What Christmas Means: The Truth Is in the Flesh

In some Catholic parishes today, the Nicene Creed is not said. Uninspired liturgical planners simply decided that the Profession of Faith is an excessively long and boring prayer, with too many strange and technical words. It would be better to replace that with a hymn that makes us feel good. But when the Nicene Creed is proclaimed not just with dogged determination, but with wonder and faith, it speaks to us with moving clarity the meaning—the joy—of the Incarnation of God.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

one in being with the Father.

Through Him all things were made.

For us men and for our salvation He came down from heaven.

By the power of the Holy Spirit

He was born of the Virgin Mary and became man.

As the new Catechism of the Catholic Church explores the meaning of this profession of faith, it helps us to renew the gladness of this faith, and to appreciate how much light it casts on our lives and on our Christian hopes. The new Catechism explains our faith in the Incarnation with the courage, and grace, and joyfulness with which so blessed and saving a mystery should be explored.

Of course it teaches that Jesus is the true Son of God, very different from other sons of God. It proclaims that this true and only Son has the very nature of His Father: He is what the Father is. It insists that this only Son of God gladly took upon Himself our human nature, and so Himself tasted human poverty and sorrows, so that He might save us and fill us with the riches of His divine life.

And, as every good catechism should, it presents the faith in the most precious words faith knows. It speaks the faith in the familiar and mighty words of Scripture; it speaks the faith in the vigorous language of the Fathers and the Councils of the Church; it speaks the faith in the words of Christian prayer and worship. That is, it speaks with fire, and joy, and beauty, as well as with great precision, the mystery of Jesus. It is entirely unambiguous. It is not embarrassed to present the Incarnation of our God as both utterly astonishing and wonderfully, literally true.

Everyone used to be able to tell the story of Christmas. Very ordinary people could tell this story well even to little children and, in telling the simple story of Jesus’ birth, to speak also the very core of their own faith.

The Son of God—that is, His true and only Son—was conceived in the Virgin Mary’s womb and was born for us, a tiny child. He, our Lord, our Savior, and our God, was wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger. He is a true Son of the Father; He is what the Father is: eternal and all-powerful. He created the earth, and all things, and provides food for all. Yet now He needs to be fed at His mother’s breast. The hands of Him Who made all things are too small to grasp the huge heads of the animals at the stable. He has become very small, that we might not fear to come to Him, Who was born for us, to save us from sin and from every sorrow.

In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton recalls how skeptical critics like to point out to believers how odd it is to say that a new-born baby was the eternal God, or that He had made the sun and all the stars. Christians, however, had clearly noticed the wonderful strangeness of the Incarnation long before the critics. They found it not a little odd, but overwhelmingly so, and altogether wonderful. As Chesterton noted, “We hardly needed a higher critic to draw our attention to something a little odd about [the very thing we] have repeated, reiterated, underlined, emphasized, exulted in, sung, shouted, roared, not to say howled in a hundred thousand hymns, carols, rhymes, rituals, pictures, poems and popular sermons.”

The Fathers of the Church in their Christmas sermons made clear that faith in the Incarnation can be spoken with a happy preciseness, and that it is important that we believe precisely what God is telling us in the Incarnation. There could be no Christian faith or life without confession that the Son of God, Who is eternally God with the Father, has truly become our brother. But the Fathers also celebrate the wonder of this truth. They want to be sure that their faithful realize how good and saving is the astonishing story they are invited to believe with all their hearts.

“Creator of heaven and earth, He was born on earth under heaven. Unspeakably wise, He is wisely speechless; filling the world, He lies in a manger; Ruler of the stars, He nurses at His mother’s bosom,” writes Saint Augustine. “Man’s Maker was made man, that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breasts; that the Bread might be hungry, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired from the journey; that the Truth might be accused by false witnesses, the Judge of the living and the dead be judged by a mortal judge, Justice be sentenced by the unjust, . . . that Life might die. He was made man to suffer these and similar undeserved things for us.”

Learning the Truth

Faith in the Incarnation speaks such large ideas that both stagger and delight the mind, and it speaks so great a mercy and kindness that it is hardly possible to teach it as if it were some everyday fact.

