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Christmas, freedom, and obedience

If Christmas only makes Christian sense because of Easter, Christmas is only possible because of Mary and her embrace of the mystery of obedient freedom.

"Nativity" (1414) by Lorenzo Monaco [WikiArt.org]

On December 17, the day the first “O Antiphon” signaled the intensification of preparations for Christmas, the Church read the genealogy of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel: writing for a predominantly Jewish-Christian audience, the evangelist stresses that the blessings promised to and through Abraham, and the dynastic promises made to King David, are about to be fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. Almost three weeks later, the Church will read the second Jesus-genealogy, in Luke 3:23-38. There, on the cusp of the Epiphany and the public manifestations of Jesus as Lord, the historical lens opens farther: Luke also traces Jesus’s ancestry through David and the patriarchs of Israel, but then extends the line back through “…the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.”

Why did Luke do that? In order to emphasize to his largely Gentile audience that Jesus is more than the fulfillment of Israel’s desire. He is surely that.  But as Joseph Ratzinger wrote in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, he is also the one who assumes in himself “the whole history of man, and … gives it a decisive re-orientation toward a new manner of human existence.”  That evolutionary leap will only be revealed at the Resurrection, in the Risen Lord’s appearances to his disciples — which reminds us that Christmas is a great Christian feast because of Easter, the pre-eminent Christian feast.

And if Christmas only makes Christian sense because of Easter, Christmas is only possible because of Mary and her embrace of the mystery of obedient freedom.

On December 20, the Church read in the Liturgy of the Hours excerpts from a homily by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in which that Cistercian Doctor of the Church reflected on the singular curiosity of God making his plan of salvation dependent on the free choice of a young Jewish woman. Again, Joseph Ratzinger sheds light on this remarkable facet of the Christmas season: “After the error of our first parents, the whole world was shrouded in darkness, under the dominion of death. Now God seeks to enter the world anew. He knocks at Mary’s door. He needs human freedom. The only way he can redeem man, who was created free, is by means of a free ‘yes’ to his will. In creating freedom, [God] made himself in a certain sense dependent upon man. His power is tied to the unenforceable ‘yes’ of a human being.”

And that leads the Pope Emeritus into a Christmastide reflection on the relationship between freedom and obedience. A culture that often confuses freedom with willfulness, with doing things “my way,” will immediately ask, “What has ‘freedom’ to do with ‘obedience’?” To which the Church answers, “The road to true freedom — and, ultimately, to the redemption of humanity — runs through Mary’s response to the angelic announcement: ‘Be it done unto me according to your word’” (Luke 1:38). Benedict XVI then explains the salvific paradox in Luke’s rendering of the Annunciation/Incarnation. It is, he writes, “an utterly humble story, yet one whose very humility gives it … grandeur. It is Mary’s obedience that opens the door to God. God’s word, his Spirit, creates the child in her. He does so through the door of her obedience. In this way Jesus is the new Adam, the new beginning … from the Virgin, who places herself entirely at the disposal of God’s will. So a new creation comes about, which is nevertheless tied to the free ‘yes’ of a human creature, Mary.”

The Christmas story is a lengthy meditation on a counterintuitive but essential truth: true freedom, genuine liberation, comes through freely chosen obedience to God’s purposes. That was true, as we have just seen, for Mary. It was also true for Joseph, who freely agrees to take a pregnant teenager for his wife. It was true of the shepherds, who find their long-awaited savior, in previously unimagined circumstances no less, through obedience to an angelic announcement. It was true of the Magi, who freely travel to parts unknown, in obedience to what they perceive as a divine summons, conveyed by a star. And it was true of Jesus himself, who, at the end of the extended Christmas drama, returns as a youngster with his parents to Nazareth, where he was obedient to them — and through that obedience, “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).

Freely chosen obedience to God’s purposes makes the world anew: from Christmas, to the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.


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About George Weigel 297 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent book is The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), published by Ignatius Press.

