Shrugging Before the Manger

The problem many of us have with Christmas isn’t that we expect too much of it but that we expect much too little. My Christmas wish for all of us, myself included, is that we raise our sights and ask for all that God really wants to give us. If we can open ourselves to receive that, we may be astonished at what we get.

There’s a hint of it in something written by Father Alfred Delp, S.J., a German priest executed by the Nazis near the end of World War II. Speaking of Christ’s coming, he said:

All these are not merely one-time historical events upon which our salvation rests. They are simultaneously the model figures and events that announce to us the new order of things, of life, of our existence….The world is more than its burden, and life more than the sum of its gray days. The golden threads of the genuine reality are already shining through everywhere…Hope grows through the one who is himself a person of the hope and the promise.

Jesus commonly is said to save us from our sins. That’s surely the heart of it. But besides simply saving from sin, redemption is empowerment. In the Son of Man, the world, including ourselves, is restored, renewed (cf. Eph 1,9-10). In Jesus, we are co-redeemers, participants in building the kingdom of God.

The Second Vatican Council expands on that in an extraordinary passage in Gaudium et Spes (the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). Speaking of God’s entry into history as a man, and recalling the scriptural promise of a “new earth” to come, the council teaches:

Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come….When we have spread on earth the fruits of our nature and our enterprise—human dignity, brotherly communion, and freedom—according to the command of the Lord and in his Spirit, we will find them once again, cleansed this time from the stain of sin, illuminated and transfigured, when Christ presents to his Father an eternal and universal kingdom…. Here on earth the kingdom is mysteriously present. (Gaudium et Spes, 38-39)

Co-redeemers with Christ, Jesus’ collaborators in building God’s kingdom—the kingdom that will last forever—these are the roles Christ’s coming opens up to us. If that sounds grandiose, so be it. In fact, it’s very grand. But for most of us, it’s realized in quite ordinary ways, much as Jesus’ coming took place in the ordinariness of a stable.

St. Josemaria Escriva underlined that in a Christmas homily in 1963:

Can it be said also of you who have been called to be another Christ, that you have come to do and to teach, to do things as a son of God would? Are you attentive to the Father’s will, so as to be able to encourage everyone else to share the good, noble, divine and human values of the redemption? Are you living the life of Christ in your everyday life in the middle of the world?

That is the triumph of Jesus Christ. He has raised us to his level, the level of children of God, by coming down to our level, the level of children of men.

And that is why we ought to put aside the mistake of expecting too little of Christmas.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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