Both children and adults need to learn faith not only in true and precise formulations, but also in words that capture the imagination and memory, and enable us to feel and taste how precious is the good news of God’s becoming our brother. Unless the beauty and wonder and goodness of faith is celebrated, we are inclined to lose interest in the precision of doctrine.

I often speak to classes of grade-school children about Who Jesus is. The children are always charming, and a source of great hope, for they seem very prepared to learn much about Jesus. But their personal possession of Who Jesus is, and even more of the delight of knowing Him, seems much too faint. They know, and they do not know, what we long for them to know.

We would expect children more to feel the wonder and gladness of the story of Jesus than to be prepared to deal with it in the sober and precise language of creeds. But too often it seems to be otherwise. With a bit of probing, one could elicit from children the right words about Jesus. They do know, in a way, Who Jesus is, but they do not seem to realize very well what the words they speak mean, nor do many of them seem to grasp the gladness of finding Jesus.

I feel twinges of worry for them. They do not have the right words and the right feelings ready at hand, even in matters we hope children would know. Jesus, for many of them, is not a friend Who had been firmly seized as a treasure in their hearts, a secret happiness of hopes come true. He was not a near friend of whom they could speak in simple and obvious ways because he was theirs, and their hearts had learned him.

Our talk about Jesus usually goes something like this:

“Who was Jesus?” Now that is a fearfully abstract question, almost like “Who discovered what?” Such a question drives the boys and girls to look in any direction but in that of the one who asked the question. Clearly they are not much schooled in storing in memory the best things we could ever know.

“Was Jesus once a real baby, like other babies you have seen?” Now this is a much more manageable question. And I always receive the right answer. “Yes!”

“Was Jesus the Lord?”

“Yes!” One girl says this eagerly, but the other children are ready to echo her. This is language they know. Of course Jesus is Lord.

“Was Jesus really our God? Did he really make the sun and all the stars?” This is puzzling and seems like a trap. But some of the words hit home. A little boy says proudly, “Jesus was God.” One has the idea that he remembers this, but is more than a bit unsure of what it means. But even the others can come along. Assured that Jesus was God, they do not seem to feel uncomfortable. People have not been indoctrinating them in Arianism. Still, much of the comfortable gladness of the Christmas story is not there.

“When Jesus got cold, was it really God Who was cold? When Jesus was poor in the manger, had the God Who made everything actually become poor? If you had seen Jesus in the manger, would you have been looking at the face of God? Was Mary really God’s mother? Would Jesus in the manger have known you, if you had come with the shepherds to see him?”

All these questions, asked in the language of Christmas carols and Christmas stories, seem more puzzling than they should be. But the children know I am asking them not just about poems and stories, but about whether certain astonishing things (that they indeed know of, in a way) were really true.

Some children, of course, have learned Jesus well. One could almost see that some have talked to Jesus from the time they were very small.

If you would tell the children that they should learn to speak to Jesus when they are standing by his Christmas crib, and suggest to them things to say, some of them clearly feel comfortable about talking to the Savior in words like these: “You are mine. You are my Brother and my God. You are very small and dear, and not someone to be afraid of. But I do know how great you are. And I see how poor you are. I see you in the cold night, and I know you are cold and poor. But I also know you are the one who has mercy on all who are cold and poor, and are able to save us all.”

One hopes they have often spoken to Him as “You,” and so know His secret. After all, the saints and the Fathers and Doctors of faith always insist that all hearts, even little ones, are made to hunger for that You, and that even young hearts reach out longingly to Jesus when people who know Jesus, and love Him, lead them along the way.

One hopes they have spoken to that wonderful You often enough to sense some of the great truths that the Christmas carols and poems always speak, even to children. One hopes that the Jesus Who did understand so well what childhood is, has made them too understand Who He is. “I know You. You are . . .” and the words can drift into a happy silence, when what we know is too large for any words that we are comfortable with, and too dear for us to struggle with words.

One hopes that they know why He was there, and that they could be helped to think the thoughts that plant enduring faith even in the smallest hearts. “You came down from heaven, into this cold night, from a heavenly home that can be dreamed of best when one is warm under a large blanket.”

