For Christians, Christmas is the celebration of one of the most significant religious, historical and cultural events in the Western world. It marks a turning point in human history, a new era for the human race.
Two thousand years ago, the world was very different from what it is today. This was true not only of material surroundings, possessions and institutions, but more strikingly of human attitudes, relationships and beliefs. Women were considered inferior to men and had comparatively few rights. Fathers had absolute authority over their children, even to the point of putting them to death. Marriage was dissoluble for trifling reasons. Manual labor was relegated to slaves, who were considered chattel and the property of their masters. Religion was intertwined with the state, with the emperor standing at the head of both.
Then, on a day now known as Christmas, in the words of St. John, the “Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” This event changed the world. God had come to Earth, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, in the person of Jesus Christ. God assumed a human nature, with all of its joys and agonies, trials and tribulations, thoughts and emotions, sufferings and death.
Jesus did not come as God in the guise of man, or as part God and part man, nor was His nature a mixture of the divine and the human. Rather, He became truly and completely human while remaining truly and completely God. With all of the human weakness He assumed, there was never any lessening of his divine nature. His actions and teachings were always those of the Son of God. This is the essence of the incarnation, the union of two natures, the divine and the human, in a single person.
Christ chose to come into the world in the most humble manner. When Mary was far from her Nazarene home, in the little town of Bethlehem, as St. Luke describes, “she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” He whom the angels adore in heaven came into our world in a stable, among the animals, under a roof not His own. As St. John says, “He came unto His own, and his own received Him not.” Yet, the result of this Nativity was profound. He who was the maker of the world, before whom “the pillars of the heavens tremble,” took on the lowliness of man and thus exalted the dignity of humanity. He assumed a nature that was human in every way except sin and united it to himself. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said this was “not so much the conversion of the Godhead into flesh, as the taking of manhood into God.” This is a privilege that not even the angels received.
Archbishop Sheen further described the effect of this event:
“Bethlehem became a link between heaven and earth; God and man met here and looked each other in the face. In the taking of human flesh, the Father prepared it, the Spirit formed it, and the Son assumed it. He Who had an eternal generation in the bosom of the Father now had a temporal generation in time. He Who had His birth in Bethlehem came to be born in the hearts of men.”
Through the incarnation, our relationship with our Creator changed. God became a personal God rather than an unseen omnipresence. Now He had a human nature and form, with experiences to which we could relate.
People saw Jesus, heard Him, spoke with Him, ate with Him, and touched Him. Since earliest antiquity, there have been prophets and seers, priests and disciples, holy men and preachers. Yet God always had been distant, ethereal, mysterious. Now for the first and only time in history, God came to Earth and lived a human life — having parents and relatives, mingling with neighbors, practicing a religion, learning a trade, working and finally assuming his public mission to teach, gather followers, suffer and die on a cross. These are human experiences we can relate to.
This first Christmas signaled a new era for the human race. Jesus, through His teachings and the church He left behind, brought about profound changes in the world. His doctrines on the dignity of the person elevated women to equality with men, gave respectability to physical labor, asserted the legitimate uses of private property and showed the injustice and immorality of slavery. His concern for children and the family established the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage, extolled children and elevated the role of social justice and the proper use of riches. His obedience to the ecclesiastical and civil strictures of Judaism and Rome showed the importance of law and one’s duty to one’s country. His statement, “Render, therefore, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” presented a new relationship between the state and the church.
Today, too many of us ignore Our Lord’s teachings or warp them to fit our desires. We choose among his words, rejecting what we do not like and accepting only those that please us. As a result, we have forgotten why we were created.
In a sermon on Christmas Day 1976, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, directly addressed this attitude, saying:
“Contemporary people in this last quarter of the 20th century, whose human dignity has been ignored and infringed in so many ways, come to Christ’s stable in Bethlehem to ask who they are and why they are in the world, bringing with them their existential anxiety. And when they come to Bethlehem, like each of us, they find the reply in the manger on the straw: ‘I have given them power to become children of God.’ This small, weak infant, who was born and forced to stay outside the town in a stable, has given this power — and he still gives it to us who live in the 20th century and whose human dignity and essence have been so compromised that we no longer really understand that we were made in the image and likeness of God. However, this truth alone gives meaning to our human existence, and only in this truth do we find the answer to the questions of who we are and why we are alive.”
Lawrence P. Grayson is a visiting scholar in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America.