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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Puer Natus Est Nobis


Let us rejoice, for the Christ Child is born to us today!

We celebrate today the birth of Jesus Christ, the Immanuel, the Son of God; on this day some 2,000 years ago a virgin named Mary gave birth to Him, and wrapped in swaddling clothes he was lain in a manger. At the opening of the Midnight Mass in the Cathedral of St. Paul here in Münster, the cantor sang the announcement of the First Mass of Christmas taken from the Martyrologium Romanum, the medieval catalogue of the calendar of the Church’s feast days:

In the 5199th year of the creation of the world, from the time when in the beginning God created heaven and earth; from the flood, the 2957th year; from the birth of Abraham, the 2015th year; from Moses and the going-out of the people of Israel from Egypt, the 1510th year; from the anointing of David as king, the 1032nd year; in the 65th week according tothe prophecy of Daniel; in the 194th Olympiad; from the founding of the city of Rome, the 752nd year; in the 42nd year of the rule of Octavian Augustus, when the whole world was at peace, in the sixth age of the world: Jesus Christ, the eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to sanctify the world by His most merciful coming, having been conceived by the Holy Ghost, and nine months having passed since His conception was born in Bethlehem of Juda of the Virgin Mary, having become man. The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

As tedious as it might seem to define the day of Christ’s birth according to many historical references, the Martyrologium has a very good reason for its lengthy detail: the birth of Jesus Christ, the official revelation to the world of the Incarnation, the Word, the only-begotten Son of God before all ages of the world, now born of a virgin in a stable in Bethlehem—this birth was and is an historical event. Christ was born a man on an actual day in the actual history of the world. The Nativity of Christ is not just a story in a religious text, like so many stories in so many traditions around the world; no, He was a completely real person, like you or I, acting in the reality of history.

The incredible beauty and yet radical statement that is the mystery of the Incarnation is at the heart not only of the Christian religion but also the very existence of the world. Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made”: He is the very foundation of existence. Yet He also “for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven: and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and became man”: He was (and is) an individual human being, walking upon the earth in an actual body composed of muscles and sinews and blood. If He missed a nail and hit His finger with a hammer in His carpenter’s workshop in Nazareth, he felt the same pain that you or I feel when we do the same. Indeed, He faced even greater pains than you or I are likely ever to face when He was “crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered, and was buried.”

And as radical as this idea may seem, that the immortal, invisible, omniscient and omnipresent God, Creator of all that is and was and ever shall be, was also a simple woodworker from a backwater town on the Sea of Galilee; as radical as this idea may seem, more radical yet is “what both educated and simple people [find] in Christ: he tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human.” (Spe Salvi 6). Not only did Christ the God become Christ the Man, the King who was made Sacrifice, but in doing so, He both renewed and further exalted the very humanity that we hold in common with Him, as we are reminded during the Preparation of the Gifts in the Mass:

Deus, qui humanae substantiae dignitatem mirabiliter condidisti, et mirabilius reformasti: da nobis per huius aquae et vini mysterium, eius divinitatis esse consortes, qui humanitatis nostrae fieri dignatus est particeps, Iesus Christus.

O God, who didst wonderfully create, and yet more wonderfully renew the dignity of the nature of man: grant unto us, that through the mystery of this water and wine, we may be sharers in His divinity who vouchsafed to be made partaker of our humanity, Jesus Christ.

In the New Adam, the strength of humanity was made anew, perfected from the Fall of Adam but also excelling Adam even in his perfection; for though Adam was made in the image and likeness of God, yet God did not share with Adam yet his human nature. But now, in an act made out of His boundless love, His Son has taken up that nature, and in this mystery are opened unto us the true gates of righteousness. In Christ we may now share in the one divinity; Adam and Eve lusted after this, but it was not given them, for they knew not the mystery of the Son. But now, every one of us, every child who is born into the world just as was Christ 2,000 years ago, has received in His birth the opportunity to be co-heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven.

While this Mystery seems incomprehensible, it is yet the most accessible feature of the Christian religion, for in Christ we have been presented with a man, a simple man, a true person with whom we each can have a true, intimate, personal relationship. Christian spirituality is not an amorphous cloud; it is not some “feeling” that we have of joy or loftiness or nobility. It must not be confused with many modern ideas of spirituality that emphasize the temporal sensation or sentiment of some ill-defined “spiritual connection” to some higher being. No, Christian spirituality is concrete and is founded in the very personal, very real Person of Jesus. Without Jesus, without the Christ who was a real, historical, and finite man, and is also a real, eternal, infinite God, Christian spirituality is empty.

Furthermore, without this real encounter with the personhood of Christ, this whole life and world is left empty and dark, a mere wandering from a naked birth to a naked death. If one believes in no God, or even if one believes in a God who is but as the furthest twinkle of a star, beautiful perhaps but utterly distant and foreign, then there is left nothing in this world but the brief span of the insignificant life of a human, one of billions living but a snapshot of a world infinitely larger than any can comprehend. In the cold, materialistic worldview that knocks ever at the gates of one who despairs of the divine, life is nothing but “poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” as Hobbes noted centuries ago.

But to this dark and dreary emptiness we are not bound, for the world is neither accident nor meaninglessness, but the very essence of the love of a personal God. As Pope Benedict says in his recent encyclical, Spe Salvi:

It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs…the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love—a Person. And if we know this Person and he knows us, then truly the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free. In ancient times, honest enquiring minds were aware of this. Heaven is not empty. Life is not a simple product of laws and the randomness of matter, but within everything and at the same time above everything, there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love. (Spe Salvi 5)

Finally, as we look today upon the Incarnate Christ as an example of “who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human,” we must realize that we are gazing this happy day upon a child lying in a manger, the food trough of farm animals, sheltered from the elements by a barn, “because there was no room for them at the inn.” (Luke 2:7); and though the Magi brought to Him the gold of Kingship and the frankincense of Divinity, these gifts acknowledged not His human destiny but His spiritual reality. Indeed, it was Balthazar’s gift of myrrh that spoke most clearly of the role that this man of the royal house of David was to play in human history: His sacrificial death. The truth of humanity’s lot in this world is not the gold of the king but the pain and sorrow of suffering. Yet the suffering that we see all around us every day is not the meaningless horror that it would seem, for all suffering finds it true meaning in the suffering of Him who should not have had to suffer at all, but yet suffered more than all.

The key to our humanity as revealed to us by the lowly babe in a manger is His humility. He is the Son of God, and yet he slept not on silk but straw; He is the Word by which all is made, and yet spoke not of his right to rule the world but of his choice to serve it; He is of the great “I AM” who commanded Moses to remove his sandals upon holy ground, and who yet Himself removed the sandals of others to wash their feet. A man must serve and not be served in order to be fully human. A man must lay himself down in order to be stood aright not by his own will by the will of God. Above all, a man must so love God and his neighbor that even death for them is but a pittance compared to this love.

If this sounds difficult or even impossible for the lost, wandering, selfish, poor being that is man, remember but this: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)

Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis!

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