The aroma was transporting: the familiar smell brought me back to childhood, to being in the kitchen with my mom, as her banana cake baked in the oven, promising sweet and banana-ish goodness. To this day, the aroma of a well-made banana cake (and, you’ll allow me to aver, my mother’s was the best) brings a flood of memories and associations, sometimes so strongly that I could almost be present again with my mom in that kitchen. We have all had the experience of remembering something so vividly that it seems we are transported to that very moment or place or circumstance. We are almost there again, so powerful are the associations of that sound, smell, or sight. And with those memories come emotions of anticipation, longing, fulfillment and satisfaction.
A few years ago, in this very space, I wrote about the way in which the Christmas liturgies took us through the anticipation of the birth of the Savior to its fulfillment in salvation history. All of the Church’s liturgies in some way do this: we are presented with God’s promise of salvation, and are made participants in its realization for us today. Or, we remember what God has done in the past, and in the mystery of the liturgy we are made present to that reality in our here and now. This process is what the Church calls anamnesis, which is the Greek word for “recollection” or “remembering.” In the liturgy we engage in a holy remembering, but because of our membership in Christ, our liturgical remembering actually moves beyond mere mental recollection to the manifestation of the reality of Christ’s saving act.
The power of the liturgy to so transport us from promise to fulfillment, from memory of the past to the manifestation of eternal realities, comes from the power of Christ, who is the founder and principal actor of the liturgy. Christ, of course, is God-become-man, and in him the eternity of Deity and the temporality of humanity come together. The great twentieth-century liturgical theologian Odo Casel called Christ, in this fusion of eternal and temporal, the “crossing-point”: In Christ, through his humanity, we are able to cross over from our own “now” into the reality of God’s eternal Now. And we will do so not only at the end of our earthly life, but we are able to do so even now, in this life, in the mystery of the liturgy through the God-become-man. As members of Christ, we live both in our own age and place, and in the infinity of eternity.
This is why the Incarnation is such a big deal. This is why the reality of Christ’s divinity and humanity are so critical. Is Christ divine or human? He is both human and divine. Do we live now in 2016 or in connection with eternity? No, we live both in 2016 and in connection with eternity. Is the liturgy either our act of sharing our collective story or is it the action of Christ himself? It is both our act and the action of Christ. Any answer to these kinds of questions which seeks to reduce them to one or the other is likely to be an incorrect one, and will almost certainly not be a Catholic answer. Indeed, this Catholic affinity for the both/and has sparked frustration in more than one thinker. The Protestant theologian Karl Barth once castigated this tendency of Catholic thought, lamenting Die schrecklichen katholischen “und” (“the terrible Catholic ‘and’”).
But the truth of the Incarnation necessitates this insistence on the both/and. While it may stretch our minds to attempt to hold these ideas together, did we really expect the entrance of the all-powerful, all-holy, and ever-living God into time and space to be easy to understand? Reality, as the scientists will tell us, is complicated. So too with the ultimate Reality, God himself, and his saving will and work. But the complexity of ultimate Reality is in a way overshadowed by another aspect, that is, its splendor and majesty.
The celebration of the Incarnation at Christmas is another one of these Catholic juxtapositions of the both/and: On the one hand, we have an obscure woman giving birth in humble circumstances in an obscure place. Nothing could seem so ordinary. But the angels, the shepherds, and the coming of the wise men tell us something different: this seemingly ordinary event is in fact the most radical, transcendent and glorious thing that God has ever done. The circumstances of the Incarnation are shot through with paradox: In one of the most ordinary things of human existence, God has done the most extraordinary thing of all.
The liturgies of Christmas show us both the ordinariness of the birth of Christ and the glory of the reality hidden within. The Mass of Christmas day begins with the antiphon, “A child is born for us, and a son is given to us.” The statement is almost prosaic: any mother and father throughout history could have and in various ways (albeit without the mannered syntax) have said the same thing. In its natural aspect, the birth of Jesus is like any other. But within that same liturgy we are told that this seemingly ordinary event has revealed the most extraordinary of things: The Communion antiphon tells us “All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” Somehow this birth, in the natural order unknown to all but a few in the locality, makes God’s salvation manifest to “the ends of the earth.”
None of us alive today were present at the manger in Bethlehem. But yet the Communion antiphon for the Mass of Christmas night tells us “The Word became flesh, and we have seen his glory.” (Emphasis mine.) How have we seen his glory? Through the liturgy. In the sacred remembering, the anamnesis of the liturgy, Christ takes us up, over the crossing-point of the Incarnation, through the mystery of worship, and makes us present to the glory of that night in Bethlehem. This manifestation of God’s salvation was foretold and underscored the previous night. The communion antiphon for the Christmas Vigil Mass says, “The glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see the salvation of God.” Such is the power of God, and the liturgy of the Church, that through it he reveals his salvation not only to those present, but to the whole human race (“all flesh”).
The saving birth of Christ reveals the glory of God, for through him the long darkness of the night of sin has been broken. The Mass at Dawn of Christmas begins with the antiphon. “Today a light will shine upon us, for the Lord is born for us.” The light of Christ reveals splendor ever ancient, ever new. Christ is the Incarnation of the eternal pre-existent Word of God, and in the eternal Now of the Trinity this splendor and glory has always been and will always be. We hear this in the Communion antiphon for the Mass of Christmas night, which proclaims, “In the splendor of the holy ones, from the womb, before the daystar I have begotten you.” Christ transcends time. Through him and by participation in the mystery of the liturgy, we are made present to the eternal splendor and glory of redemption. Indeed, even now, those with the eyes of faith can see that all things are already being remade in Christ, and his glory is already filling all creation.
The splendor of the incarnate Christ, the splendor of the human race and indeed of all creation remade in him, is the cause of our joy and celebration on Christmas day. The glory of God brought into the world through the Christ child now becomes our glory, a glory we shall possess in full, and a glory that we already begin to possess even now. What we have long anticipated is now manifest, and we are made present through Christ to the heavenly realities we remember in the liturgy. Through the most ordinary of things, the Word Incarnate makes us partakers of the most extraordinary and glorious thing of all. Thus does the Church sing, in the Offertory antiphon of the Mass of Christmas night, “Let the heavens rejoice and the earth exult before the face of the Lord, for he is coming.”
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Adoration of the Shepherds,” was painted by Sebastiano Conca in 1720.