As the whole earth lies in the biting darkness of this winter’s night, Christians come from the comfort of their homes and the warmth of their beds to pay homage to a baby, whom we believe has come to save us from sin and death. The harsh air and piercing black sky await us beyond the walls of this church; yet here we are, as a family huddled beside the fireplace for warmth and for light, together and one in our conviction that Almighty God has ‘enlightened this most sacred night by the brightness of him who is the true light’, and fulfilled in this holy child the promises of prophecies spoken to man since first we could hear and receive them.
Truly this night is ‘a return to our origins’. Here we are reminded of the very essence of our human nature; the inalienable dignity of every human person which the Church professes, from the moment of conception to natural death, is a result of the event we celebrate in the incarnation, the taking-on of our human nature by Christ, the second person of the Most Blessed Trinity. At every Mass we are reminded of this as the wine and water are mixed together in a single chalice: ‘O God, who didst wondrously create, and yet more wondrously renew the dignity of man’s nature: grant that by the mystery of this water and wine we may be made partakers of his divinity, as he vouchsafed to become partaker of our humanity’. By this sacred action we ponder anew the magnificence of God’s condescension: ‘Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men’ (Phil. 2: 6-7).
And if this night is a return to the dignity of our origins, then it must also serve as a reminder of our fault. It would be folly to stand in awe of the gift of the Christ child without knowing the gift’s worth. As we ponder the peace and serenity of that cradle of redeeming love, and rightly marvel at the glory of what God has done for us, so too we acknowledge that it is as a result of our disobedience toward him—of our sin—that God chose to ‘debase himself’; to take on our lowly state in the person of Christ, in order to bring us back to him and to the dignity of life he desired for us from the beginning. Our sin, which ‘jarred against nature’s chime’, has distorted the perfect harmony between God and man and created a dissonance which, this night, begins its perfect resolution in this infant babe.
As we resemble a family around the hearth, seeking the warmth and light of Christ’s abiding presence in this frigid night; so we cannot fail to see in ourselves the resemblance we share with our first parents, Adam and Eve, by whom we first lost the gift of eternal life. The book of Genesis describes how, through disobedience, our race was expelled from the paradise of Eden’s garden; how, despite the privilege of abiding in the presence of God, still yet we chose our desire over his (Gen. 3). Our shame at this is great; we are still scarred by its hideous effects in our concupiscence, our inclination toward sin; yet this loss of innocence and burden of guilt is removed for us this night by the one who comes to bring us back to the garden paradise we forfeited so long ago (cf. Heb. 12: 24). In Christ, whose humble form is enthroned before us, we find the salvation and restoration of our human nature; the call to return to all that God intends us to be in paradise, our rightful home. Tonight, the treachery of our sin becomes the felix culpa, the happy fault of our salvation, our redemption and restoration in Christ.
Something of a comparison exists, of course, between what we might term that ‘family of sin’ of Adam and Eve, whose selfish actions brought about man’s fall, and the Holy Family of Christ, Our Lady, and Saint Joseph, whose selflessness restores us to a right relationship with our heavenly Father. Where Eve brought about death by her disobedience—eating of the tree of which she was commanded, ‘do not eat’—so Our Lady brings about life by her obedience: fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum (Lc. 1: 38). Where Adam followed his spouse into the path of sin, so the virtuous Saint Joseph accepted his betrothed and responded with holy courage to the summons of the angel of the Lord (Mt. 1: 20-21; 2: 13, 19-20). The Holy Family of Nazareth is, we can say, the antithesis of the family of Adam and Eve, for it is by their fidelity to Almighty God that the scourge of sin is cast aside, the sickness of sin is healed, and the knots of our disobedience are loosed, in the person of Christ. As Saint Paul writes, ‘For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead’ (I Cor. 15:21).
