founded on a lie.
Of course, our presence here is indicative of our reply. We have come to pay the Christ child the homage and honour which is his due, because we believe, with Saint Peter, that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Mt. 16: 16). We have come to kneel before the babe in the manger, and to humble ourselves before him in the Eucharistic food by which he feeds us with himself, hidden under the forms of bread and wine. Still, we are right to ask: how does this change us? How does this mould, and shape, and guide us, as we are sent forth once more into a world so desperately in need of the perfect gift that we have found?
These questions cannot be simply boxed away with the decorations in the attic for another year. If we truly believe that this is God whom we come to worship and adore, small and fragile in a stable stall, we can do none other than accept him as the one – and only one – who will bring us the fullness of life, and of joy, and of peace. We can do nothing, but open our hearts and make room for him, and begin to live more faithfully his will for our lives. Let us pray that this may be true of us, once more, this night – for our own sake, and so that others may come and do him homage (Mt. 2). And let us come before our Lord and God in this awesome and admirable sacrament, and by imitating the humility of his own birth, bear witness to this eternal truth: ‘that God was Man in Palestine, and lives today in bread and wine’ (Betjeman, ‘Christmas’).