No one should think that small children do not have large worries and large hopes, that they do not need a mighty Savior Who understands how profound can be the anxieties of even a little child. The mystery of Jesus has immense depths. It is large enough for children’s great hearts.

Children who are told the Christmas story by people of living faith can see in the manger that Jesus had come down to a place he loved, but also into trouble. He came down to the warm love of Mary, and to the uncaring innkeeper. He was perfect safety, Who had stepped into the tide of our years, and then ran into frightening people like Herod. He Himself came down even into our nightmares, but protectively, so that our frightening dreams might not be so fearful any more, since he had come into them, and he was peace. “You!” You are here in this strange and frightening place the world is; when I talk with you, there is safety that we may cling to always.

Learning Jesus with the Whole Heart

I believe that the catechesis most children have had on the Incarnation, on how the Son of God became their brother, has been too abstract and subtle. These children have been taught the astonishing news of Jesus truthfully, but not very realistically. They know it is right to say that He is our Savior and our God, but they have not been helped to realize, in the ways most helpful to children, why this is such glorious good news. The story that is glad beyond all hopes, and changes everything in the world, was taught as one of many things you have to learn. Few seem to realize how important Jesus is, and how wonderful it is to know Him.

Little children, and their parents, and grandparents, and their pastors, often do not come to the strong faith in Jesus that their hearts long for.

One reason why the faith of ordinary Catholics does not spring up with vigorous gladness lies in the scandal of unbelief among precisely those who should be sources of strength for us. In our time, scholars who are given leisure to study Christ faithfully and teach Him to the faithful too often neither study nor teach Him in the full light of faith. Even in the study of the most central teachings of faith, they are too much guided by ideologies not compatible with Christian conviction.

The Church has indeed warned us of this loss of faith in Christ among too many. In 1972 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a “Declaration for the Protection of Faith in the Mysteries of the Incarnation and the Most Holy Trinity.” Protection is needed because too many reformulate even the central teachings on Christ in ways that constitute in fact a rejection of the mystery of Christ. Faith suffers when important scholars, who present themselves as learned believers, speak of Jesus falsely. They harm the innocent when they say that Jesus is not literally “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” but a human person, whose knowledge was so conditioned by the culture of His time that He is not a secure guide even to Who He is Himself.

Of course it is true that creative theology can be both difficult and necessary. Especially in the face of boredom and unbelief, imaginative efforts are needed to make the message of faith more attractive to new times. But the long Spirit-guided tradition of the Church, a treasure of defined teaching, and a teaching office with authority, all give help that should enable scholars who reverence what faith teaches about Christ to avoid some of the drastic errors in Christology that are being taught again today.

Dissent in theology has mounted to rejection of the most central mysteries and to a refusal to believe them in the saving sense with which the Scriptures and Fathers and saints always taught them. Strange Christs are proposed in many college religion courses. Students, who in many years of religious education had never learned very well just Who Jesus is, are pressed to believe instead in a Jesus reshaped by ideological concerns. The Jesus taught so often by alienated scholars is a Jesus Whom they use to manipulate students into sharing their dreams of extreme forms of liberation or feminist theologies. They urge students to accept sad forms of ecumenical theology that warn us against “arrogantly” judging that Christ our God is a religious figure more important than the religious leaders of other world religions.

The Chill of Unbelief

The Church is deeply hurt when Catholic scholars seek to persuade the faithful not to believe her saving faith about Jesus. One can rightly call the rejections (or incredible misreadings) of solemnly defined Catholic teachings on the Incarnation “heresies” without calling their authors formal heretics, or judging their hearts in ways we cannot justly judge. But since had theology filters down quickly, we can and should be indignant at positions like those defended so boldly today. Roger Haight, S.J., for instance, a prominent and popular American theologian, provides a sad example of this in a recent issue of Theological Studies (“The Case for Spirit Christology, TS 53 [1992] 257-87).

Haight tells us that Jesus was not the eternal Son of God and did not exist before His human nature was conceived in Mary’s womb, that Jesus is in fact but a human person. One must conclude from Haight’s Christology that the manger is not the place where the very God of all, who made and keeps in being all things, became very poor and small, because He loved us. Jesus was just a very noble somebody else, to whom God gave the job of somewhat saving us, rather than the God for whose love and nearness my heart longs.

