During the Season of Advent, one often hears in Church circles and even in the popular media the plea, or something similar to it, “Let’s keep the Christ in Christmas.” But before we can take that plea seriously (as we ought to), we have to first understand what it means to keep Christ in Christianity.
In the first chapter of his Gospel, St. John eloquently provides an account of the divine paternity of Jesus of Nazareth, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1:14-NRSV). On the other hand, both the Gospels of St. Matthew (1:1-17) and St. Luke (3:23-38) offer accounts of Jesus’ human genealogies, revealing that He is, like each of us, connected to generations of predecessors, flesh and blood human beings, without whom he would lose his earthly identity. For in order for Jesus to be the Son of David, he has to be the Son of Mary. And in order to be the Second Adam, he has to share Adam’s nature, and hence, he is one of us, “yet without sin.” (Heb. 4:15).
What we often miss about the miracle of the Incarnation is that for God to become a human being, to take on a human nature, requires more than clothing the Divine in a human appearance. When we confess that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (I John 4:2), we are affirming that the Son of God, as fully human, is a descendant of particular and irreplaceable ancestors, including parents and grandparents. This tells us as much about us as it does about him.
When, for instance, the Scriptures tell us to “Honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12), its author knows that to be fully human is to have paternity and maternity. The Scriptures, in several places, compares the relationship between Christ and his Church to a groom and his bride (John 3:29; II Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:31-32; Rev. 21:9). In one place, St. Paul commands, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Eph. 5:21).
The Incarnation with Six Saints by Fra Bartolomeo (1515)
When one receives the Sacrament of Baptism, one is incorporated into the family of God as an adopted child of the Father so that one may, by God’s grace, “be conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29). As the Catechism puts it: “Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” (Emphasis added).
Contrary to the usual way of viewing this – that in some Freudian or other sense we are turning ordinary human relationships into religious myths – the story of Christ’s birth exalts human relationships and reveals their depths. Virtually everything we know about the Incarnation as well as Christ’s relationship to His Church depends on what it means to be a human being in community. But as we have seen over the past couple of decades, there are cultural forces – some of which now dominate the leadership positions even in certain ecclesial communions – that seek to unravel and eventually eliminate those understandings on which the meaning of Christ and His Church depend. For these forces maintain that ideas such as mother, father, bride, and groom, are cultural constructs – which is to say mere fictions – that have no referent in reality.
We see the argument around us daily: that for this reason, a more just society should seek to liberate itself from the capricious and oppressive constraints that Christian faith and morals set on personal fulfillment. But to seek this end for one’s society, as if it were a good to which we should strive, is to deny what the Scriptures and the Church claim are essential to being human, to being “in the flesh.” This, according to St. John, is the spirit of anti-Christ, since they cannot confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (I John 4:1-3), for they deny what is essential to being “in the flesh.”
When we displace or weaken the ties of kinship, and the institutions that preserve and protect them, we diminish what it means for the Word to become flesh and live among us. So, if we want to keep Christ in Christmas, we should first try to keep Christ in Christianity.