Today I was reading a reflection from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in which he asked why we celebrated Christmas particularly in light of “the wretchedness, turmoil and isolation that are still man’s lot and if anything intensifying rather than lessening?” Even though these words were first published in the 1980s and considered and crystalized earlier still, they jumped out to me as though they had been written today. What has this year been but one of wretchedness, turmoil, and isolation? Any one of those words could encapsulate so much of this past year, but the combination taken together is particularly striking and the combination, so far as I can see from my humble corner, has extended to every portion of the globe.
And yet we celebrate Christmas despite the present wretchedness and turmoil; Pope Benedict celebrated it despite whatever concrete historic moments first inspired his question; Christians, and by extension all men who have encountered Christians, have celebrated it through the last two millennia. Furthermore, I don’t think we see Christmas as something that we celebrate despite the wretchedness of the present condition, but rather as something which will overcome our present wretchedness. Christmas brings the promise of something so much greater. When I was around ten or eleven, my family visited Lake Tahoe, including Donner Pass. The video history of tragedy of the Donner party has stuck with me in the intervening decades, but particularly the story of one mother who was determined to celebrate Christmas for her family. With no reason to hope for survival and escape, lost and snowed in under a storm of the century, she squirreled away whatever she could to make Christmas morning stand out for her children. Interestingly enough, her family was one of the few to survive the Donner tragedy intact. Similarly, the bittersweet story of Christmas 1914, when Scottish, German, and French troops halted hostilities in World War I to come together and celebrate Christmas, highlights that Christmas allows us to rise above our bitter wretchedness and isolation.
Pope Benedict answers the question he asked by pointing out first that Christmas reminds us that God exists, but also that He exists as one who is concerned about us. As a child, I did not appreciate what it is to be raised within a religion that acknowledges God made man. I had always somehow assumed by extension that anyone who believed in God believed in the same kind of God that I knew, understood, and professed. It is jarring to come to realize that so many other religions do not see God as we, Catholics, see God. Pope Benedict in that same reflection speaks of “an infinitely distant power” or one that “can at best terrify us” or ‘being’s ultimate ground that is not conscious of itself”. Such a God could not come to earth in any uniquely meaningful way. Or His coming would not be a moment of celebration and joy, but one of horror and fear. But we know that God is concerned about us. As Pope Benedict says, Christmas tells us that “He is here.” And that He is here for us. He looks on us and “the gaze is the gaze of Love.”
Recently one of my students in Catholic Doctrine was discussing how God could, as God, know all things, but as man, could still come to know things. We were discussing how God, as man with a body, would learn things through His senses. I marvel time and again how God could know all things as their cause, which would include knowing as the cause what the sensory experiences would be, but that He could still as man come to experience those same things for the first time through the flesh. We were discussing various human parallels to this when for the first time it struck me what it would be like for God to be a baby, which is in fact one of many things that we are called to reflect upon each Christmas. In the moment I was caught up considering what it would be like to be God knowing all things, but unable to speak; to be the all powerful God unable to walk or crawl or sit or even roll; to be the cause of all and yet unable to provide the nourishment that sustains your own life; to be the cause of each individual soul and yet be so limited and helpless in communicating with those same souls right next to him.
Think for a moment, with Scripture as a guide, what could have befallen God made man:
He could have died as an infant in His mother’s womb as she was stoned to death.
He could have died of exposure in the hills outside Bethlehem.
He could have died at the hands of Herod’s soldiers.
He could have died as an outcast in Egypt.
He could have been lost to starvation, slavery, or abuse on the streets of Jerusalem as a young boy.
He did die for us on the cross.
It is not that as God He couldn’t have stopped any one of these tragedies from befalling the child Jesus. And in fact Scripture does convey to us moments when He uses His divine power to avert death, quelling the storm or passing through the mob ready to stone Him for blasphemy. But for most of Jesus’ thirty-three years on earth He chose to depend upon man for His safety and sustenance. And I think it is very, very easy to overlook just how truly dependent He allowed himself to be. We speak of the helpless babe, but how often do we really actually see Jesus in that helplessness? Maybe it is our confidence in Mary and Joseph, and that confidence is a beautiful tribute and testimony to their greatness. But what Scripture catalogs for us is them being called to rise again and again to the challenge, as parents, of saving the child Jesus. And these were neither easy nor short tasks. The shortest perhaps was spending three full days searching the streets of Jerusalem for the boy Jesus. Most of what they were called to do, what we tend to reflect upon as mere moments, took months or even years and great sacrifices on their part.
