The sequence – Trinity, Logos, creation, the Fall, the promise, the chosen people, prophecies, Immaculate Conception, Annunciation, Word made flesh, and Nativity – explains to us what happened on Christmas. It was not an isolated event, even though it happened in an unimportant place, in an obscure corner of the world. It fit into a plan whose outlines are clear to us. On the night before Christmas when, as the song goes, “all through the house not a creature was stirring,” it is well for us to consider this “plan,” as Paul often called it.
For the Eve of Christmas, the Second Reading in the Breviary is a sermon of St. Augustine. It begins: “Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man. . . .You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time.” Augustine assumes that we are not paying attention to what is important to us. Thus, he shouts: “Awake!” And who is to wake up? “Mankind,” all of us, each of us.
What happened that we slumbered and did not notice? “God became man.” Why ever did He do this? We are astonished both that He could do it and also that He did it. But this is what happened. Where? We are told “in history.” We know the place, Bethlehem. We know the time, when Caesar Augustus was the Roman Emperor. He sent out an edict. It brought an unusual couple from Israel’s House of David back to its origin.
While there, in Bethlehem, the mother, Mary, gave birth to a boy, whom she was to name Emmanuel, “God with us.” Why would God need to be “with us” in this way? Evidently, mankind had a problem. Without this birth “in time,” mankind, left to itself, would “have suffered eternal death.” Such a fate is not a happy prospect.
Why was mankind subject to “eternal death?” The “plan” comes in here. Most of our kind, throughout recorded time, recognizes that something disordered hovers about our lot. We are tempted to think we can deal with it by ourselves. The evidence is that, so far, we are in much the same condition as any other generation from the beginning. The fact is that we cannot deal with this issue by ourselves.
The Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerrit van Honthorst, 1622
To resolve this problem, “God became man.” “Awake!” Couldn’t He have figured out a more simple way? Well, that is what He did. He dealt with it directly by becoming man. God’s inner life is Trinitarian. The Second Person, the Logos, the Person who reflects the full being of the Father, became man. After He was born, the parents took the Child to the Temple. There they met an old man who had been promised that he would not die until he had seen the “salvation” of Israel. When he saw the Child, he knew that he was seeing the Lord. Simeon told the mother, however, that into her heart a sorrow would come. She pondered these words.
But this Child is now born “in time.” At the moment of His birth things seem to stir. Shepherds in the fields are awake. They come to see. The news of this birth is not reported in the morning papers in Jerusalem, Athens, or Rome. But the news has come down to us on good authority. The witnesses and those who heard of it reported what they saw. Something in the world had changed. What was it?
Within the confines of the world there was no longer just the world. The world now contained on the human side a newborn who was also the Logos made flesh. He “dwelt amongst us.” This coming was not only to repair the disorders of our souls, but to bring us to the purpose for which we were created in the first place. We exist for no merely human purpose, even when we exist as human beings.
“Awake!” Augustine asks: “For what greater grace could God have made to dawn upon us than to make his only son become the son of man, so that a son of man might in his turn become son of God?” Obviously, no greater grace can be found. That is the plan. What it hinges upon is our awakeness. We can reject the plan as silly or as beneath our dignity. The Nativity of the Son of God dwelling amongst us does not coerce us. It only offers us a gift, a gift that explains what we are, why we feel as we do.
Augustine’s last words are these: “Ask if this (plan) were merited; ask for its reason, for its justification, and see whether you will find any other answer but sheer grace.” In the stillness of the Eve of Christmas, these are the only words we hear. It is all grace, all gift to us.