Seeing the Face of Christ at Christmas

Blessed John Paul II’s theology of the body helps us recognize the true presence of Christ in those around us.

There was a blind man named Bartimaeus who called out to Jesus: “Son of David, have pity of me” (Mk 10:46-52). In answer to his plea, Jesus responds in the most remarkable way, “What do you want me to do for you?” In order to get some sense of just how remarkable Jesus’ response is, we must pause for a moment and consider who Jesus is: he is the all-mighty, all-powerful, eternal Son of God. Jesus’ words, then, are the words of the Word of God.

The Gospels are no mere recollection of Jesus’ words and deeds. Rather, as writings inspired by the Holy Spirit, they have a power that cannot be found in any other form of literature: namely, the power to re-call and make present to us Jesus’ words and deeds. Read prayerfully, in the Spirit, the Gospels place us in the real presence of Jesus Christ and offer us the opportunity to truly encounter him. Thus, it is not only to Bartimaeus but to us that Jesus asks: “What do you want me to do for you?” God, himself, is asking us what we want him to do for us.

Bartimaeus’ desire—“I want to see”—is one that Christians feel with particular intensity during the Christmas season. We are all touched with the deep desire to have been there, to have seen this remarkable child born to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. Yet, have we taken the time to consider exactly what we would have seen had we been there on that first Christmas?

Would we have seen just one more example of what is an all too familiar scene: a poor couple bringing yet another child into the seeming endless cycle of misery and poverty? Would their example have inspired in us that brand of “compassion” which promotes, as a solution to poverty, education in reproductive rights for women and the widespread availability of contraception and abortion? Would we have been moved with such pity for Jesus that we would take steps to ensure that no more children like him would come into the world? Or would we have recognized, like Simeon and Ann later would, the face of God in this child? And, in seeing the face of God in the countenance of a human child, would we have seen the great dignity and worth of all human persons?

My contention is that in the present Culture of Death—ruled by the philosophy of efficiency and utility and the belief in merely technical solutions to profound human problems—many would have seen Jesus’ birth as a tragedy, an example of a problem to be solved through preventing conception and birth. To counteract the worldview of the Culture of Death and to establish a Culture of Life, John Paul II wrote (and it is worth quoting at length):

“For this to happen, we need first of all to foster, in ourselves and in others, a contemplative outlook. Such an outlook arises from faith in the God of life, who has created every individual as a ‘wonder.’ It is the outlook of those who see life in its deeper meaning, who grasp its utter gratuitousness, its beauty and its invitation to freedom and responsibility. It is the outlook of those who do not presume to take possession of reality but instead accept it as a gift, discovering in all things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in every person his living image (cf. Gen 1:27; Ps 8:5). This outlook does not give in to discouragement when confronted by those who are sick, suffering, outcast or at death’s door. Instead, in all these situations it feels challenged to find meaning, and precisely in these circumstances it is open to perceiving in the face of every person a call to encounter, dialogue and solidarity.

“It is time for all of us to adopt this outlook, and with deep religious awe to rediscover the ability to revere and honor every person, as Paul VI invited us to do in one of his first Christmas messages. Inspired by this contemplative outlook, the new people of the redeemed cannot but respond with songs of joy, praise and thanksgiving for the priceless gift of life, for the mystery of every individual’s call to share through Christ in the life of grace and in an existence of unending communion with God our Creator and Father” (Evangelium Vitae, 82).

John Paul II develops and deepens his teaching on the “contemplative outlook” in his Theology of the Body. We foster a contemplative outlook by adopting what might be called a “sacramental vision.” The Holy Father distinguishes between the strict understanding of sacrament (i.e., the seven Sacraments) and a more general understanding of sacrament: namely, sacrament as a visible sign of an invisible reality. In this sense, all of creation is a sacrament: that is, visible signs of the invisible God who is the creator of the cosmos. The human body, however, possesses a unique sacramental capacity, because the human body is always a personal reality that participates in imaging God to the world. As John Paul II writes:

“The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. . . . This is the mystery of truth and love, the mystery of divine life, in which man really participates. . . . [The body] was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it” (TOB, 02.20.80).

While these words are admittedly dense and difficult to understand, they provide us with rich material upon which to meditate as we enter into the Christmas mystery. The pope is saying that the human body, when seen properly, reveals something about the mystery of love and life that exists in the Trinity. The key, of course, is: when seen properly. John Paul II shows us that “in the beginning,” before the fall, the first man and woman spontaneously recognized through the body of the other that they were persons to be loved, not objects to be used. They realized that it was only through the means of living with and for another in a relationship of mutual, radical self-giving that they could realize the purpose for which they were created. This ability to see properly was rooted in their state of original innocence and grace. Before the fall, the human person’s communion with God was so intimate that he spontaneously participated in the Divine vision of himself and the cosmos. In other words, the first man and woman were able to see things as God saw them: in their truth and goodness.

As fallen human persons, affected by the distortion of sin, we no longer spontaneously participate in the Divine vision. We are, however, redeemed and Jesus’ death and resurrection provide us access to that Divine vision once again. Jesus came to heal the blind and restore our sight. And his miracles of healing physical blindness point us to his even more miraculous healing of our spiritual blindness. Jesus came to heal our “eyes that do not see,” he came to heal our sacramental blindness and to restore our sacramental vision. It is only through turning to Christ and praying to be healed of our sacramental blindness that we possess eyes that can once again see him present in the people we encounter each day.

Mother Theresa was a kind of exemplar of living out the truth of John Paul II’s prophetic teaching in his Theology of the Body. Mother Theresa once said that unless we can detect the presence of Jesus hidden under the humble appearance of bread, we cannot detect his presence hidden under the distressing disguise of the poor. When Mother claimed to see the presence of Jesus hidden in the distressing disguise of the poor, she wasn’t simply making a pious claim. I believe that Mother Theresa literally saw the world, and in particular the human person, differently than others. Through her communion with the suffering God-man, she was able to see the real presence of Jesus in the human persons she encountered. Her eyes had been transformed in such a way that she shared in the Divine vision of each person she served and loved: she saw them in truth.

Mother Theresa would have undoubtedly seen the face of God under the humble appearance of a human child had she been present at that first Christmas. Perhaps, during this Advent and Christmas season we can pray through the intercession of John Paul II and Mother Theresa to have our sacramental blindness healed so that we, too, may learn to recognize the true presence of Christ in the persons we encounter and are called to serve.

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About Bill Maguire 20 Articles
Bill Maguire earned his Master's in Theological Studies from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. He served for two years as the managing editor of Communio: International Catholic Review and has worked with youth and youth adults in various capacities: youth minister, campus minister, and adjunct professor of theology.