The Christmas edition of Intercom is now available. Read their lead article on the meaning of Christmas and view the Contents page.

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December 2008 issue

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A Christmas Mystery

Fr Des ODonnell OMI reflects on the meaning of Christmas

A mothers overheard reply to her daughter outside a Catholic bookshop on a Sydney street in late December 1968 suddenly became news. The little girl held her hurried mother for a moment to look at the window which displayed a crib, and asked her the name of the baby in the straw. The busy mother said Come on. I think its the baby Moses in the bullrushes. Even secular Sydney in the sixties thought that this reply was news.

But is it any less news and sad news indeed when any Catholic visits the crib at Christmas and sees it as depicting a past event and nothing more? It is only when a biblical event becomes an experience that it moves from the past to the present, when it moves from history that it becomes a lived mystery. The Jewish people speak of the Exodus not just as an historical event but as living
memory; it is still part of their collective experience.

For believers, the nativity is not just history; it is mystery, but not mystery in the sense that it can never be understood, but in the beautiful sense that it can never be understood deeply enough. That God became a helpless baby is something which, for a person with faith, is a mystery so deep that it is endlessly rich and which continues to permeate and influence daily life. It is not the event of hristmas which matters most; it is the meaning of the event in our lives. When God became flesh and lived among us, many people saw him and many touched him in the crowds, leaving no change in their lives. However, to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God (John 1:12).

Because of this baby we have the privilege and the power to claim and to address God as Father. It is true that we can dwell fruitfully on the fact that God became one of us, and thereby feel encouraged in our human journey. However we can move much more deeply into the mystery by asking what the incarnation tells us about God. In the crib we do not see a God of power, control or status. We see a God who chose to be powerless, defenceless and helpless, a God who emptied himself to identify with our human weakness, our struggles, our suffering and our dying, who in every way has been tested as we are (Heb 4:15).

Then the God who was born in dependency and vulnerability became the selfless and self-effacing adult who lived a life showing only the power of powerless loving. Jesus shows us a God who emptied himself taking the form of a slave (Phil 2:7), a God who came not to be served but to serve.

The infancy of Jesus is often described as a veiling of Gods divinity. It is better described as a full manifestation, a total revelation of the divinity. For the believer, that babys face reveals, not hides, the glory of God. For it is the God who said, Let light shine out of darkness who has shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ ( 2 Cor 4:6).

Looking into the crib can easily give rise to feelings of pity which we all experience when we see deprived children on our television screens. But deep faith in this great mystery gives us much more. It gives rise to deep feelings of awe and gratitude of our Gods self-revelation, not as a demanding God with power, status or wealth, but a God who lives in us when we live lives of self-emptying, defenceless loving as he did.

We understand God best, not by the philosophical study of divinity, but by prayerful reflection before the crib. The Word became flesh and he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory he has with the Father as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

This baby in the crib is the visible glory of God. The infinite love of God for us became manifest in the world on that first Christmas night without the presence of any glory or greatness as the world knows these.

It was later manifested perhaps more dramatically, but not more perfectly, on the cross. In both situations, we meet a God who loves us with self-emptying, defenceless, naked love.

In the crib the transcendence of God became historical. It is Gods unilateral declaration of disarmament. This disarmament continued to manifest itself in Jesus life of unconditional service. The self-emptying (kenosis) of God which we contemplate at Christmas is in fact the fullness (plerosis) of God revealed before us. The crib is not God hidden, but God truly visible.

And Christmas is not only a manifestation; it is an invitation. Jesus asked his disciples to allow him to continue his life of unconditional love in them and to accept his Holy Spirit enabling us to do the same. Christmas is a call to powerless, selfemptying and defenceless loving, expressing itself in unconditional self-sacrifice for others.

It is also a command to the Church to live by the power of the Spirit in loving vulnerably, without ever controlling by human power, by demanding status or by reliance on wealth. When we as individuals, and as Church, live our lives like this, the mystery of Christmas lives on.


Fr Des ODonnell OMI is author of The Lifegiving Word Prayer Book
available in Veritas 9.99

This article made available with kind permission of Editor