In the crypt of the church of St. Mary Major in Rome, under the high altar, rests a crystal reliquary containing five pieces of sycamore wood, which are believed to be the remains of the crib of the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. The altar in this crypt chapel is privileged; on it any priest may celebrate one of the Masses of Christmas on any day of the year, except Good Friday, the one day on which Mass is never celebrated. I first visited St. Mary Major as a seminarian studying Latin in Rome. I was captivated by the chapel and the relic of the crib, and returned there frequently to pray. During that time I made a promise to God that, if He saw me through to ordination, I would return one day and offer Mass at that altar. God did see me through, and several years after I was ordained I returned to Rome and, on a day in October, celebrated the Mass of the Aurora (the Mass at Dawn of Christmas day) before that relic of our Savior’s birth.
That curious privilege of celebrating Christmas on any day strikes me as an image of the reality in which we live in Christ: In Christ we live in this world, but already belong to eternity. Christ the Infinite Word of God has entered into time, and taken time up into eternity. We are thus no longer strictly bound to time, and it will soon come to pass that we are no longer bound to time at all. That crypt in Rome is a place where it is always Christmas, always the place and moment in which God broke through the veil of the world and irrupted into time, in order to redeem and sanctify all that dwell in time, and even time itself.
God chose to enter his creation himself in order to redeem it, which meant that in some way God had to adapt his infinity to particularity: the particularity of this world, this place, this time. So he was born in a particular place, at a particular time. Thus, by being born in that particular place, Bethlehem, at a particular time, during the fifteenth year of reign of Tiberius Caesar, the incarnate infinity of the infant Jesus lifted up every time into fullness of time, and made every place a place where God meets us.
The liturgies of Christmas reflect this sense of time within timelessness. For example, in the Collect for the Vigil Mass of Christmas, we pray:
O God, who gladden us year by year
as we wait in hope for our redemption,
grant that, just as we joyfully welcome
your Only Begotten Son as our Redeemer,
we may also merit to face him confidently
when he comes again as our Judge.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
In this prayer, though Christ was born some 2,000 years ago, and we who are baptized already belong to Christ, nonetheless we are still waiting “in hope for our redemption.” Though we are joyfully welcoming him as our redeemer, we are yet preparing to confidently face him as our Judge. Those of us who have been participating at Mass for many years tend to let such language come and go without notice. But it really should strike us as quite remarkable. In our liturgical prayer, we jump back and forth between the past and present, and look forward to the future, in a way that could be dizzying if we were flat-footed literalists. In and through the liturgy, we are no longer living in linear, quotidian time. The liturgy is the bridge between our time and eternity, in which we are brought into the events of salvation not as though they were past, but as they are in the divine eternal present. In his 1967 article “Maranatha”, the French liturgical scholar Bernard Botte explained this by saying that the life of the Christian is “suspended” (Fr. suspendu) between the birth of Christ at Bethlehem, and the coming of Christ at the end of time. There is already a timeless quality to Christian existence, and the Christmas liturgies manifest that timelessness by making the mystery of the Incarnation and birth present to us in sacrament.
To belong to Christ, while we are in this world, is to belong to the realm of already/not yet. We are already redeemed in Christ, but our redemption is not yet complete. We have already begun the life of eternity, but we have not yet left behind the limitations of time and space. And so it is with Christmas: We already live out the consequences of the Incarnation, but those consequences have not yet fully been manifested. We are made present to the Divine Infant, his mother, and Joseph at the manger. But we look forward and can prospectively rejoice in the coming of Christ and the consummation of all things at the end of time. For us, the End of Things should bring no surprises; we have already seen the salvation of God, and know what is to come. Because of and within the liturgy, at Christmas we can cry out “Christ is born! Come, Lord Jesus!”
The image above is taken from “Adoration of the Shepherds” painted by Peter Paul Rubens (1608).