Every person’s life involves a story and a mystery. One of the reasons Christmas is such a poignant holiday for all, young and old alike, is that Christmas involves both a story and a mystery.
What does it mean to say each human life is a mystery? It means there is a truth about each life that is deeper than anything another person could see from the outside. And yet something of it can be seen from the outside, as an individual’s life story unfolds. Over the course of a year, ten years, or a whole lifetime, more and more of that deep truth breaks through. The story of a person’s life tells us a lot about who he is, why we he is here, and where he is headed.
Ever since I was a boy, I liked to read the newspaper articles that come out during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, reporting the most important things that had happened during the year that was ending, and predicting what was coming in the new year ahead. Such reports mirror our individual lives: birth and death, victory and tragedy, some things gained and others lost.
When we feel this mix of joy, sorrow, and questions about the future, it’s a good time to remember the words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
We come together at Christmas to celebrate the birth of the Baby Jesus. Jesus was born at the end of one age and the beginning of another. But He is not like some “Baby New Year,” celebrated in the news because he or she is the first baby who happened to be born after midnight on January 1. Jesus’ birth does not come at the end of one age and the beginning of another by chance. Jesus’ coming is the reason one age comes to an end and a new age begins.
Why is Jesus’ birth so special? To answer that question, we have to ask a more basic question, the key question of Christmas, posed by another beloved Christmas carol: What Child is this?
The hymn “What Child is This” is set to one of the oldest known English melodies (late-sixteenth century), “Greensleeves.” The song’s lyrics come from a poem written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865. Dix wrote his poem, entitled “The Manger Throne”, at the age of 29. He had just undergone a near-death experience which followed a time of serious illness and deep depression. But instead of destroying him, this period of darkness became the soil of spiritual renewal for Dix. And so he wrote his poem at a time when he was coming to realize the meaning of Christmas and of his own life.
What Child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
What Child is this? Of all the thoughts that come to mind as we look at the Nativity scene this Christmas, this is the one question we really need to ponder.
Why lies he in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
The story of Jesus’ life is very much like the story of our lives. The circumstances of his birth are not just simple; they could be called humiliating. In Matthew’s Gospel, the account of Jesus’ birth comes just after his genealogy. In the genealogy, we read about the whole line of Jesus’ ancestors, some of whom could also be considered sort of embarrassing. The point is that Jesus is fully human, which means that the story of his earthly life has plenty of challenges, but it also reveals a lot about the mystery of who he is. In “What Child is This,” we see the veil over this mystery pulled back:
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
The testimony of the Old Testament prophets tells us that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the hopes of God’s people, Israel. Jesus is greater than the greatest and last of the prophets, John the Baptist, who at the time of Christ’s coming on the public scene seemed to be not only the greatest prophet but the greatest man of God around. And in Matthew’s Gospel, we learn the bottom-line answer concerning who Jesus is. The angel tells Joseph: “It is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived…you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus is also to be known as Emmanuel, “God with us.”
We need to keep this clearly in mind, because it is not only Christ’s birth that is humble, but also the life he will lead and the death he will undergo for us. As the song tells us:
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you:
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!
The story of Jesus’ life, like ours, is one of both joy and suffering, of love and of sacrifice. But Jesus is not only like us; he is also infinitely greater than us. If someone had stood at my crib and asked, “What child is this,” the answer might have been, “This, this is Charlie Fox, of chubby cheeks and brownish locks.” And that’s about all you could have said at that point in my life.
We are creatures, and we find the meaning of our lives in God our creator. That’s why we celebrate Holy Mass each Christmas, to worship the God who loves us so much he came to live with us and to show us the way to heaven:
So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come, peasant, king, to own him;
The King of Kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone him.
Raise, raise the song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby:
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!
In the Holy Eucharist, Christ our King comes to us now, even more hidden than in Bethlehem, but equally present. The King of Kings brings salvation to us, brings us joy, brings us peace, and makes this Christmas one in which we can know God’s love more fully. He helps us to know the meaning of our lives, and to know our destiny.
Christ our newborn King also comes to help us share the Good News of Christmas with a world that so desperately needs Him. That is what unleashing the Gospel is all about: knowing Christ so well, loving him so much, and understanding so clearly how much we need him that we cannot help but share him with others.
Blessed Solanus Casey once said that gratitude is “the first sign of a thinking, rational creature.” It is so easy to take Christmas gifts for granted, but ingratitude is a sin. And ingratitude towards God is the worst kind of ingratitude. Yet when we are grateful to God for the gift of himself this Christmas, we will receive yet another gift from him: the gift of even more peace of heart and a deeper sense of identity, meaning, and purpose.
Our purpose is not only to go to heaven ourselves, but to bring others along with us. So, following-up on Blessed Solanus’ wise saying, above, we might add that the second sign of a rational creature is sharing the gift of Jesus Christ with others. We share him so that other people might understand the stories of their own lives, experience the greatest love the world has ever known, and become joined in spiritual union with the Child Jesus and all those who welcome him at Christmas with great faith, hope, and love.
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