A FEW YEARS AGO, a friend of mine wrote to me and complained about a Christmas column that I had written. I cannot recall exactly what I had written, but it was something about how the Incarnation continues today.
My friend accused me of “fuzzy thinking,” insisting that the Incarnation had happened once, over 2,000 years ago. Of course, my friend was correct in claiming that Jesus was conceived and born once.
I think that what I was trying to convey was that grace from the Incarnate God was still being offered to us, and in that sense, Christ was taking birth in our hearts and souls. I feel very strongly about that as I write this column. Christmas is not just a memory. I believe something special can happen at a Christmas Mass.
I love everything about Christmas: from the carols to the greeting “Merry Christmas,” and from the exchanging of Christmas cards to the family reunions that seem to happen every year. I even love the secular songs that we hear every Christmas season.
There was a time in my life when I was critical of the Charles Dickens’ classic, “A Christmas Carol,” because I did not think it was sufficiently Christian. Now I love it, and enjoy either viewing it performed or hearing it recited or even re-reading it.
I now think the umbrella of Christmas faith is broad enough and deep enough to give new meaning even to what might seem to be completely secular. I suspect that my personal celebration of Christmas is influenced by a great many nostalgic memories and even a good dose of sentimentality, but I think that is all right if I keep the proper perspective, which is the meaning of Christmas that Christian faith illuminates.
Heirs in Hope
Of course, Christian faith in the Incarnation should color and influence our entire lives, but I think that it is important that we single out one day every year, Dec. 25, to focus our attention on the mystery of the Son of God becoming human. In the Mass at dawn on Christmas morning the following text from St. Paul’s letter to Titus will be read:
“Beloved: When the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus our savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7)
I think that each Christmas we can see more deeply into the meaning and mystery of the Incarnation. We will never exhaust its meaning. I suspect that what Christmas means to us in a particular year depends, at least to some extent, on what is going on in our lives at that time. Because the mystery is so profound, indeed so mind-boggling, that it is like a well of fresh water that will never be drained. We can be renewed and refreshed each time we celebrate.
As I write this column what especially strikes me this year about the mystery of Christmas is that the Son of God did not have to become incarnate. St. Paul says that this happened because of God’s mercy. We can also say that it happened because of God’s love. I am reminded of the profound truth that God does not love us because we are lovable, but rather, we are lovable because God loves us. God’s love is literally creative. From absolutely nothing, we are created by God’s loving creative act.
At St. John’s University, I teach a few courses which focus on the mystery of God. In those courses, the students and I read and study some of the greatest philosophers and their insights into the meaning and mystery of God.
Thinkers such as St. Thomas, Gabriel Marcel and Martin Buber have marvelous insights into the meaning and mystery of God, but no philosopher, no matter how intelligent, can comprehend completely the Incarnation.
I believe that it was the Danish thinker, Soren Kierkegaard, who said that the Incarnation was the crucifixion of the intellect, meaning that no matter how much we ponder it, we will never understand it completely.
We should never approach the Incarnation as though it is a problem to be solved. Rather, we should approach it with gratitude and love as a mystery to be entered into because the Incarnate God is not distant from us, but rather is lovingly present to us at every moment. Christmas reminds us of this. Christmas Mass should be special because Christmas is special.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).