Seeing Things: The Christmas Vessel

No one knows the date of Christ’s birth, neither the year nor the day. For most of human history, people have not been as careful about time as we are—even when it involved the most influential man who ever lived. But whoever decided during the long years of the Church’s persecution by the Roman Empire to celebrate Christmas on December 25 was a liturgical and spiritual genius.

You can read in slightly anti-Christian histories that the date was chosen because it corresponded with ancient pagan festivals. This is both true and unimportant. What is crucial is that from the earliest days, this celebration conveyed to the people, as mere teaching could not, a basic truth about God who became Man.

It matters a great deal whether we think of the Lord of the universe as coming in splendor on a sunny summer day, or in quiet and humility at the coldest, darkest time of the year. One floats over the world in power, the other is willing to enter the most remote, least-inviting crevices of Creation so as to bring every last particle back home.

Cardinal Newman wrote a remarkable passage about these events:

O Wondrous mystery, early manifested, that even in birth He refused the world’s welcome! He grew up as the carpenter’s son, without education…. He was brought up in a town of low repute, so that even the better sort doubted whether good could come out of it. No, He would not be indebted to this world for comfort, aid, or credit…. He came to it as a benefactor, not as a guest; not to borrow from it, but to impart to it.

We rarely appreciate just what a benefaction this was and is, especially now when people think they already know the whole Christian story and can find nothing of interest in it any longer. The Israelites, of course, had long awaited the Messiah. But what about the rest of the world? It, too, hungered for what it knew not. In the Phaedo, Plato, one of three or four universal philosophical geniuses in the history of the world, has Socrates anticipate the case for faith and reason about the future life:

Precise knowledge on that subject is impossible or extremely difficult in our present life, but…it surely shows a very poor spirit not to examine thoroughly what is said about it, and to desist before one is exhausted by an all-round investigation. One should achieve one of these things: learn the truth about these things or find it for oneself, or, if that is impossible, adopt the best and the most irrefutable of men’s theories, and, borne upon this, sail through the dangers of life as upon a raft, unless someone should make that journey safer and less risky upon a firmer vessel of some divine doctrine.

When we remember the great Greeks, we hardly think of them as regarding themselves, even at their best, as holding on to a precarious life raft. For a long time, they were thought of as some sort of youthful lightness and exuberance playing over the abyss of time.

Socrates’s words remind us just what a “firmer vessel of divine doctrine” hit the ancient world with Christ’s coming. That a poor carpenter without education would give birth to a movement that would outlive Rome and several other civilizations would have seemed all but mad to intelligent people before that first Christmas. In retrospect, it seems even madder that people now think of it as something of almost no contemporary importance.

For the contemporary Christian, there is a further dimension to this wonder. We not only remember Christ and the great Hebrew and Christian saints at Christmastime. We are in communion with them. Communion means something quite different than recognizing an ancestor or sharing values with a person from the past. Communion means that those of us alive today are, in a way obscure to us now but certain nonetheless, in living contact with everyone who has gone before us in the Faith. That communion is probably closer than the relationship we have with those around us, even if it seems improbable. Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Augustine, Aquinas, and Teresa of Avila are sources we can call on at any moment of our lives anywhere in the world.

And the closest of all, Christ, the God made Man, is near to us always but especially in this season. We go to see the crèches to remember the scene of that colossal birth. But just as the Lord’s Body was given to us at the Last Supper, and is really present among us at Mass as on that night, so the birth of the Savior is really happening in our Christian communion in this season, powerful and real, more than we can realize. Rejoice! And Merry Christmas.

Robert Royal

By

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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