The meaning of Christmas

"Here is something to think about."


This Christmas Day, I would like to give way to the Gospel Reflections of Father Joseph V. Landy, S.J., who for five years taught English and Theology at the Ateneo de Manila. I quote his book, entitled “Give Us This Day”. Father Landy, gives us something to think about this Christmas Day:

“Christmas means literally, Christ Mass. Actually this day is so important that the Church gives us three Masses, at midnight, at dawn, and daytime, each with its readings. For midnight and dawn the gospel readings are from Luke’s familiar telling of the Christmas story. For this daytime mass we have the opening of John’s first chapter, the “prologue."

Most people prefer the readings from Luke. As usual he tells a good story. Even though we have heard it often, we enjoy hearing again about the journey to Bethlehem, the crowded inn, the shepherds. John’s prologue, by contrast, is anything but a story. Some scholars think it was originally a hymn; if so, we have lost the music, and to our ears, it sounds more like a page torn from the lecture notes of some cerebral professor of theology. Most people find it forbidding - too abstract and not altogether clear. Even trained Scripture scholars can be baffled by parts of it.

But John’s prologue is well worth pondering. Its main points are clear enough and closer than anything in Luke to the central meaning of Christmas. John may well have known as much as Luke about the physical details surrounding the birth of Jesus, but these were not the focus of his interest. To him, what happened in Bethlehem was more than a story about an infant born in obscure poverty who was destined for greatness. It was above all the coming of the Almighty God into our world. The cold and comfortless cave of Bethlehem was where the Eternal Word stepped into human history, and became a member of our race.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. Jesus pre-existed Bethlehem. The child in the manger is the Word. John’s designation for the Second Person of the Trinity. Before any human roamed the earth; before the sun, moon, planets, and stars were in place; before the big bang that sent trillions of atoms hurtling millions of miles into space; before there were any atoms hurtle or anything big or small to make a bang, the eternal Word of God was. He was in the beginning going through Him. What happened anterior to creation are challenges our imagination cannot penetrate. There was only the three-persona God, infinite beyond space and time. But God spoke, “Let there be light” and our universe burst into being. He was in the world… But the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him. The story of mankind before Bethlehem is one of ignorance and sin. God gave humans light enough to see His goodness and beauty are reflected in His creation, but the mass of mankind preferred darkness to the light. Saint Paul says in a letter to the Romans, what can be known about God is evident to them… in what he has made. As a result they have no excuse. To his chosen people, God sent his prophets, but these received small honor.

And the Word became flesh. Paul says, though he was not in the form of God… he emptied himself. The Creed puts it, he came down from heaven and became a man. Its meaning is preserved in the English word, “Incarnation” and the root word is “enfleshment." All are faltering efforts to express the same overwhelming reality, that in the manger God became a puny thing of skin, blood, muscles just gazing at the few pounds asleep on its bed of straw.

And made his dwelling among us. John’s Greek word means “pitched his tent among us," As he grew, Jesus shared camp life with the rest of the human race. Needed food, water, air, and sleep; he knew what it was to shed tears or to laugh, to be scorched by the sun or cooled by the wind. He claimed no exemption from our daily routine of tedium and toil.

To say that this tiny bundle of frail flesh in the manger is the eternal word, in the words of Paul, “the refulgence of his glory… who sustains all things by his mighty word seems a blasphemous absurdity. Nothing that John says can make it less absurd. But it is the central truth of Christianity, the truth that the Church wants us to think about today, as we celebrate Christ’s mass.

Christianity does not consist of our search of God, but of God’s reaching out for us. In the darkness of the cave in Bethlehem, we catch a faint glimmer of how far he has reached.

In another episode of the nativity, Father Joseph V. Landy, S.J., on his reflections of the Gospel, Luke’s account of what happened when the couple Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem on some recollection of Mary that were preserved among the early Christians, for there was hardly anyone else to tell the story. The details - the crowded inn, the manger, the swaddling clothes, the visit of the shepherds are just the sort one would expect to loom large in a mother’s treasury of memories. The couple did not stay in the inn, as it was just as well. What passed for an inn in these days was a series of crude alcove dwelling on a courtyard where animals were kept. Even if Joseph had found a free alcove, the place offered little privacy for a woman who was about to give birth.

Lastly, Joseph brought Mary to an animal shelter -- a cave of limestone at the outskirts of the town. In it was a manger where oxen fed. Thus he cleaned and lined it with straw, the feed box made a comfortable bed for a newborn boy. Mary had brought swaddling clothes to wrap around the infant.

Joseph and Mary probably did not consider themselves particularly deprived because they had to spend the night in circumstances that seemed inhumanly harsh. Travellers in those days often slept in the open. Even if they found shelter, they did not expect the conveniences we take for granted. Of course, the cave had none of the comforts. Such is the story of Bethlehem and its lessons are many.

The shepherds teach another lesson, Luke says, that after returning, they praised God for all they heard and saw just as it had been told to them. Now what the angels had told them was astonishing news. Unlearned though they were, the shepherds knew what every Jew knew that a Messiah would come to Israel and be a great king. That the actual birthplace was Bethlehem was also no surprise, for Scripture said so. But that he had been born to behold him within hours of his birth were marvels beyond their dreams.

Upon arriving at the cave, they received a shock. This infant did not have parents who are kings and born in palaces. Music and feasting greet their arrival, but this birth was no more splendid than their own.

Topics: Emil Jurado , Christmas , Father Joseph V. Landy , S.J. , Give Us This Day
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