Fr. Dwight P. Campbell, S.T.D.
Today we rejoice, for today “a Child is born to us, a Son is given us; His Name is Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:5). Today the world is reminded that we cannot separate Christ from Christmas, for today we celebrate “Christ’s Mass.” On this great Feast of Christmas we focus on the Christ Child, newly-born, a reason for immense wonder and awe: when God becomes a man, He enters into this world as an infant, tiny and helpless.
As Pope Benedict XVI says, that night in Bethlehem, God stooped down “in a way previously inconceivable. The Creator who holds all things in His hands, on whom we all depend, makes Himself small and in need of human love. God is in the stable. God is in the cloud of the poverty of a homeless child: an impenetrable cloud, and yet a cloud of glory!” (Midnight Mass, 2008).
On this day we are also reminded that we cannot separate the cradle from the Cross, for Christ came not only to be born as a little Babe in Bethlehem, but to suffer and die for our sins. God did not have to redeem us by becoming man. God could have simply willed to redeem us. But He did not do so. The Word became flesh in order to offer His flesh and blood on the altar of the Cross in atonement for our sins, and in order to demonstrate His infinite love for us.
How utterly incomprehensible this is: the Creator becomes a creature, God becomes man while remaining God, because man whom He created rebelled against Him and lost friendship with God, and only God could restore that friendship and open again the gates of Paradise to man.
“In a word, the mystery of Christmas is the mystery of God’s love that chose to take on our human form in order to show His love for us by suffering.” [Fr. John Hardon article, “Christmas and the Eucharist.”]
Christian poets are adept at communicating various concepts, truths and mysteries of our Faith with language which draws, even enraptures, both the heart and mind of the reader. Its charm of form, its affinity of rhythm and meter, appeal to our emotions and intellect.
My two favorite Christmas poems were penned by St. Robert Southwell, a Jesuit martyr who was canonized in 1970 as one of the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales. He spent three years in the Tower of London and was tortured nine times before he was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1595. While in prison he penned his most famous poem, The Burning Babe, which describes a vision, on Christmas Day, of the Christ Child immersed flames; it communicates in a most beautiful way the truth of the future suffering which the Savior, while still a Babe, foresees.
The poem begins by describing how, on “a hoary winter’s night,” “a pretty Babe all burning bright” in the air appears,
Who, scorchéd with exceeding heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though His floods would quench His flames with what His tears were fed;
“Alas!” quoth He, “but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns;
Love is the fire and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals;
The metal in this furnace wrought our men’s defiléd souls;
For which, as now on fire I am, to work them to the good,
So will I melt into a bath, to wash them in my blood.”
But the mystery of Christmas is not only the mystery of God who became man to redeem us; it is also the mystery of God who remains with us – to nourish and strengthen us. As Fr. John Hardon says: “The Eucharist is Christmas prolonged, because once God became men, He decided to remain man. . . . and this God-Man is here; Bethlehem is wherever there is a Catholic church or chapel in which Christ is present [in the Eucharist].”
And why does Jesus Our Lord will to remain with us always in the Eucharist? For the same reason which moved Him to suffer and die for us: love. Love desires union; the lover yearns to be united with the beloved; and – as incomprehensible as this may sound – God, the Creator, yearns for us to be in union with Him.
We would not have been able to attain union with God in Heaven without being redeemed; we would have been left orphans. So God became man, the Word became flesh and suffered and died on the Cross for our sins.
But as Jesus makes clear, this union in Heaven with Him is also dependent on us being united with Him here on earth, for He tells us: “I am the living bread that came down from Heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. . . . Amen, amen, I say to you, . . . unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (Jn. 6:51, 53-54).
This union with Our Lord and Savior here and now is achieved through the Most Holy Eucharist, the Great Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, which again, is made possible only through Christ’s Incarnation and Birth on Christmas. In fact, the Gospel account of the Birth of the Savior wonderfully foretells this great mystery of the Eucharist and our union with Christ through It. St. Luke tells us that Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem, which literally means, in Hebrew, “House of Bread,” and that Our Lord was laid in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. Thus, here we are told, in a symbolic way, at Christ’s Birth, that He Himself is our living bread who will nourish our souls for union with Him and, through union with Him, attainment of Eternal Life in the Kingdom.
This truth was captured beautifully in my other favorite Christmas poem, also by St. Robert Southwell, The Nativity of Christ:
Gift better than himself God doth not know;
Gift better than his God no man can see.
This gift doth hear the giver given bestow;
Gift to this gift let each receiver be.
God is my gift, himself he freely gave me;
God’s gift am I, and none but God shall have me.
Man altered was by sin from man to beast;
Beast’s food is hay, hay is all mortal flesh.
Now God is flesh and lies in manger pressed
As hay, the brutest sinner to refresh.
My dear friends, let us, on this Christmas, thank God for the great gift given to us, His Son, born for us this day: Our Savior, the Eternal Word who took our mortal flesh for us brutish sinners to refresh.