The “Place” of Christmas

I once read of a Japanese writer who was annoyed that Christ had not appeared in some inn in the hills of Honshu. The logic of this complaint would mean that, to satisfy everyone’s sense of justice, Christ would have to appear in every place. He could not have been born just once in one place. Put that way, we see a certain logic in His being born in one place and one time. As it turns out, the choice of one place and of one time points to the importance of all places and all times.

On Christmas, we talk of Christ’s actual birth from Mary, His mother. Life, of course, begins at conception, not birth. The Annunciation, accordingly, has always been celebrated on March 25. Christ’s birth is but the carrying forward of a plan that commenced long before even His conception. So when, at Christmas, I speak of its “place,” I mean something closer to the intelligibility of the Christmas event. On the surface, it is intelligible enough as the birth long ago of a human child in a far-off land. But the Christmas hymn is right to ask: “What child is this?”

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (+386) wrote:

We do not preach only one coming of Christ, but a second as well, much more glorious than the first. The first coming was marked by patience; the second will bring the crown of a divine kingdom. In general, what relates to our Lord Jesus Christ has two aspects. There is a birth from God before the ages, and a birth from a virgin at the fullness of time. There is a hidden coming, like that of rain on fleece, and a coming before all eyes, still in the future.

The birth “before all ages” and the birth “in the fullness of time” concern the same Being, as does His “second coming.” An order, a plan is found in these births and comings. The birth of Christ in this world is not simply fortuitous.

Cyril emphasizes that Christ came “in the fullness of time” (Eph., 1:10). Christ is “born of woman,” lest any doubt be had about His humanity. This affirmation that God could become man for many, even up this very day, was and is a stumbling-block, something that supposedly could not happen. Christian theology has long sought to show that, however astonishing, the Incarnation is not contradictory. And if it is not contradictory, it might well happen, granted a reason for it. That reason for God’s becoming man is provided by the “place” of Christmas. Christ is called, “Emmanuel,” God with us.This is what He is named.

Christ has also been called “the humanity of God.” He is “God with a human face.” Nevertheless, what was born of Mary was not a human but a divine Person. His origins are not in her but in the Trinitarian life of the Godhead. This Person did not come to be at the moment of human birth. He existed from eternity. He dwelt “amongst us.” What Mary makes possible is the free acceptance of the divine plan from the human side. God did not become man by “imposing” Himself on mankind. He was, as it were, invited: “Be it done unto me according to thy word,” Mary responds to the Angel.

Modern culture has made great efforts to obfuscate our understanding of Christmas. It has evaporated the heart of the event while pretending to keep its trappings. The White House has decided to call its decorative pines “Holiday” not “Christmas” trees. Why? we might wonder. It is because “Christmas” means something definite. Of course, even the word “holiday” means “holy day.” Still, it is a form of blasphemy to celebrate Christmas when nothing transcendent is acknowledged to celebrate. Christmas still reveals souls, even in high places.

What is important about Christmas is a fact. This fact is that God was born into this world at a certain time and place. The world cannot be what it is without recognizing this fact: that what has origins in eternity, in “the fullness of time,” came to dwell amongst us. We can and are making every effort to eradicate this fact from our perception. But it will not go away. Without Christmas, our world has no meaning but what we give to it. Yet, Christmas remains at the heart of the world, the place where the glory of the Lord dwells.

With that said, a Merry, fact-based, Christmas to one and all!

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017) and The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018).

  • Sarto

    Karl Rahner was right: We live in a diaspora situation, in a secularized society that treats every view as equally credible. No use whining about it. Let’s live a deep faith within our own family and church community. Bear witness. As St. Francis said…sometimes even with words.

  • Michael PS

    John Betjeman (an Anglican) expressed it well:

    And is it true? And is it true,
    This most tremendous tale of all,
    Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
    A Baby in an ox’s stall?
    The Maker of the stars and sea
    Become a Child on earth for me?

    And is it true? For if it is,
    No loving fingers tying strings
    Around those tissued fripperies,
    The sweet and silly Christmas things,
    Bath salts and inexpensive scent
    And hideous tie so kindly meant,
    No love that in a family dwells,
    No carolling in frosty air,
    Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
    Can with this single Truth compare—
    That God was Man in Palestine
    And lives today in Bread and Wine.