Sense and Nonsense: The Dawning of the Grace of God

Readings at Mass are designed for our instruction, for our salvation, for our minds, that we may know the truth. The Second Reading for the Midnight Mass of Christmas is taken from St. Paul’s Epistle to Titus. We go along in our ways. Suddenly we read or hear something at Midnight Mass where we never expected to be this year. We are struck by such words for they say something to us that we had not considered before. “For the grace of God has dawned upon the world with healing for all mankind.” We know in the quiet of the Mass that such words are meant for us. We know that something must dawn in our souls, that we need healing. We would like to do it all by ourselves. Except for our choice of them, nothing in the highest things is from ourselves, though these highest things are meant for us.

Yet something about Christmas distinguishes humanity into members of the City of God and the City of Man, as St. Augustine would have it. Only at Christmas do Christians themselves hint more openly to their cautious friends that joy does have a cause that does not originate in ourselves. Christmas is such a happy, warm time. It is, as Chesterton said, the time for our families, for the ceremonies of the Nativity of Our Lord.

Last Christmas, when I was rather sidelined with my eye operations, I did not travel home to California to be with my mother, with my brothers, sisters, and their families, as is my usual happy wont. The dear family that invited me to spend Christmas morning with them did not rush opening their presents. Everyone had to be ready.

Nothing worthwhile is not waited for. Gifts must be surprises, especially the ultimate gift of one another, of God Himself. The Incarnation happened only in the fullness of time. To know what we have, we need to realize what we do not have. We live in time for this reason, I think.

Yves Simon wrote:

The only thing that human love cannot do is to create out of nothing the goodness, the desirability of its object. Divine love alone causes the beloved to be good, independently of any goodness antecedent to love. In order to be an object for the love of a creature, a thing must already be good.

The very character of what is good is that we do not make it to be good. It is already good. This is our freedom. What is not ourselves, even God, can come crashing into our world, unanticipated. The real drama of our lives is whether we can recognize the good when we see it in those about us, even in a manger. Christmas, I thought last year, is the celebration of what is already good, of what we did not make but what is there in grace. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” How surprised we are that something can.

Josef Pieper remarked to the same effect:

One of the fundamental human experiences is the realization that the truly great and uplifting things in life come about perhaps not without our own efforts but nevertheless not through those efforts. Rather, we will obtain them only if we can accept them as free gifts.

The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, His birth in Bethlehem in Judea, is rooted in this sort of understanding. Some things, the most precious ones, we will not know unless we receive them as free gifts. The Incarnation is one of these gifts. How we receive it decides to what City we shall ultimately belong. Human life was created that it might have the possibility to choose what is good and to recognize it as it is.

“One optimism says that this is the best of all possible worlds. The other says that it is certainly not the best of all possible worlds, but it is the best of all possible things that a world should be possible,” Chesterton wrote in his book G.F. Watts. A world is possible so that we might be possible. And we are possible in order that our love of God and one another might be possible. God did not need to create us. Yet here we are about the Christmas tree, waiting for the first present to be opened. The first present is exactly a presence. The Child is born unto us.

St. Paul continued to the same Titus: by the grace of God “we are disciplined to renounce godless ways and worldly desires, and to live a life of temperance, honesty, and godliness in the present age, looking forward to the happy fulfillment of our hope when the splendour of our great God and Saviour Christ Jesus will appear.” Such are the subversive words in the Christmas Mass. We are practically forbidden to speak above a whisper of them to one another in public. It is most difficult to live them, as we are soberly told to do even at Midnight Mass on Christmas. We are reluctant to admit that this “splendour of our great God and Saviour has appeared” and has dwelt amongst us. We cannot believe that our happiness is not of our own making. Yet we suspect that what we are promised is infinitely greater than what is only ours. We are tempted in our pride to resent this fact—that we are given more not only than we deserve but than we can conceive. But how is it that what we want already exists in the hour a day we set aside? How is it that we discover what is given to us in the most obscure of places like Bethlehem? We did not cause the strange fact that what we want already exists. We did not even imagine it. We need to be told about the cause, to be told that our imaginations, delightful as they are, are not so magical as to conceive by themselves what we are given.

Christ Jesus “it is Who sacrificed Himself for us, to set us free from all wickedness and to make us a pure people marked out for His own, eager to do good.” So concludes the passage at Midnight Mass on Christmas. Someone sacrificed Himself for us. We are free from all wickedness. We are marked out for God’s own. We become eager to do good. Grace upon grace. Are we reluctant to know the only thing really worth knowing? Had we been shepherds on that great Night, would we have gone along to Bethlehem to see the Child? Are we indeed dependent on Someone who “sacrificed Himself for us?”

Only when all is ready on Christmas can we open our gifts, surprised that we have gifts, surprised that we are at all, that we are where we are, that what we want ultimately in fact exists. “It is the best of all possible things that a world should be possible.” What is is possible. Indeed, “the grace of God has dawned upon the world with healing for all mankind.”


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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