On Christmas Day

The carol goes: “We saw three ships come sailing in, come sailing in, on Christmas Day in the Morning.” When my brother and family lived in Aptos, California, after Midnight Mass, later the morning opening of presents and breakfast, we would often head down to the near-by beach for a Christmas walk. Many others had the same idea. The children were younger then. You could still say “Merry Christmas” to the passers-by without fear of violating some unknown federal law.

Down the beach, you could see Santa Cruz with its wharf and boardwalk, while across the water was the outline of the Monterey Peninsula. Whether I ever saw three ships come sailing into the nearby Capitola Wharf, I doubt, but usually smaller craft were on the water in the bright sunshine, so antithetical to a white Christmas from my Iowa boyhood.

Last Christmas I spent with my sister and family in Chesapeake, Virginia. During the Christmas season, we had an enormous snowfall that blocked most activities for several days. It was in fact quite beautiful. In addition to the mild or snowy days of Christmas, Australian friends tell me that it is mid-summer there. One can wonder how cold it was in Bethlehem when Christ was born. I doubt if weather was a factor in the events of that great day; yet it was an element that makes our Christmas days and their memories more vivid.

Of late, I have been struck by the amount of teaching found in the words of the Mass. On Christmas Day, the Missal gives three Prefaces for Christmas. A Preface directs our minds to the fact that Christ, true God, true Man, is present at the Consecration.

The second Preface of Christmas begins, like all Prefaces, by addressing the Father. We recognize that He is all-powerful, ever-living. We place ourselves before Him. What is our reaction? The only one it can be. We give thanks. What have we that we have not received? We can only do this “through Christ our Lord.” If we did not have Christ, we would never think that giving thanks was ether possible or fitting. Christ gives us title to recognize that the world itself and all of us in it are gifts. We are not products of chance or our own manufacture.

       The Mystical Nativity by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1500

We next tell the Father that He fills us with joy. We see in Him the very love of God. Christmas joy is always special. It is the joy of unexpectedness, of a gift that we could never imagine, but one that we would always hope for if we could know it. “No eye can see His glory as our God.” We know that hundreds and thousands of people in His time saw the Man Christ and did not see Him as God. But He is clearly “one of us.”

Who is this Christ born among us Christmas Day? We can now identify Him. He is the Son of the Father. And He was His Son ante tempora genitus, “begotten before all ages.” That is to say, this Christ first belonged to God. If He is sent to dwell amongst us, He becomes man. But He does not cease to be the Word of the Father within the Trinitarian life of the Godhead.

Thus, He coepit in tempore, “began in time.” Time is that thing that we know what it is if we are not asked to define it, as Augustine said. The Gospels are pretty clear on this fact that He began in the time we know. They mention Caesar Augustus, governors of provinces, and Jewish leaders. We are not dealing with myth here. Benedict makes this clear in Jesus of Nazareth.

But why did the Father send His Son into the world? He sent Him to complete something that was intended in the beginning. What was intended from the beginning? That all of our kind be able, if they chose, to participate in the inner life of the Trinity. This is something beyond the powers of our nature. The Fall interfered.

The historical record of our need for salvation followed. We needed a redeemer who was to “lift all things to Himself.” His coming we call the Incarnation; His birth we call His Nativity. He came to call us back to His “celestial Kingdom.”

How are we to respond? In this event, we are with omnibus Angelis, all the Angels there on the Holy Night. We can only respond and praise, jucunda celebratione clamantes, that is, crying out with joyful celebration. We realize that this central event in the divine plan has occurred. The history of the world that goes on into our days remains part of the same plan. Many do not know of it. Others refuse to know of it. But we know and are glad.


James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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