A royal birth is traditionally the occasion for celebration. When the civilized world was ruled by kings and disputed succession might mean civil war and the threat of foreign invasion then the hopes of an entire nation would be invested in a new-born child, especially if he happened to be a first-born son.
At Christmas we celebrate the birth of a royal Son who carries within Himself the fulfilment of all our deepest human aspirations. The Nativity is a royal birth with a difference. There are no palace walls or gates, and no guards, to protect this royal Child; and although a convoy of V.I.P.s will eventually make its way to Bethlehem from the East, the first subjects to pay homage to this Child will be some shepherds summoned from the surrounding hills by an angel.
Popular tradition relates that Our Lord was born into the cold and the dark of a winter’s night. As they knelt to adore the Child in a manger, however, those shepherds must have realized that they would never have to fear the dark again. With the new Faith infused into their souls on that first Christmas Eve, their hearts were warmed by the rays of divine light that streamed out of the manger and into the world around them.
Looking into the face of anew-born child can be an unsettling experience. The clarity in the eyes and the purity of expression are an indication of innocence of soul within. Catch a glimpse of our own reflection in those eyes and what we see looking back at us might not be so agreeable. No child was ever more perfectly pure than the Child Jesus. And yet He has not come to reproach us. Rather He comes into the world to restore to us a childlike innocence that has been lost.
His arrival in a stable rather than in a palace is no accident. His desire is that we should be moved to offer him a home within our hearts. An army would be completely useless in establishing the sort of reign that He intends. He has not come to govern by force of arms. Rather He has come to take possession of our hearts by invitation. He asks for entry, but we always remain free to lock Him out.
There is of course a catch. Around December, animal welfare societies have been known to put up posters declaring “A pet is not just for Christmas”. And the Christ-Child is certainly not just for Christmas. Once accepted, the divine gift of the new life that He offers us has to be fed and nurtured. We must become sensitive to what nourishes that life and we have to learn to avoid whatever is harmful to it. The life of grace has to be sustained by loving contact with its divine origin, through prayer and worship. It has to be expressed in good works.
In some churches it is apparently customary for preachers to berate those “Christmas Catholics” who turn up to sing the carols at Midnight Mass and are never seen again until a year later. Not at the Oratory. The Fathers of the London Oratory are famously liberal and soft-hearted, and have never been known to berate anyone- and certainly not during the season of good cheer.
The truth is that the Child Jesus invites everyone to the manger. At Christmas especially Love Incarnate extends His warmth and His friendship to everyone, the shepherd and the wise man, the virgin and the whore. No one is to be excluded from the celebration at the crib.
If you are wondering how to mark this Year of Faith, perhaps you should invite someone who has been away from the Church, or never really been to Church, to come with you at Christmas. If you happen to be in London, try to bring them to the beautiful Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at the Oratory. It begins with Carols at 11.30pm. In the precious moments of silence that draw us into the heart of the Roman Liturgy, encourage them to listen in their own hearts for the voice of the Child Jesus. Pray that they will hear Him speaking from the manger, inviting them to come back to find Him in the Mass again and again.
After the carols have ended with Silent Night, Mass begins after a life-size plaster figure of the Christ Child is carried in procession and enthroned above the High Altar amid golden rays. This painted figure is a holy image, which is why we venerate it; but it is only a figure. Directly underneath it is the Sacred Reality that it represents. If only we had the faith of those shepherds in Bethlehem, then perhaps we should be able to see the rays of divine light escaping from behind the veil of the Tabernacle, and perhaps our hearts would glow in the warmth that they exude. Our Lord did not just come to us once, on a winter’s night, two thousand years ago in Palestine. He comes to us every day on the Altar. He comes to feed and to nourish us with His living Body and Blood. He remains on the Altar so that we might always find rest and strength in His Presence.
Perhaps we have set our hearts on some particular gift this Christmas. The best gift by far that we can ever receive is Our Lord in Holy Communion. That little white disc is infinitely more precious than the whole material universe in all its majesty. The Sacred Host is God Himself.
Why did the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who lives eternally in Heavenly bliss, take on our frail human flesh and come into this violent and unwelcoming world? The answer is to be found in the Sacrifice of the Mass. At the Offertory, the celebrant pours a small drop of water into the un-consecrated wine. That drop of water becomes one with the wine that will soon be transformed into the Precious Blood. And the priest prays that, by the mystery of the water mingling with the wine, we may come to share in His Divinity Who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.
And so the Holy Mass contains the answer to why that holy Child was born into this world in Bethlehem, He takes on our human nature in order to communicate to us His Divine Nature. In a phrase that was dear to St Athanasius and others of the Fathers of the Church: “He became man so that man might become God.” How blasphemous this would sound, had it not been revealed to us by God Himself. This transformation is effected in Baptism, when the very life and holiness of Christ is poured into our hearts in Sanctifying Grace. It is increased and perfected whenever we make a well-prepared Holy Communion.
Normally at Christmas there will be a good number of people present at Mass who are not in a position to receive Holy Communion on Christmas day itself. Perhaps it is a long time since you last had an opportunity to go to Confession, and you are in need of absolution. If this is the case, then all is not lost. Christmas only actually begins on Christmas Eve, and it lasts a whole twelve days. Come and find a priest during one of the quieter days that follow, and explain to him that you wish to prepare a place for the Child Jesus in your heart by making a good Confession. Having received sacramental absolution, you can then look forward to the lowly stable of your heart being transformed into the palace of a King when you receive Holy Communion.
Fr Julian Large