What child, if he had heard of the true Jesus, would dance for joy to be told that Jesus really is no more than this? Catholic pastoral leaders should be concerned that so prestigious a Catholic journal should publish without comment an article that so bluntly contradicts central Catholic teachings on Christ. (Happily, Theological Studies did publish, several months later, a severe critique of this article by John H. Wright, S.J.)

“The quest of truth would be conducted less zealously,” Saint Augustine remarks in a Christmas sermon, if it were not for the heretics. What the heretics say is so threatening that it stirs even our complacency and drives us to guard more carefully the faith.

Scripture, Saint Augustine notes, says, “there must also be heresies” (I Corinthians 11:19). They stir up the faithful when they deeply need to be stirred up, for however they may have yielded to some drifting from the full joy of faith, they surely do not want to lose utterly that which is the food of their hearts and what they at least partly know to be the saving of their lives. And the unrest of the faithful in the face of heresy arouses also the leaders in the faith. Ordinary faintness of faith may not stir the leaders of faith to action, but when the very core of all our faith is assailed, the danger cannot be unnoticed. Then they see: something must be done!

Of course, neither Paul nor Augustine was suggesting that heresy is a good thing. But they were urging that the excessive fear that attacks on faith stimulate needs to be tempered by remembrance of God’s saving Providence. He is able to make even attacks of faith indirectly serve the resurgence of faith.

Though we do need more vigorous action, the intemperate attacks on faith from so many directions have begun to stir the family of faith toward more serious stewardship of faith. The indispensable new Catechism would hardly have come into being if irresponsible theologians had not made it necessary.

Still, the harm done by these bad Christologies is immense. Like the classical heresies about Christ, which robbed those who accepted them of the joy faith offers, heterodox Christologies today are incoherent and undermine our hopes.

They have “cheap advantages.” Christ Himself is a strong and saving Lord. But one who believes and knows that Jesus is our God, the Teacher of saving and liberating truth, is required (not by a stern law, but by the love God pours into the heart) to believe His word and to live in His ways. Many have chosen instead to share the kinds of liberty the world offers, rather than to enjoy the deeper freedom Christ brings. To replace the Jesus of faith with a less inconvenient Jesus does permit one to be at peace with the ideologies of the world and to live in the world in far less demanding ways. But it robs us of the good things that led the Fathers and saints to rejoice in Christ.

Only Orthodox Faith Is Joyful

It is precisely because Jesus is our God and has become man for us that He is mighty and merciful enough to obtain for us the good things for the sake of which the Son of God became our brother. The Catechism of the Catholic Church spells out well these blessings in its treatment of the reasons why the Son of God became man (456-60).

He came to save me. God Himself became a little baby, a growing child, a young man; He suffered every manner of poverty and pain, and He died upon the cross—for me! And it is because He is my God that His salvation is so complete. Heterodox Christologies seem always to forget how great a salvation the human spirit needs. It is not enough to have a Christology that can prop up a weary Marxist liberation theology, or reassure the radical feminist theorist that she has a right to recast all the teachings of faith in conceptual frameworks that further feminist concerns. We need indeed to be saved from the humiliations of grinding poverty and unjust powers of this world. But we need to be saved from even more than that.

We need to be saved from our own sins, and from all the pain and heartache and danger that penetrates the world because of sin. The more one has realized compassionately the bruising force of evil on the human spirit, the more one realizes how truly the Gospel insists that our only Savior is the eternal Son of God Who loves us with all the love of God.

How much I am loved! God Himself became man, and He Himself suffered for us, so that we could see and feel how much we are loved. In his novel The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton tells of a violent revolutionary who was bitterly angry at God. When God’s saving mercy reached out in mercy he was unwilling even to be saved by God. The angry man cries out that God dwells comfortably in heaven, while we suffer bitterly on earth. God leads us through paths in which we bear bitter suffering, but He never suffered. But God pleads with the man to understand how much He has indeed suffered: “Can you drink from the cup of which I have drunk?”