Surely, though, we know this! Surely we are here this night because we know that the infant in the Bethlehem stable is our salvation; because we have come to know the poison and pointlessness of sin, and committed ourselves to its rejection; committed ourselves to the divine life given us in the cleansing waters of the font. What, then, might we learn from our observance of this great and wonderful feast this year; this feast which, despite their protestation and resistance, still causes the shepherds and magi of our own time to stop and stare in amazement and in awe?
I would like to suggest that it is this: just as it is by a family whose essence is disobedience to God, that man lost the gift of eternal life, so it is by a family whose essence is complete obedience to him, that paradise is once more opened before us. The Holy Family of Nazareth—Our Lady and Saint Joseph huddled around the infant Christ—is presented for us tonight, in a very particular way, as a school of the Christian life and, most specifically, the Christian family. It is given to us as the preeminent place ‘where one learns to listen, meditate on and penetrate the profound meaning of the manifestation of the Son of God’. The beauty of family life shown to us in the Holy Family is not simply an exterior reality, not just a form or structure or unit, but a spiritual reality, leading us by the example of this relationship to the perfection of the relationship of God himself in the persons of the Most Holy Trinity. It is in the example of the Holy Family that we ‘understand the necessity of having a spiritual discipline’, and it is by their example that we learn how to imitate more closely the life of the Triune God, and so prepare to enter the paradise restored to us by their fidelity.
The gospel reading we have heard proclaimed this night affirms this truth. As a family the Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph travelled to Bethlehem; as a family they sought a place for the birth of Christ; as a family they remained for the world—the shepherds and wise men; even the ox and the ass—to come and pay homage to the newborn king; as a family they escaped the onslaught of Herod’s purge. And throughout the life of Christ, from his presentation to his finding in the temple, from the wedding feast at Cana to the foot of the very cross itself, the Holy Family was united in seeking to follow the will of the Father, above the will of themselves.
In a time when the true nature of the family is neglected, even ridiculed—confined to a bygone era as irrelevant or insensitive; reduced to an exterior edifice void of that deeper sense and reality—this message is as radical tonight as ever. Christian families who come here this Christmas to kneel before the crib and adore the Lord of Lords and King of Kings, who come to pay homage to the Word made flesh not simply in concept but in the very presence of God in the Eucharistic gift of his own body and blood; Christian families who come here to seek and find the Lord so that they may worship the one who comes to give us life—these families imitate the beauty of the Holy Family, and thus the life of God himself in the perfection of the Most Holy Trinity, and continue to teach the whole Christian Church, and indeed the whole world, about the essence of our true ‘origins’, of who we are and who we are called, in God, to be.
The Christ child, though meek and lowly in his appearance in the manger this night, nevertheless calls us all to that life in an unambiguous way. In every family home it is necessary for us to see clearly the strong and courageous faith of Saint Joseph, and the humble and determined faith of Our Lady; it is necessary for us to find an orientation toward Christ and his life, through obedience to God’s will—by building in our homes schools of virtue, and piety, and devotion. Indeed the whole Christian community, parents or not, must support and promote this essential gift, which is not a mere adornment of our human nature, but a part of the revelation of the essence of it. If we kneel at the crib alongside Our Lady and Saint Joseph in adoration of the infant Christ we cannot fail to bend our own hearts before the beauty of the gift of the family which Almighty God has implanted in our very nature! We cannot fail to share this reflection of the life of God himself with our wayward world, and summon all peoples to a greater appreciation of this life-giving way!
In the subtle grandeur of this holy night and throughout this Christmastide, then, may we be drawn to an ever greater love of the infant Christ, who comes to redeem us. May we, like Our Lady and Saint Joseph, remain always close to him by setting aside our own devices and desires and preferring nothing to his perfect and perfecting way. And may we follow and imitate the good example of their intentional obedience and devotion, that by our families and homes we may continue in the saving action of Christ, and be brought—ourselves and others—to the garden of paradise which by him is opened before us anew, that we may rejoice forever in his presence, and enjoy the peace and radiant light which he comes this night to bring.
A very merry and blessed Christmas to all readers…