The trajectory of Christmas is unlike any other celebration in the Church’s calendar. It is a roller coaster of emotion, the persistence of which challenges us to come to terms with God’s intention of becoming one like us. God does not intend for his coming to be a respite of frivolity that might conclude a tortuous civil year. In becoming one like us, God truly address the “hopes and fears of all the years,” and in becoming one like us, God experiences them directly and personally. The impact of this “great exchange” cannot be overlooked or muffled by a desire to sentimentalize or romanticize Christmas as a time of good cheer, which for the Holy Family it really was not. Attentive to the tumults inherent in the events that comprise the Christmas Season awakens us to the channels through which God opens ways that reveal true and authentic hope, which answers the anxieties and distresses we experience.
The Solemnity of Christmas
Too limited a focus on images of a clean and quiet stable scene, with adoring shepherds, a drummer boy, and angels on the wing masks a more poignant reality of the context of Christ’s birth. While we may desire envisioning a “silent night,” common sense forces us to realize it was anything but that. A crowded and noisy suburb of Jerusalem proves incapable of providing for a multitude summoned for an unanticipated census. Either Joseph or Mary lacks forethought regarding accommodations, not to mention the absence of Joseph’s family or Elizabeth and Zechariah, who lived not far from Bethlehem. A stable, or worse, a cave, proves unsuitable as a sanitary location (as far as first century conditions could supply) to bring forth the Savior into this world.
And yet none of this impedes the fact that this is a “holy night.” It reveals, for those who are able to see and hear, how God comes to us not in spite of our misjudgments, but because of our misjudgments, because God is the only one who can heal and resolve them.
The Feast of the Holy Family
If this feast is meant to promote a model for all Christian families to follow, what a model it projects! The gospels of this feast taken from Matthew and Luke offer some shocking perspectives on the Holy Family.
In Cycle A, the flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-22) truly makes the Holy Family refugees and saves them from destruction by Herod. It is striking, though, that the fate of the Innocents is omitted from the proclamation. Jesus is presented in the Temple in Cycle B (Luke 2:22-40), and Simeon speaks in prophetic foreboding that the child “is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted.” He then chillingly tells Mary, “and you yourself a sword will pierce.” In Cycle C, we have the extremely perplexing situation of a “lost Savior,” where a day needs to pass before Mary and Joseph realize Jesus has been left behind in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52).
The gospels present a beleaguered family who do not give up trusting in God and in one another. This is what makes them holy.
The Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God
Perpetually overshadowed by the celebration of the civil new year, this solemnity concludes the Christmas Octave. The gospel is Luke 2:16-21, the adoration by the shepherds. Mary, the gospel proclaims, “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”
Joining our reflection to Mary’s means considering the Octave week that follows Christmas Day, particularly the first three days. The impact of this solemnity can only be fully grasped when it is aligned with these days. These are the days of the Comites Christi, the Companions of Christ. They are days that speak of death and exile, the martyrdom of Stephen, the vision of John on Patmos, and the massacre of the Innocents.
How can such tragedy and turmoil follow the joys of Christmas Day? And yet they do, each year, and we are challenged to reconcile the tragedies of the world with the promises we believe Christmas holds. Reconciliation can only occur when we take the time to reflect and face the truth and burdens of the world without fear, confidently remembering once again that it is God who comes to save us from such pain and horror.
The Solemnity of the Epiphany
Matthew’s gospel (2:1-12) reveals a Savior to the nations who illumines our hearts and minds and is doubtlessly born for all people. Accompanying the wonder and amazement of the Magi or Kings are gifts. The one gift that is most disconcerting, though, is that of myrrh, “the bitter perfume,” and its morbid connection to death and embalming.
Yet this gift connects the child’s birth to his destiny, to the Cross. This connection can be easily missed, much as the little sung third verse of William Dix’s “What Child Is This?” which states, “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through / The cross be borne for me, for you.” The revelation to the Gentiles points the way to the Paschal Mystery, that death gives way to life, and life no longer for a chosen few, but for all humanity.
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
Each gospel for the feast that concludes the Christmas Season narrates the event of Jesus’ baptism. Gregory of Nazianzus wrote that the baptism of Jesus ushered an unexpected beginning to his ministry. Isaiah anticipated a “rending of the heavens” with armies of angels descending to wreak havoc, punishment, and destruction upon a deserving sinful and wicked humanity.
Yet, at the baptism of Jesus the heavens “open of their own accord.” What descends are not vengeance seeking angels, but the Spirit, who empowers Jesus for his mission on earth. A mission “to bring glad tidings to the poor, proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).
If this is true of Jesus, then it is true of all the baptized. Yet, with so much in our world, in every time and age, calling for vengeance, division, discord, and unrest, for the baptized to undertake such a mission might seem improbable if not impossible.
Christmas is not a momentary respite from the ills that plague our communities, nor a frivolous occasion for inane bliss. Christmas opens our eyes and minds and hearts to what can be, what must be, if creation and humanity within it can flourish. It can only come about to the extent we cooperate with God’s plan of salvation, employing our own gifts and talents to further God’s work. This realization may be all too much to handle if all we want is the diversion, but with Jesus’ baptism, linked as it is to our own, Christmas requires us to make Jesus’ mission our own.
Year after year we proclaim a child born for us, whose life offers us the way, the only way, to understand and embrace ourselves as God’s very image. An image meant to act and to respond appropriately in this good world God has gifted us, enshrined in the profound memory that God creates us and all creation good.
Republished with permission from GIA Quarterly.