Christmas, when the Virgin-Mother gives birth to the God-Man, is a feast of paradoxes. One beautiful paradox at the center of this celebration is the union of proportion and extravagance, of what is needed and what is undeserved. The birth of Christ is both proportioned to our need and extravagant in its offering.
The Incarnation is a great example of that scholastic maxim, Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver. (Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur.) By becoming incarnate of the Virgin Mary, the Son of God proportions himself to our “mode” so that we can receive him. In his mercy, he doesn’t demand that we become capable of him but makes himself capable of being received by us. True mercy always has this quality of being fitted, tailor-made for those in need, neither too high for them to reach nor too hard for them to accept.
So God comes to us in a manner we can receive. The infinite becomes finite, the eternal enters time, and the Creator of all is born of the Virgin and laid in the manger. We can receive him because he has become accessible to all of us, and to every kind of us, from the lowly shepherds to the learned Magi. We can receive mercy more easily because – without losing any of its power – it has been scaled to our size.
And not only to our size. God’s mercy is also fitted to our wounded human nature. He is born poor to meet us – we who have squandered our gifts and lost our inheritance. He is born homeless for us, who live in this world as exiles. He is born exposed to the elements and even to his enemies to encounter us, who are so weak and in danger. He is born alienated from his own people – who “received him not,” (Jn 1:11) – to be one with us, who are alienated from God and from one another.
He unites himself to us in these sorrows because mercy does not stand far off and look patronizingly on the suffering. The Lord of mercy draws near, unites himself with us, and becomes one with us in our misery. The poverty of his birth already points to Jesus as the man of sorrows, the one united with humanity’s every kind of suffering – mental, emotional, physical, spiritual.
But the simplicity and ease with which we can now approach God doesn’t mean that his mercy is indulgent and permissive. On the contrary, like all newborn children, he calls out and asks something from us. The infant Christ cries out to us, asking that we receive him and respond. Yet even this inconvenience is proportioned to our needs, for it keeps us from the vice of taking his mercy for granted.
God does not impose His mercy. But he does call out to us, offering that mercy to all who desire to receive and to live according to it. And the response that he desires makes his mercy all the more ours. Indeed, it becomes all the more a part of us when we respond to his offer, when we avail ourselves of what he gives, when we hasten to Bethlehem.
At the same time, even as God’s mercy is proportioned to our needs as wounded, rebellious creatures, it’s also extravagant in what it accomplishes. “From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace.” (Jn 1:16) God’s mercy is proportioned to what we are but seeks to make us more than we are. “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” (St. Athanasius)
Unlike our stingy, confined mercy (I’ll forgive when I’m asked. . .I’ll forgive you this time. . .), the Lord’s mercy always runs ahead of and surpasses what his people ask and desire. Israel waited for God to send a savior; God himself came to be their savior. They awaited deliverance from worldly powers; he delivered them from all powers, natural and supernatural. They expected their own savior; he came to save all, even his enemies. They prayed that the Kingdom of Israel be restored; he led them into the Kingdom of God.
This extravagance is already revealed at His birth. The shepherds – the dregs of society as they were thought of at the time, living in the fields – receive the first announcement and are privileged to adore Him first. It is far more than they deserve or imagine. Likewise, the Magi, foreigners and outsiders with no claim on the promises, receive the grace to adore him even before his own people know he is born.
This Bethlehem extravagance sets the tone for our Lord’s public life. He begins his ministry by changing not just a little water into wine, but over a hundred gallons. And not just into wine, but into the finest wine. He concludes by opening his side and allowing blood and water to gush forth. His definitive parable is of a son whose prodigal living is outdone only by his father’s prodigal mercy.
The infant Christ cries out for a response. In his littleness and poverty, he has proportioned himself to us, fallen creatures. May we not deny him access to our weakness and wounds. In his divinity, he has come to give us grace in place of grace. May we not expect or ask for anything less. Let us hasten to Bethlehem, to thank him for coming to us in our need and to receive the richness of grace he desires to impart.
*Image: Adoration of the Shepherds  by Bernardo Strozzi, ca. 1615 [Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland]. Strozzi (1581-1644) was known as il Cappuccino because he’s was a Franciscan Capuchin friar. The shepherds adoring the Christ Child was a favorite theme of St. Francis.
You may also enjoy:
Msgr. Robert J. Batule’s Mary, Motherhood, and World History 
Stephen P. White’s Making Room at the Inn