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In honor of Our Lord's Nativity
A joyful Nativity of Our Lord to all!
As we begin the celebration of Christmas, it is time to ponder how to receive and to make fruitful the graces of the season. After the penance and prayer of Advent, how can we receive the peace of Christ, and continue to grow in His grace?
Often, growth in virtue and in the order of grace feels so very difficult. How can we fight against all our vices with their dread strength? How can we live a life of virtue in a culture filled with vice? How can we know what is just, when making hard calls in the context of our families, employment, and life? Christmas in the world often seems to call us to vices–excesses of food, for example. The world calls us to be selfish, to become slothful and pleasure-seeking.
But this is not what the Nativity calls us to. The Lord this season brings us tidings of great joy.
What is the joy of Christmas? His yoke is sweet, and His burden is light (Mt 11:30). He will give us rest, and lighten the burden of all our paltry efforts to grow in acquired virtue by means of his grace. And there is more besides…
Holy Mother Church teaches us of the joy of Christmas, which is presented and celebrated in the liturgical commemoration of the Nativity in the Roman Martyrology.
The tapestry of the liturgy is always woven in a way that reflects eternity: the times of the liturgical year are all tied to things in the future and the past. God deigns to show us, in concrete signs embedded in human history, what we are to do in the time and place we are in.
Thus, the Roman Martyrology for the 25th of December lays out the temporal context for the coming of Christ and its meaning. The temporal context includes what St Augustine would characterize as the “six ages” of the world.
An account of the six ages is given in St. Augustine’s De catechizandis rudibus c. XXII (as seen in Wikipedia). The first age extends from the beginnings of the human race (with Adam) to the time of Noah, constructor of the ark during the flood. The second age continues from thence to Abraham, the father of all those following him in the faith. The third extends until David the king. The fourth goes from King David to the Babylonian captivity. The fifth age is from the time of the Captivity until the coming of the Lord. The sixth age begins with the Nativity.
The fifth age (and in a way, the previous ages) is especially commemorated in Advent.
But now we are in the sixth age. The sixth age is when God’s grace is made manifest to all nations. It leads us to desire only the enjoyment of God in eternal life. It is the time when man is renewed in the image of God, “even as on the sixth day man was made after the image of God.” The way in which we are renewed is by following the law of God, for the love of God. After all, as St. Augustine says:
“Who is there, moreover, who should not be earnestly disposed to give the return of love to a God of supreme righteousness and also of supreme mercy … [Who] by the assumption of human nature, was designed thus to become capable not only of living with them, but also of dying at once for them and by their hands?”
The love and mercy of God truly surpasses all our imaginings. It is a central reason for our Christmas Joy. The graces of Christmas, the mercy of the Lord, all arrive at once at the beginning of the sixth age. And we partake of these special graces, and this season of great mercy, during our Christmas celebrations, particularly at Mass. Our hope will increase and all temptations to despair will wither and die. Such a season brings us to praise the Lord: “O praise the Lord, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people. For his mercy is confirmed upon us: and the truth of the Lord remaineth for ever” (Ps 116).
When we partake in these graces, at the time of our visitation by Him on Christmas, the Lord offers us the aforementioned renewal in His Image. We receive the renewal of the heart and mind, by the marriage of the human nature with the divine nature, due to the Incarnation of the Son of God in Jesus Christ. Life in Christ truly began that day, and can begin anew for us on Christmas, if we embrace it.
Interestingly enough, Psalm 116’s praise of His mercy is prescribed for Holy Saturday Monastic Vespers. His mercy is connected then to the Passion. The Incarnation too is connected to the Passion, as is shown in the Martyrology. It gives the following instructions when announcing the Incarnation of Our Lord: “What follows is said in the ordinary voice, but in the tone of a Passion.” One could suppose from this instruction that the Incarnation is tied with the Passion, and indeed this may be a signal that the Nativity is the beginning of His Passion: the Passion in which he gave us the gift of salvation, liberation from the captivity of sin through the sacraments, in His great mercy. The Martyrology tells us that He was “desirous to sanctify the world by His most merciful coming, being conceived by the Holy Spirit, nine months after His conception.” In the conclusion of this passage, the solemnity of the Nativity is commemorated by an elevated tone of voice and kneeling, stating that He “was born in Bethlehem of Juda, made Man of the Virgin Mary.”
Yet there is more to the Christmas season than the Nativity in Bethlehem. The Martyrology speaks of the sixth age as beginning in a particular context: “in the 194th Olympiad, in the 752nd [week] from the foundation of the city of Rome...” Thus the Nativity is not only an event relevant to Jewish history, but also Greek and Roman history. The Nativity changed the entire Greco-Roman world. The fruits of the Nativity formed the Roman empire into Western Europe. His birth first brought salvation to the ends of the empire, and then later to the ends of the world.
Thus Christianity is not a private thing, and Christmas is a world-changing event which brings salvation and peace to the world. The Roman Church draws upon the Romanitas (“Roman-ness”) of its forebears to bring Christ to the world.
The joy of Christmas comes therefore from receiving of the gift of God’s sanctifying grace and His mercy, both of which we then offer to the whole world. Ultimately, Our Lord arrived “while the whole world was at peace” (Roman Martyrology), and he gives us His peace every season. But we can only receive this peace if we leave our worldly concerns behind, and allow ourselves to receive His mercy and cooperate with His grace.
May this Christmas season be for us a season of peace and grace, surpassing all our worries and concerns.