Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on the Solemnity of the Lord’s Nativity 2016, at the Church of the Holy Innocents in Manhattan.
Laudetur Jesus Christus. Sia lodato Gesù Cristo. Garbe Jezui Kristui. Niech będzie pochwalony Jezus Chrystus. Slava Isusu Kristu. Praised be Jesus Christ.
“Vere dignum et justum est.” Yes, how right it is to praise the Lord and Messiah in every tongue known to man, especially on this day referred to by St. Paul as “when the time had fully come” (Gal 4:4), that time when God made a unity of the entire human race. This day was no accident, no coincidence; it was planned for from all eternity; indeed, it represented precisely what the Epistle to the Ephesians called it: plenitudo temporum (the fullness of time), that is, that moment when the aspirations and yearnings of all humanity had reached an apex and it seemed that all men were chafing at the bit for some kind of definitive intervention to occur within human affairs.
The three great civilizations of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome—each in its own way—participated in this experience.
Plenitudo temporum. Israel’s prophets from Isaiah, to Micah, to Malachi had prepared the minds and hearts of the Chosen People for an encounter with one born of a virgin in the backwater town of Bethlehem; one who would return mankind to the Garden of Eden; one who would inaugurate a reign of universal justice and peace, harmony and wholeness. The sages who were the human instruments of God’s Revelation in the Wisdom Literature taught mighty truths: “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High. . . . Then the Creator of all things. . . said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.’ . . . So I took root in an honored people, in the portion of the Lord, who is their inheritance” [Sir 24:3, 8, 12]. Or the line which gives such meaning to Midnight Mass: “For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, thy all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne” [Wis 18:14-15]. Beyond all the scriptural data, we also discover the time as one replete with reform movements within Judaism, signs of hope and promise, so that the Pharisees embarked on a lay-led effort to purify their religion and to teach with certitude about the resurrection of the dead, while the Essenes hied themselves out to the desert to prepare for the Messiah’s coming. Individuals also partook of this messianic anticipation, with someone like the old priest Zechariah looking into his baby boy’s face and seeing therein the one who would be the Lord’s precursor.
Plenitudo temporum. But such hopes were not limited to Abraham’s stock as the culture of Athens made its unique contribution. Greek philosophy began to look askance at the Pantheon; the great lights from Socrates to Aristotle looked to one God, and that reflection even led them to identify Him with the Logos, the Word Who was this self-same God before time began, as found in the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel, the very text the Church proclaims in the Third Mass of Christmas. Was it mere chance that the Jews also spoke about God’s Word being uttered and coming down among us? Indeed, the combination of the Greek and Hebrew concepts here offer us the image of One Who is: God’s own dynamic, creative Word; the personified Wisdom of Divinity; the ultimate Source of intelligibility for the entire cosmos.
Plenitudo temporum. God also used the power, organization, language, network and empire of ancient Rome for His purposes. The same attitude of expectancy found in Jerusalem and Athens was likewise here, and really in some rather eerie and uncanny ways. The great pagan poet Virgil, decades before Christ and thousands of miles away, in his Fourth Ecologue sings thus: “Now is come the last age of the song of Cumae; the great line of the centuries begins anew. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; now a new generation descends from heaven on high.” He goes on to speak of the birth of a child whose coming will bring universal peace and a golden age in which sin and guilt will be wiped away. Speaking to this child, old Virgil predicts his victory over the serpent, and then, in great tenderness, he addresses the little one: “Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem” [Begin, O baby boy, to recognize your mother by her smile].
No wonder that the medievals took the unprecedented step of declaring Virgil a saint by popular acclamation. But Virgil was not alone in his posture of waiting; Augustus Caesar was also within those ranks. It seems that the great Emperor of the Pax Romana one day ascended the Capitoline Hill to obtain an augury from the Sibylline prophetess over the Temple of Jupiter – but an augury he did not expect or desire. Her examination of the entrails of his sacrifice made her shriek in horror as she pointed out toward the eastern limits of his empire, exclaiming: “At this very moment in the east, there is being born a child who will rule in your place over the whole world from this very spot where we stand.” In truth, God had used a pagan soothsayer to proclaim the Gospel to the man who ruled the world – or at least thought he did. On that hill, from at least the sixth century forward, has stood the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. So significant is that site that even the virulent anti-Catholic historian Edward Gibbon tells us: “It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefoot friars were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”
Edgar Allen Poe spoke of “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.” The emphasis must obviously be placed on the past tense of those verbs. The holy prophets and sages of Israel; the philosophers of Greece; the poets, priestesses and princes of Rome; all looked for and participated in fashioning the plenitudo temporum.
And for nearly two millennia people have continued to desire and to seek the One Who not only brings the plenitudo temporum, but is its very Embodiment, literally. That reflection, that search, that aspiration is not enough; one must know where and how such dreams may be fulfilled. The great English convert of the last century, G. K. Chesterton, gave us the ticket with his poem, “The House of Christmas.” Analyzing the human condition of restlessness and hopelessness, he declares – without fear of contradiction: “For men are homesick in their homes, And strangers under the sun.” We need a place to feel “at home,” and Chesterton tells us that such a place is provided for us only in and through Jesus Christ; with the rhapsody of a poet and the insight of a philosopher/theologian, he writes:
To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
The solution, according to the poet, is to make ourselves homeless if we want to inherit a real and everlasting home. So, whether someone owns a Brownstone, rents a cold-water flat or lives on a bench in Bryant Park, all of us must make ourselves homeless by divesting ourselves of worldly drives for power, prestige and the almighty dollar. But there is more stripping away that must be done – and perhaps this is a bit more difficult. We must lay aside any and all sins which place gods other than the Christ Child in the manger: sins of greed, insensitivity to the poor, the stranger and the immigrant; sins of fornication, adultery, abortion, and artificial contraception; sins of laziness which keep all too many away from Christ, His Church and the sacraments for weeks and even months or years on end.
So, my dear people, the plenitudo temporum has been in our midst for more than 2000 years, and yet so many of us have failed to experience it. As Our Lord said to His hearers, “many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” [Mt 13:18]. If we haven’t known its meaning and power personally, when will we? Not unless and until we follow the example of the Lord Jesus Himself Who emptied Himself of His divine prerogatives; in the same way, we must empty ourselves of all disordered dreams and desires and then allow Him to fill us – not with superficial things which are bound to frustrate – but with His life, His truth, His love.
Permit me to make a suggestion. Give yourself a Christmas gift this year – the gift of spiritual homelessness, so that God can give you a home – that place which is “older. . . than Eden. And a taller town than Rome.” It is the home of eternity, which no one can rob, which no human weakness can disappoint. It is the home given us by a homeless and helpless Babe Who is, against all odds and all appearances, the “Desired of the nations,” the One in Whom the cultures of Jerusalem, Athens and Rome found their fulfillment – and yes, the culture of New York as well. Jesus, coming to us in the plenitudo temporum, leads us “to the place where [He] was homeless And all men are at home.” That place is this altar where He makes Himself as present to us as He was to His Blessed Mother, and that altar is the touchstone of eternity for us and for all who wish to know not just “the fullness of time” but also the fullness of eternity.