Published December 25, 2002
The Catholic Difference
As John Saward reminds us in his new book on Christmas, Cradle of Redeeming Love, a “mystery” of faith is not a “mystery” in Sherlock Holmes’ sense of the term. A Christian “mystery” is not a riddle we need more information to unravel; a Christian “mystery” is something too full of meaning for us to grasp completely. A Christian “mystery” is not a puzzle to be solved intellectually; it’s a truth so overflowing with meaning that it can only be embraced in love. That is especially true of Christmas, for the incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity is a mystery of unbounded love.
What, then, do we learn from the mystery of Christmas, the mystery of Incarnate Love?
The mystery of Christmas teaches us the importance of humbly returning to roots. Christmas, and our Advent preparation for it, compel us to relive the experience of Israel and her prophets, longing for a redeemer. Year after year, the Church asks us to go back to the beginning of the story, to re-experience the longings of Israel and Mary’s joy at Israel’s fulfillment in the birth of her son. The Church has been doing this for almost two millennia; the Church will do this until the Lord returns in glory. The mystery is never exhausted.
The mystery of Christmas reveals the truth of who we are and where our home is. John Saward puts it nicely when he writes that the mystery we contemplate at the manger is nothing less than “the human biography of One of the Trinity.” The creeds of the Church and the Church’s theologians use technical language like “one in Being with the Father” and “hypostatic union” to describe the truth of the incarnate Word, true God and true man. The important thing for every Christian to grasp is that, when we see the face of Christ, we see the truth of our humanity and its destiny, which is eternal life within the light and love of the Holy Trinity. When God gets a human biography, humanity gets a divine destiny. “God…made Himself homeless in Bethlehem so that men might find their home in Him in heaven.”
In the mystery of Christmas, humanity offers God the gift of motherhood. As John Saward reminds us, motherhood is not a relation found within the Holy Trinity: “none of the Divine Persons relates to any of the others as mother to child or child to mother.” The reasons why take us deep into the complexities of trinitarian theology. Meditating on Christmas, however, we can see, with Saward, that “motherhood, in the person of the Mother of God, is…mankind’s sweetest gift to God. Only on His human nature does He know a mother’s love.” A Byzantine-rite hymn captures this admirably: “What shall we offer thee, O Christ, who for our sakes hast appeared on earth as man? The angels offer thee a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger; and we offer thee a Virgin mother.” Christmas is an exchange of gifts between God and humanity – and, however inadequately, we imitate that most profound exchange of gifts in our own Christmas gift-giving.
The mystery of Christmas teaches us that God, in saving us, does not compete with us. At the Annunciation, Gabriel did not play Walter Cronkite, declaring, “And that’s the way it is.” Rather, the angels asks Mary’s consent – and by that radical gift of self, which sets the pattern of all discipleship in the Church, Mary is drawn into the mystery of the Incarnation. This tells us something about God as well as about us. God does not impose his will on his creatures or compete with us; the story of salvation is not a fierce context between God’s will and our stubborn wills. Rather, God’s grace works in us so that our consent, like Mary’s, is truly free. “God wishes to be adored by people who are free,” the 1987 Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation teaches. The free gift of self is the “how” and the “why” of true human freedom. And that, too, is something we learn from Christmas.
Venite, adoremus Dominum.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.