Show forth, we pray thee, Lord, thy power and come, and with thy great strength assist us, so that by the aid of thy grace, the work that is hindered by our sins may be hastened by thy merciful forgiveness: who art God, living and reigning with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen. —Opening Prayer for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 1962 Missal
Is there a day of greater expectation for Christians than Christmas Eve? Holy Saturday, perhaps, should be; but while the Resurrection of Christ is a more remarkable act even than the Incarnation of God as Man, the simple fact that the former depends on the latter—God must become Man before He can die and rise again—has ensured that Christmas captures our imagination more fully than Easter. It is not just visions of sugar plums and glorious roast beast that set our hearts afire on this day; it is the recognition—perhaps less conscious than more so—that, in the words of one of my favorite Christmas carols,
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
Even as Christians, we may have reduced the Nativity of Our Lord in practical terms to a holiday of family and friends, of home and hearth and happiness. Yet our souls know more than our minds acknowledge, and on this night of nights they cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus!” That is the cry, too, of the Apostles and Fathers of the Church, of saints and sinners down through the ages, who await His Second Coming with all of the longing of the patriarchs and prophets for His First.
It is the cry of humanity broken by sin, of men and women who too often rebel against the realization that we cannot repair our lives, much less the world, on our own, yet who recognize, deep within their souls, the scars that only Christ can heal. Our pride threatens to stifle that cry, and perhaps for 364 days of the year, it succeeds in doing so. We act as if our salvation lies in our hands, as if we can heal ourselves through our own works. Even our use of the sacraments, of Communion and Confession, may become the spiritual equivalent of a self-help course, and our prayer life can take on the characteristics of a spiritual version of Getting Things Done. We put too much stock in what we do, and thus live in danger of forgetting that nothing we can do will make fruitful souls that have been laid waste by sin.
Yet on this day, and even more so this night, our souls may speak more loudly, if we will let them. They may cry to the Lord Who will greet us in the morning from His humble manger; they may admit that we need the Child Who is also the Man Who died for our sins—not just the sins of Adam and Eve, and the sins of our fellow man, but our sins, that we have committed yesterday and today, and which we will commit tomorrow.
And our souls may allow us, this night, to set aside our spiritual and intellectual pride, and to hear the truth of the prophets, who likened those souls to an arid desert, which no man can make bloom but God can make fruitful. As Pope Francis so beautifully proclaimed in his homily for the Thursday of the Third Week in Advent,
In the Prophets too there is the image of the desert, the desert land that cannot grow a tree, a fruit, to bring forth anything. “But the desert will be like a forest,” the Prophets say, “it will be huge, it will flower.” But can the desert flower? Yes. Can the sterile woman give life? Yes. The promise of the Lord: “I can!” From dryness, from your dryness I can make life, salvation grow.
Christmas, we are often told, is about what we give, not what we receive. But that is a half-truth, at best; and like so many half-truths, it may lead us further astray than a lie. Yes, as Paul told the Church at Ephesus, it is better to give than to receive; but to give as we ought, in the spirit in which we ought, we must first receive, in the spirit in which we should receive.
[I]t is the intervention of God that brings us salvation. It is the intervention of God that helps us along the path of sanctity. Only He can do it. But what are we to do on our part? First, recognize our dryness, our incapacity to give life. Recognize this. Second, ask: “Lord, I want to be fruitful.” I desire that my life should give life, that my faith should be fruitful and go forward and be able to give it to others. Lord, I am sterile, I can’t do it. You can. I am a desert: I can’t do it. You can.
To receive the gift of God, the gift that He gives us starting this night, requires setting our pride aside and acknowledging that we are broken, that we are barren, that on our own we can only bring death rather than life. Our unwillingness to shed that pride, that impulse that subtly insinuates that we can merit Heaven through our own actions, is that new Pelagianism which the Holy Father has so often mentioned, and that so many of us have found so perplexing, because we cannot understand it from the inside. Our pride convinces us that our orthodoxy and orthopraxis are all that we need. Yet by themselves, they are not enough; we must have something more:
Humility is necessary for fruitfulness…. The humility to say to the Lord: “Lord, I am sterile, I am a desert” and to repeat in these days this beautiful antiphon that the Church makes us pray: O Son of David, O Adonai, O Wisdom … O Root of Jesse, O Emmanuel, come and give us life, come and save us, because only You can, by myself I cannot! And with this humility, this humility of the desert, this humility of a sterile soul, receive grace, the grace to flourish, to give fruit, and to give life.
This night, of all nights, our hearts seem ready to hear these words, to admit the longing in our souls for something that we cannot gain for ourselves, but can only accept as a gift. Or rather, the longing for Someone, the only begotten Son of the Father Who wants nothing more than for all of His children to receive the ultimate gift in the spirit in which He gives it: freely, without reservations.
Tomorrow, He comes: the greatest gift of all. Tonight, we watch, we wait, we hope, that when He comes, He—not we—may bear fruit within our souls.
Editor’s note: The image above entitled “The Nativity” was painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio in 1492.