The Christmas Mystery

The different liturgical seasons in the Church year present to us the mysteries of Christ’s life.  Everything that Jesus did serves our redemption.  The early Church Fathers taught the maxim, “What He did not assume, He did not redeem.”  By assuming our human nature Jesus not only taught and instructed us; He transformed us, inwardly, by His grace.  We are saved through Jesus Christ.  Our contact with the mysteries of Christ’s life produces a salvific effect in our lives.  We are saved through the sacred humanity of Christ joined to ours. 

All of His actions are in obedience to the will of the Father and reveal God’s love to us.  What is He revealing to us in the Christmas mystery?  The theologian, Garrigou-Lagrange, said a mystery of our faith, in the strict theological sense, is “a divinely revealed reality that little ones can understand but not even learned ones can comprehend.”  The truth that is contained in the mystery is so great as to make them beyond the grasp of our finite minds.  “When a man meets a mystery of the faith, he finds not a deficiency but an excess of intelligibility: there is just too much to understand.”(taken from Fr. John Saward’s, Cradle of Redeeming Love)

The mysteries of our faith, for example the incarnation, cannot be fully comprehended not because they are irrational, but because they are “supra-rational.”  They are beyond our reason due to the vastness of the truth contained in the mystery.  St. Thomas Aquinas writes that God becoming man is the greatest of all the works of God.  “…this surpasses reason more than any other, since one cannot conceive of God doing anything more wonderful than that true God, the Son of God, should be made true man.” (Summa Contra Gentiles 4, 27)  The divinity of God is joined to the humanity of man in the second person of the Trinity.  The baby in the crib seems small but He is God as well.  In the words of St. Leo the Great, “…lowliness was taken on by majesty, weakness by strength, mortality by eternity.” (Leo’s Tome)

The incarnation should give us pause.  The concepts we form in our mind to understand it fall short of “explaining” the mystery satisfactorily.  The incarnation becomes for us, seemingly, two paradoxical truths.  The best we can do is to hold in tension the fact that He is truly God and truly man.  We cannot separate the two truths and say that He is only one or the other.  We maintain them at the full intensity of the truth of each, yet we try to reconcile them together in our finite minds.  Frank Sheed in his book Theology and Sanity writes, “For although we still cannot actually see the reconciliation, yet some mysterious reconciliation is in fact effected within us.  We begin, as I have said, with a steady concentration upon each of the two elements, and a moment comes when we recognize that we are living mentally in the presence not of two truths but of one.  We still could not say how both can be true at once, yet we truly experience them so.” 

Sheed goes on to say the reason we experience the mysteries of Christ as two opposing truths is because there are two opposing truths within us.  We are a union of a body and a soul, a union of the spiritual and the material.  Since we are beings made from nothingness, we have the opposition of nothingness and being within us.  Everything about us, how we think, act and experience things– stems from this truth about our nature.  We belong to the spiritual world and the material one.  We perceive something of eternity, yet we live in time.  Our free will acts in conjunction with grace.  Because of the opposites within us, we tend to experience things in a duality.

The word ‘mystery’ is from the greek word ‘mysterion,’ which means ‘something that is hidden.’  The mysteries of faith are hidden from us and have to be revealed.  And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them.  But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.  Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them. (Mark 10:13-15)

We have to become like children in order to receive what is revealed to us in the mystery of the incarnation.  We have to shake off our projections onto the event and have a receptive, contemplative stance toward the Christmas mystery.  We have to be humble in order to receive it in all of its poverty and simplicity.  I think the key to approaching the Christmas mystery is to be receptive to the marvelous thing that God has done for us.

Mother Theresa said something to the effect that, “Every time a child is born, it is a sign that God hasn’t given up on the world.”  This is even truer when the baby is the Son of God.  At the birth of a baby, the parents have a sense that this marvelous thing that has just happened is something much greater than what they themselves could have “produced.”   It is beyond them.  It is a transcendent event.  Something outside of them had to make something so beautiful.  The humble man responds with reverence.  He is in awe of the mystery before him.

The nativity scene in many great works of art, depict Mary kneeling before the Divine Child in the crib with her hands folded in prayer.  St. Luke’s gospel records that she “pondered” these things in her heart.  We approach such things on our knees because of what is being revealed to us: God’s love. 

Towards the end of his life, the great theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas had a profound mystical experience of God.  Afterwards, he referred to his great masterpiece, the Summa Theologica, as being “straw” in comparison.  St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him,…” (Phil 3:8-9)  St. Matthew’s gospel describes the kingdom as a valuable pearl, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Mt 13:45-46)  Because of its importance in our life, we have to be ready to give all in order to enter into God’s kingdom.  In St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells Martha that He is the only thing that is truly necessary.

Jesus changes everything for us.  The Christmas mystery teaches us about God’s love for us.  That He is love, and He has given Himself to us by becoming man.  God did not create the world out of any necessity on His part.  What does God need?  What can satisfy Him?  He is perfectly fulfilled in Himself.  The only possible motive is that He created it out of love.  He redeemed us out of love.  This life changing love that He has for us desires union with us.  It is not simply a lofty ideal that we imitate, but He reaches down to our humanity and raises us up to share in His life through His incarnation.  The essence of Christianity is not a system of ethics, but is Christ himself. (taken from Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue)  The astonishment of it all is that we just have to receive it.  To be open to it.  Lord may we know the tender love that you have for each one of us! 

Fr. Mark Mary, MFVA