16 Comments

  1. True freedom is not counterintuitive because it is not an acquired truth. If it were acquired solely through reason our understanding would be the product of reason, and reason would be the rule of that truth rather than [in compliance to the true role of reason] the measure of truth. Our ‘sense’ of freedom is an interior intuition, self evident to the intellect. Otherwise we could never act freely and responsibly for moral decisions. That [though missing from his premise] is basic to Weigel’s excellent linkage between obedience and freedom. True freedom is expressed in willingness to act morally which is not essentially [man does and can act morally in accord with inherent Natural Law] a result of right reason in accord with human nature rather with grace, the gift of the Holy Spirit. That insight [intuition] of Mary is of an inherent truth realized in her who is filled with grace. Eve possessed the inherent capacity to reject Satan’s ploy – otherwise she would not have been permitted by God to be subject to that test. She could have acted with ‘true’ freedom and refused instead she wilfully chose to disobey. Mary hesitated to the poetic anxiety expressed by Bernard of Clairvaux narrating the Annunciation. Mary was subject to the test, now a test of her faith. God made no small choice in choosing Mary from all eternity that he himself might enter enfleshed into our universe to save us.

    • Faith [that of Abraham] is equivalent to Justice [giving God his due] by the Apostle. Aquinas believed Justice in effect is love of neighbor. What ultimately motivated Our Blessed Mother to make her choice to be obedient to Our Lord’s request announced by Gabriel was the depth of her love for God. Obedience to God is essentially love of God.

      • Peter (Fr. Peter Morello, PhD)

        “Paint a picture according to the vision you see and with the inscription. “Jesus I trust in thee”. I desire that this picture be venerated first in your chapel and then throughout the world”

        Sr. Fustian acted immediately in ‘singular pure intent’, manifesting the depth of her love for God to the request given to her, by Our Lord Himself. “Obedience to God is essentially love of God” is it not Peter, as she also gave God His due

        kevin your brother
        In Christ

          • Reposted under the correct (Reply) link

            Thank you, Peter (Fr Peter Morello, PhD) for your comment, so why do we not have her Painting /drawing/effort (Giving God His due) venerated throughout the world?

            kevin your brother
            In Christ

  2. Thank you Peter (Fr Peter Morello, PhD) for your comment, so why do we not have her Painting /drawing/effort (Giving God His due) venerated throughout the world?

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

    • I can’t answer that Kevin not having information. The image painted by Eugene Kazimierowski in Vilnius is by far the most appealing and was the one supervised and approved by Saint Maria Faustina. The visage is quite similar to that on the Shroud of Turin.

      • Thank you, Peter, (Fr Peter Morello, PhD) for your response “The visage is quite similar to that on the Shroud of Turin” Yes! they both subvert the Truth

        ( John 20:7 and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen ‘wrappings’, but rolled up in a place by itself”

        kevin your brother
        In Christ

          • Yes, and we might also suppose that Kevin would count it an impious deception for anyone to edit his own comment, above, where he too “acted immediately” in his “drawing/painting/effort”/OR typing (!) reference to “Sr. Fustian.” A Faustian gaff?

          • No! The blind lead the blind as they search for signs as with (“The visage is quite similar to that on the Shroud of Turin”) which contradicts the Gospels.

            While the Truth is no were to be seen. (Not looked for with vigour) Giving the laity a wishy-washy fudge, as in, take or leave it or in other words believe it if you want to.

            kevin your bother
            In Christ

          • Thank you for your comment Peter D. Beaulieu

            I am uneducated leaving school at fifteen unable to read or write, to day I possible would be classed as dyslexic. Without the spell /grammar/ check and paste facility on the computer I would not be able to participate on any Sites. Words of similar appearance often appear the same, it is only when I spell a word incorrectly that it is highlighted (To edit it), there was no intentional deception.

            I have made the above (Similar) statement before under another article, in which you participated also, obviously, you did not see it.
            Sincerely
            kevin your brother
            In Christ

          • To Kevin,

            I did miss the earlier article. Indirectly these CWR strings are actually creating a community. You have my understanding and even admiration. I have dyslexia in the family.

            Also a friend who became an attorney, and an acquaintance who was not diagnosed until his mid-20s and who has had multiple careers and a measured IQ of 175. Some famous dyslexics are said to include Pres. Kennedy, almost-VP Nelson Rockefeller, as well as Walt Disney and even some guy named Albert Einstein. You’re in good company, my friend.

            The view that DaVinci was dyslexic seems an error. His notebooks are all written backwards, right-to-left, but this was done on metal plates surely so that his work could be reverse printed left-to-right.

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