Christmas in the 21st Century–as it could have been, and as it Is

God came to visit His people by His holy Incarnation, by becoming one of us. Let’s consider for a moment the difference between what could have happened when God did that, and what actually did happen. Then I would like to add something about Christianity in the 21st century.

pantocratorFirst: what it could have been like, when the God-man came. He could have arrived full-grown and terrifyingly stern, intent on executing the strictest, most righteous judgment. He could have come on a black cloud, with a scales for balancing in His hand. In one pan: What the Creator has given us, namely everything. On the other pan, what we have given back–as far as religion, obedience, and eager service.

The judge would justly have condemned us all. Christmas could have been very different. It could have meant that we all got judged and sent to hell.

We might say, “That’s so depressing! Even God would be sad if Christmas meant nothing but strict justice!” But: We would only say that because we happen to know the real, true account of what Christmas is. Jesus has taught us to believe that God loves us and wills our happiness. So we think that God Himself would be sad if Christmas were the day when we all got sent to hell.

That, however, is not exactly true. Almighty God has always been and always will be perfectly happy, with or without us. He didn’t come to save us because He was lonely and sad. No. He came to save us because, in His infinite, endless happiness, He is perfectly selfless.

So He gave us Christmas as it actually is. He did not come the first time as a terrifying judge, six-and-a-half-feet tall, with eyes of fire. He came as a cooing baby, born of the sweetest, humblest, gentlest mother imaginable. He came as a poor child, of poor parents, with no clout whatsoever in this world.

God incarnate arrived with a clear and detailed mission. Namely, to do every single thing that needed doing for our salvation. He came to teach us the love of God, to show us how to live in a way pleasing to God. He came to offer Himself as a perfect sacrifice—as our perfect sacrifice, the perfect sacrifice that we, as the human race, truly have made to God. And He came to conquer death and pour out His undying grace upon us from heaven.

columba-marmionWe believe that what the first Christmas could have been—that is, a day of judgment by the God-man; we believe that such a day will come. But we need not fear such a day, because the first Christmas came to pass the way it did. Christmas saw the birth of a divine Savior, a divine Redeemer, a divine king Who rules by offering Himself as our Priest and gently shepherding our souls.

…The other morning I re-read the preface of one of the books of Blessed Columba Marmion. My mind lingered on the date when he wrote the preface, 1922.

In case you don’t know: Dom Marmion is like a latter-day Father of the Church. His books are comprised of notes people took while he talked, explaining, in retreats and sermons, the Good News of Christ, based on the teachings of Scripture.

Anyway, it struck me as altogether stunning to imagine that on the very day when Dom Marmion wrote the preface to this particular book of his, F. Scott Fitzgerald sat in his Long-Island home, writing his novels. The spiritual crisis of the western world caused by World War I was setting in.

angels nativityIf I might put it like this: the 20th century became a century of uncertainty about God. Does He exist? Can we really believe what the Bible says? Can we trust the teaching of the Church? Twentieth-century man had the idea that ‘I have to decide for myself what is true and what isn’t true, when it comes to God.’

Our grandparents—some of them anyway—imagined such systematic doubt to be a noble undertaking. But: Doesn’t doubting like that—doesn’t it really condemn you to the first kind of Christmas that I described? Setting myself up as the ultimate religious authority means: on Christmas Day, I have nothing but a God of strict justice to judge me.

Because the wonderful mystery of the real Christmas, the Christmas of my salvation—that good news comes to me as a gift that transcends my capacity to comprehend. A gift that I can only receive like a child receives something from his mother.

Now, the good news for us is that the spiritual struggles of the last century do not have to be ours. We need not get bogged-down in questions that have grown obsolete. We can hold the faith of the Church with childlike hearts, without giving a second thought to whether or not we are “modern” enough. We are plenty modern, whether we want to be or not. We don’t need to work on ‘updating the Church.’ We need to work on giving the next generation of Catholics the ancient faith that we received.

The Christian life is actually a lot simpler than many 20th-century people thought. We just have to be prepared to be martyred. Our true Christmas merriment comes from our knowing that the only life worth living is one of total fidelity to this particular baby. He gave me His life. I owe Him mine. We all owe this baby, Who founded our Church—we owe Him our lives.

But that, after all, is the greatest gift of Christmas, the real Christmas: It gives us a chance to live a life worth living. To live not for myself, but for Christ.

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