When we see that it was the very Son of God, truly God, Who suffered the most bitter things willingly for us, we are allowed to see the immensity of God’s love and compassion.

The cry that He Who is my God “loved me and delivered himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20) is a cry of immense joy. To change that to, “God chose to have some holy human person suffer for me” is not an improvement. What makes the Incarnation so great a joy is that through it God found a way in which He Himself could save us with infinite mercy. To Saint Augustine, to Saint Francis, and to all the saints whose personal love for Christ was so unspeakably deep, the motive for their love was the Lord’s own heroic love. “He died for me.”

He gives us divine life. God’s becoming man was that great exchange: He became human and suffered for us, and through this act of love, he made us divine. Through this humiliation of the Son of God we are lifted up, made sharers of the divine nature, able even now to share His divine life by faith, hope, and love. The dignity of human nature shines twice in the Incarnation. It was our human nature that Jesus united personally to Himself, so that God Himself lived and saved us in our own human nature. And because of what the Son of God experienced and did in our human nature, every man and woman is able to live a divine life, to be a friend of God, and come to see God in the infinite gladness of eternal life.

Jesus Is Everything

Faith in Jesus is everything for Catholic faith. The mystery of Jesus is all that we believe (cf. I Corinthians 2:2). And He is the reason why we believe. He is the fullness of revelation: all the truths of faith are of interest to us, and have saving power for us, only because they make Jesus known to us as the eternal Son, Who became man to save us. The creed, the moral teachings of the Church, the sacraments, all lose their authentic force and flavor for one who has not learned to believe that this Jesus is God of all.

What would the Eucharist, and all the sacraments, mean to me if it were not for the Lord of all, Christ my God, who touches and changes my life in them? How could I take the moral demands of faith with utter seriousness, unless He Who calls me to such absolute duties were not the God Who alone could love me with so personal and absolute a love, even to death for me? How could I believe the astonishing creed, if I had not found the Lord, and believed Him Who is my God?

Jesus is the reason why we believe. To be sure, He leads people toward faith by many paths. But no reasons, signs, or arguments generate faith. Faith is a personal gift, not a course in theology. It is a gift God gives to our restless and intelligent minds, but it is a gift that gives light more persuasive and healing than any arguments, though all good arguments serve it. Many are the splendid reasons the saints have given us for coming to faith in Christ! But they always knew that faith is a gift that changes everything, and transforms all our reasons.

When pursuit of faith becomes faith, God transforms the water of reasoning and reflection into the wine of faith. He enables us to recognize our Teacher for Who He really is. “It is the Lord!” the heart cries out, when the light of faith illumines for the heart how all the converging signs guiding us to faith manifest Him Whom alone we believe in saving faith.

With Saint Peter, we believe the puzzling mysteries of the faith not because we are so wonderfully wise, or because we have created better doctrines to believe than those the Gospel, Fathers, and Councils have given us. No, we believe because Christ has found us, and we have found Him, and, knowing at last that He is our God, and infinitely worthy of all our confidence, we place our hope and our lives entirely into His hands. (Cf. Vatican Council II, Decree on Divine Revelation, 5.) We believe the wonderful, astonishing things You have said “because we have come to believe and to know that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). How could we not believe you? Somehow, in the midst of reasons and hopes and trials and hungers and crosses we have found you, and a light better than every other light has made us recognize you.

Around Saint Peter cluster all the Fathers and Saints and Doctors of the Church. Saint Thomas Aquinas salutes the primacy of personal belief in the Son of God at the heart of all faith: “I believe whatever the Son of God has said.” He is in good company. The wisest theologians and the grand ordinary believers believe the same things: the things the Lord has taught us, and chiefly the things the Lord has taught us about Himself. And they all believe for the same reason: “For it is you who told me so, you who have made me know that you are Lord of all.”

With these great minds and hearts are the little children, happy about the crib of Bethlehem, believing with all their hearts, because He has told them, too, that He is their God.

By

Father Ronald D. Lawler, O.F.M. Cap., was one of America’s leading theologians, as well as a teacher and a prolific writer. He died in 2003.

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