In the readings from Paul during Christmas season, we do not find vivid scenes of a crib, donkeys, and shepherds. We do not hear angels singing on high, or see the Holy Family, the inn, or Magi pulling up their camels. Paul wasn’t around Bethlehem at the time. What we do hear is his explanation of what Christmas is ultimately about. Since it has been largely abolished from our public order, “What is Christmas?” needs frequent articulation.
At one time, I thought that the neglect of Christmas was due to lethargy. I no longer think so. In many ways that we do not admit even to ourselves, Christmas is hated and plotted against for what it technically is. We need to be frank about this.
In the depths of the Godhead, however, Christmas is intended for everyone. Its truth is that the Second Person of the Trinity was made flesh. He did dwell amongst us. Once this has happened, the world is different. The world must accept or reject its relation to this event.
I have always liked the sentimental songs and lyrics of Christmas – “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” “White Christmas,” and “Having a Blue, Blue Christmas without You.” I can even tolerate “Rudolf” and “Jingle Bells,” but not the “Sleigh Bells Jingling” song. Even though crib scenes are now private, Christmas trees still retain some more than secular meaning. Yet, in the CVS store down on Wisconsin Avenue the other day, I found for sale not a single Christmas card depicting the real Christmas – only Santas, fir trees, snow, ribbons, and birdies in various poses.
My favorite text from the Christmas Masses, which explains what it is about, is that Second Reading from the Midnight Mass, from Paul’s second chapter of Titus.
The text begins: “God’s grace has been revealed.” What startling words! Obviously, what is “revealed” refers to the Birth of Christ, not to some abstraction. What we see is not “grace,” but the Child in the manger. This “grace” that we now behold was not “revealed” before this moment. Something new has happened in our world.
What has this “grace” done? It made “salvation possible for the whole human race.” The event is not just for members of the family of Mary and Joseph, or even for Israel itself. How is it that we can say of this Child, as of no other child, that, because of Him, “salvation” for each of us, each human being, is now “possible?”
We are next taught something more sober. We are to “give up everything that does not lead to God.” Is there anything that does not “lead to God?” In principle, no. But we are to give up our ambitious “worldly” use of things that lead only to ourselves.
“We must be self-restrained and live good and religious lives here in this present world.” Evidently, this living good lives is up to us. Even with grace, restraining ourselves, leading good lives is necessary.
So even with the coming of Christ, we are still waiting. For what? “We are waiting in hope for the blessings which will come with the Appearance for the glory of our great God and Savior Christ Jesus.”
This is the same Child of Jesus and Mary born in Bethlehem. He was to be called “Emmanuel,” that is, God with us. He was God with us.
Obviously, Paul is looking here not at the Nativity but at the result of Christ’s whole life. What did Christ do? “He sacrificed Himself for us in order to set us free from all wickedness.” We see paintings of Mary’s Child gazing at a wooden Cross. Mary was warned about something that would pierce her heart.
Christ intended to “purify a people so that it could be His very own and would have no ambitions except to do good.”
What is Christmas? In Luke’s Gospel, it says: “Today in the City of David is born to you a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” Here we see the word Savior, the word that Paul later was to use. What is it we are to be saved from? For what? Is it all right if we choose not to know this salvation? Is it all right if our polity seeks to eliminate this good news? Is it all right if we do not teach what happened here?
In a reflection on the long genealogies of Christ’s birth in Matthew and Luke, Benedict noted that these lists of ancestors indicate to us that the event of Christ’s birth had been long in preparation. What was “new” in Bethlehem had been planned from the foundations of the world. It is intended for “all mankind.” Rejoice and be glad. “Be not afraid,” the shepherds are told. “Grace is revealed.”