The mystery of Christmas confronts a sceptical world

The mystery of Christmas confronts a sceptical world

Fr Robert J. Batule

It is hard to argue against technological advancement when a certain surgical procedure can add fifteen years to the life of a loved one. It is hard to argue against the information age when a computer allows you to download data from a library in Vienna on to your own PC in a matter of several minutes. But there is a down-side to technological advancement and the information age. Technological advancement and the information age have weakened our capacity to wonder.

The philosopher Sam Keen has written that wonder is the basis for all philosophy. In order to get at the meaning of life, he writes, you must wonder. What the philosophers call wondering about the curiosities of life, Christians call beholding the mysteries of life. Along with the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, Christians most wonder about the Incarnation. How is it that a divine person took on human flesh and became like us in all things but sin? No level of technological proficiency or information retrieval can answer this question satisfactorily.

We call Christmas a mystery because the birth of Jesus the Christ is unlike any other birth. Jesus was born to a married woman who never at any time had sexual relations with her husband. The Holy Spirit had come upon Mary and overshadowed her (Luke 1:35), thereby conceiving the Child. Without the seed of man, the Child grew in his mother's womb until such time that a son was born (Matt. 1:25).

I must confess that it is getting harder and harder in our culture to find the image of the Madonna and Child. Some devout Christians who send Christmas cards still use this image but advertisers and merchandisers do not. Advertisers and merchandisers do not use the image of the Madonna and Child because it does not sell. Mystery does not sell.

Mystery does not sell but neither can we rid ourselves of it completely. The greatest unsolved mysteries are not the content of a television show but the largely silent witness of those who love unto death.

When Christ was born in Bethlehem, very few were in attendance. The Madonna was there of course and so was Joseph her just, industrious and chaste spouse. The shepherds were there too (Luke 2:16-17). But apart from these, only the angels witnessed this mysterious occurrence (Luke 2:15).

When Christ died on Calvary, very few were in attendance again. According to the evangelist, the mother of Jesus, along with her sister and two other Marys assembled at the foot of the Cross along with the Beloved Apostle John (John 19:25). Before drawing his last breath, Jesus entrusted the care of his mother to a new son, a son born of apostolic love (John 19:27).

As the Christ Child lay in the manger (Luke 2:8), his tender flesh pressed against wood. More than thirty years later, the flesh of the God-Man pressed against the wood of the Cross. The Incarnation was an embrace of pain and suffering as well as delight and joy. The Incarnation is a divine commitment to love unto death.

We are children of the manger and the Cross. We bubble with excitement over sacramental marriages and sacramental ordinations. But as memories of the ceremonies begin to fade, we do not set down our crosses but take them up and follow in the footsteps of the Master (Mark 8:34). In doing so, we do not so much as save our lives but lose them (Mark 8:35).

Now here is something that definitely will not sell: losing your life. Not even the philosophers can accept this. How can you find the meaning of life if you lose your life? It makes no sense.

Pope John Paul II calls losing your life the law of the gift. In other words, you never discover the true meaning of your life until you lose it in commitment. Christ is committed to us in the Incarnation and the Cross. Both mysteries are grounded in love. Although not the only commitments to Christ, sacramental marriage and sacramental ordination are public expressions of a mysterious love unto death. In marriage, the flesh of husband and wife are joined together to project into the world the imago Dei, the image of God. In ordination, a mere man is given the awesome power to call down the flesh of the Son of God on an altar.

In his book The Rumor of Angels, Peter Berger writes that we have signals of transcendence in our midst. The angels no doubt testified to the presence of the Divine on earth two thousand years ago. Today, angels continue this great work but we cannot see them. We can see, however, those committed human beings who love unto death. They are the signals of transcendence who remind a sceptical world that Christmas is first, last and always a mystery.

In the Liturgy of Good Friday, the priest holds aloft a crucifix and says or sings: "This is the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world." The congregation then responds: "Come, let us worship." If we can give thanks for a flesh that is destroyed, then surely we can give thanks for a flesh that is brand new. In the Eucharist, immolated flesh becomes life-giving flesh. The Incarnation of Jesus made him subject to death. But God has conquered death through the Resurrection. The love we celebrate on Christmas Day is not just a love unto death but a love through death and unto everlasting life.

Reprinted from the monthly 'Homiletic and Pastoral Review', subscriptions to which are available through Ignatius Press, PO Box 1165, Kenmore 4069, Qld, tel +61 (07) 3375 9146, for A$50.00, credit card accepted. Fr Batule is a New York priest.

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