Jesus spent thirty-three years upon earth, thirty of those in relatively silent obscurity. I find myself coming back to those thirty years. Clearly as a boy of twelve He was capable of outstanding brilliance before the teachers in the temple, but He went home again for another eighteen years before He began His public ministry. When I think now about the child learning things through His senses, the Word chose to wait for a year or two in silence as He came, as man, to first find and then control the muscles within His mouth, lips, and tongue. He waited in silence for teeth to grow in and allow Him to properly shape the air waves that form the sounds of the Word Himself. That humbling helplessness is for us. God took on every part of man’s human frailty. It is so easy to jump to the very end when He took on our sin and suffered and died. But He actually suffered for thirty-three years. God depended upon man so that man would learn to depend upon God. He could, as Pope Benedict said, come in power and might to remind us just where we belong in relation to God. But instead He came and took that spot for us.
And in standing right there where we as humans fit into the created world, the Word of God showed us just how much He values each one of us. His “gaze is the gaze of Love”. We try so hard to elevate ourselves and in doing so show off our human frailty; He took on our human frailty and showed us our true worth. Our worth lies in Him and through Him. Those great deeds of Joseph and Mary are possible because of Him. He gave them the opportunity; He gave them the grace. The Savior of the world placed Himself in their hands and asked them over and over again to save Him. We are free to act as we truly are when we place ourselves in His hands and ask Him to save us; it is only through Him that we are restored to the supernatural end God intended for us all along.
As we stand before the creche this Christmas and look on the image of the helpless babe, we need to remember that He has taken on our wretchedness, our turmoil, and our isolation. God has elevated our mortal flesh not just in those historic three decades when He walked and talked, ate and drank, shivered and wept in that flesh. The helpless babe of Christmas is not just connected to the bruised and bleeding body on the cross, but has stayed with us in that helpless form. For the last two millennia and unto the end of time God waits patiently on our altars for us to receive Him in that same flesh. He is there as helpless as the newborn babe in the face of any indignity that can be executed upon the sacred host and precious blood. He is willing to endure the indifference of man, just so that we, when we are ready to receive Him, will never again be sad, agitated, or lonely.
This last year has certainly changed my relationship with the Eucharist and I expect it has for many throughout the world. Just earlier this week as I knelt with my family on the parking lot pavement buffeted by fierce winds, I was struck that this inconvenience, being outside in the cold and wind, was nothing compared to the genuine suffering we all experienced when we went through eighty-two days, eleven long weeks without the Eucharist or physical presence at Mass. But as I knelt watching our dedicated priest struggle with missal pages and altar cloths flapping around in the wind as he navigated the elevation of the host and chalice, I was reminded that we are not the only ones who have suffered through this past year. God became man, came to earth and died for us, and then we locked Him away from the people. He came to be with us and in our selfishness and fear we isolated Him. But He doesn’t complain; He didn’t change the rules or withhold grace. Rather He waited patiently for us to return and be ready again to receive Him. I have never been so edified in my life as the witness I saw that first Sunday morning when we were allowed to return to church. We arrived quite early, anxious that we might not be able to claim a precious spot in the carefully counted out space. Ahead of us, two elderly ladies walked, one with a walker, the other with a cane as rapidly as they physically could. Nothing was going to keep them from seeing and being with Jesus again. And that witness has been borne out all summer, fall, and now into the bleakness of winter. No amount of inconvenience be it heat or cold, Santa Ana winds or dripping rain, hard pavement or rude blaring horns is going to keep the faithful from the Eucharist. And that is because of Him.
We can read the stories of brave Catholics witnessing to Christ through persecution. But we are getting our chance to live out our own witness to the Eucharist. The father who takes off his jacket in 40 degree weather so his child can be a little warmer during Mass belongs right there alongside St. Tarcisius; the elderly woman climbing up on her chair to kneel through the canon belongs right there alongside St. Edmund Campion; the elderly priest heroically bringing a reverent Mass no matter the circumstances belongs there alongside St. Isaac Jogues. These little sacrifices testify that what stands upon the altar is not bread and wine, but God Himself who depends upon us to keep Him safe. And from the little comes the big. If each one of us can keep going back to the Eucharist no matter the suffering, no matter the cost because that is God in the flesh, then we, through the grace of God are ready to be the stuff of martyrs.