ROME — A massive, 16-volume Lives of the Saints, first published between 1872 and 1877, informs me that, here in the Eternal City, the feast of Christmas first became a celebration distinct from the ancient feast of the Epiphany in the mid-fourth century — and that St. John Chrysostom, one of the four doctors of the Church who support the cathedra in Bernini’s bronze masterpiece, The Altar of the Chair, in the Vatican Basilica, “used his utmost endeavor” to promote the celebration of Christmas in the East. The author, in his charmingly prolix, Victorian style, then catalogues the relics of the Nativity, here in Rome and elsewhere:
“…in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore [is] the cradle of Bethlehem, encrusted with silver and enriched with ornaments given it by Philip III of Spain.
“The napkins wherewith the Infant Savior was wrapped, were anciently exhibited in Constantinople, but were transferred to Paris in the 13th century and placed by St. Louis in the Saint Chapelle.
“Besides the cradle in which our Lord, it is alleged, was rocked, is the stone manger of the grotto of Bethlehem. One of the stones of this manger is shown in the basilica of St. Maria Maggiore on the Esquiline, in the altar of the crypt of the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament.
“Some of the napkins of Christ are also exposed to the adoration of Catholics in the same chapel. The cloak with which St. Joseph covered the crib, to protect the Child from the cold, is in the church of St. Anastasia in Rome. The basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome has also the felicity of possessing the first cuttings of His infant hair.”
Judging by 21st-century standards, does any of this make historical sense? Some, probably, but forensic certitude about ancient artifacts isn’t really the point here. For behind such traditional, pious claims, as behind the fourth century visit of the Dowager Empress Helena (mother of Emperor Constantine) to the Holy Land — a lengthy and dangerous pilgrimage that brought many of these relics to the West — is a crucial conviction: the conviction that Christianity is neither a pious myth nor a fairy tale.
Christianity begins in a real place, at a specific point in time in which real men and women met an itinerant rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth — and after what they had thought to be the utter catastrophe of his degrading and violent death, met him anew as the Risen Lord Jesus. The lives of those real men and women were so transformed by these encounters that they, in turn, went out and got to work on the task the Risen One gave them: to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
The earthiness of the Christmas story — the manger, the stable, the “swaddling clothes,” the stolid oxen and lowing cows, the bewildered but kindly shepherds, the exotic Magi from the East and their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the child’s circumcision — underscores this core Christian conviction: The Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, the “Word” through whom “all things were made” (John 1:1, 3), entered history through the cooperation of a Jewish girl and her overshadowing by the Holy Spirit, and was born at a precise moment in time at a precise place.
Whether “the first cuttings of His infant hair” really are in Rome’s Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem may be beyond historical verification; the real point being made in such claims is that the Incarnate Son of God really was at one point in his life among us, an infant who had an infant’s hair and all the other attributes of a weak and defenseless child.
Ditto for what is really being proposed by the “napkins,” the cradle, St. Joseph’s blanket-cloak, and all the rest: He whom Christianity proclaims as Lord and Savior, the One who fully reveals both the truth about God and the truth about our humanity’s dignity and destiny, was not a character in some virtual reality “metaverse” constructed by Mark Zuckerberg. He was here, on this third planet. And he is still with us: in the Scriptures proclaimed, and above all in the holy bread broken and shared.
As the post-modern world loses its grip on the most fundamental truths (even those inscribed in our chromosomes), the earthiness of Christmas proclaims and celebrates an enfleshed, divine savior, once an infant, who ennobles and transforms all the givens of the human condition.