“O marvelous exchange! Man’s Creator has become man, born of the Virgin. We have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”(LH, Antiphon I of Evening Prayer for January 1st)
Generally speaking, we Catholics “don’t know what we’ve got.” If we looked at Christmas from a secular point of view, it is a time of coming together, exchanging gifts with those close to us, sharing a big feast, a joyful time, and a time to slow down from work and take a holiday. In television’s best light, it is portrayed as a time of reconciliation between friends, a time to show love to one another, and to somehow tap into something transcendent or spiritual where we actually believe in something other than ourselves.
This is all good in itself, but the Christmas mystery is much more. One of the great Catholic authors of this past century said that Christianity is the greatest fairy tale. Not in the sense that it is not true, but that it is unbelievably true– too good to believe. Fairy tales always end well. Christmas has an ending that is beyond our wildest imaginations!
“O marvelous exchange!” By uniting His Divine nature with our human nature, Christ, in a mysterious way, united himself to every man. To redeem us, he assumed our human nature. Identifying himself with us in all things but sin. “For, by his incarnation, he, the son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man. He worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart he loved.”(Gaudium et Spes 22) Saint Paul would write, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”(2 Cor 5:21) Of course, Jesus never sinned but he took upon himself the weight of our fallen condition. He was made victim for our sins. He became a wayfarer, such as ourselves, taking upon himself the effects of our sinful humanity to the point that He exclaimed from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”(Matt 27:46)
Was it absolutely necessary that he redeem us in this manner, to assume a human nature? No, but, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, by doing so, He accomplished our Redemption in a most fitting way.(S.T. III, 1, art.2) He communicates His love for us in a way that we can receive it. Having material bodies, we acquire knowledge through our senses. Romans 1:20 tells us, “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” So, what better way for the fullness of God’s revelation to come to us than in a material way, through the sacred humanity of Jesus Christ. By taking on a material existence, Jesus teaches us how to act by how he lived His life. The Christian virtues are typified in the life of Christ. His obedience to the will of the Father, His patience in persecution, His humility in living a quiet and routine hidden life for thirty years, His courage in the face of evil, His prayerfulness in times of trial, and His prudence in dealing with weak and sinful men serve as examples for us to use as we face the trials of our lives. The list could continue on and on, but the point is that Christ is not only the example for the Christian but is also the cause of our salvation. Pope Leo the Great writes, “Weakness is assumed by strength, lowliness by majesty, mortality by eternity, in order that one and the same Mediator of God and men might die in one and rise in the other— for this was our fitting remedy. Unless he was God, he would not have brought a remedy; and unless he was man, he would not have set an example.”(Sermon on the Nativity) The Church fathers in the first millennium would teach that “What is not assumed is not healed, but what has been united to God is saved.”
Pope Leo would also teach that what was visible in the mysteries of Christ has been passed onto us in the sacramental mysteries. Our whole sacramental system (the Seven Sacraments of the Church) is based on the same logic that we find in the incarnation. The Church uses visible signs to communicate to us, in the 21st century, the saving mysteries of Christ’s life. St. Thomas would teach that these sacraments are remedies for sin in our lives. God is communicating grace to us through these very earthly signs. Water in baptism, bread and wine in the Eucharist, oil in confirmation and anointing of the sick, the laying on of hands in holy orders, the confession of sins in the sacrament of reconciliation, and the exchange of vows in marriage. It is beautiful and it is humbling. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve took the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They listened to the serpent who told them that they would be like God knowing good and evil. But the creature does not have the power to determine what is good and evil, to determine the moral law. He discovers the law that is given to him by God. In disobedience to God, they sought the fruit to make them wise. St. Thomas makes the point that man is brought back to God through created things that are used in the sacraments. Simple, humble elements that help to keep man humble.
Although they are common elements, they communicate mysteries that we can never exhaust with our intellects. At every Mass, the paschal mystery is re-presented to us. It is not simply a re-enactment of the Last Supper, but it makes present, in some way, the Last Supper which is of one piece with calvary. The sacrifice of Calvary is actually made present at our altars. The Catholic liturgy makes present the mysteries of Christ’s life.
The Catholic liturgy is not about trying to come up with clever and new ways to teach the people about Christ. It is ‘handing over’ these mysteries in its Tradition to the ‘regular guy’ in the pews. The liturgy re-presents the mysteries to you and me. Mysteries, by their nature, are revealed to us by God. We do not figure them out like solving a crossword puzzle. They are beyond our rational powers. We contemplate them. We receive them.
John Saward, in his book Cradle of Redeeming Love, refers to St. Gregory Nazianzen in urging his congregation to ‘know the power of mystery.’ “To be more than mere spectators and instead to play a personal role in the divine drama reenacted at the altar. In some way, the sacred liturgy enables the members of the Mystical Body to re-live the mysteries of their Head….The birth in Bethlehem, though an event in the past, is not a mere thing of the past: ‘Even now the angels are rejoicing, the shepherds are startled by the blinding light; even now the star is coming from the East towards the great and inaccessible light.”(John Saward, Cradle of Redeeming Love, Ignatius Press, pg.55)
Saward points out that it is because Christ assumed our human nature that we can participate in His mysteries. He has, in a mysterious way, united himself with every man and woman. He redeems and sanctifies every part of our lives from the cradle to the cross and everything in between– our childhood, our youth, our family life, our work, our human friendships, our sufferings, etc. We can enter into His mystery because he has come to us. The marvelous exchange is not an event of the past. It is happening today! He has come to us as a baby. Let us run to the cradle with the shepherds and rejoice with the angels!
Fr. Mark Mary, MFVA