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The scandalous, glorious point of Christmas

The world rejects the light because it claims to be above such division; in reality, the world rejects the definite lines and clear shape of the Incarnate Word, who scandalizes with his particularity.

“There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity: Into time and the terminal land…”

In those opening lines of his poem, “Gloria in Profundis”, G. K. Chesterton provides a small but brilliant glimpse into the great mystery of the Incarnation and the joyful feast of Christmas. How, really, can such a marvelous truth be expressed fully? Actually, it cannot be expressed fully, and that is part of the wonder of it all: the indescribable and all-powerful Creator dared and designed and deigned to become man.

“And the Word became flesh”, wrote St. John in the great Prologue to his Gospel, “and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”

The many readings for the Christmas liturgies—the Vigil Mass, Mass during the night, Mass at dawn, and Mass during the day—present a glorious mosaic bursting with prophecies uttered and fulfilled, genealogies recounted and realized, proclamations uttered and received, and love poured forth and embraced in faith both quiet and ecstatic. Throughout, there is a constant movement from God to man and, in response, man to God, a circle of direct communication flowing from the gift of divine communion.

God always initiates; he proclaims words of promise—“your savior comes!” (Is 62:11)—and he shines a great light into the darkness of human history. The Virgin Mary, we hear, “was found with child through the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18). God breeched the walls of the world through the faithful fiat and welcoming womb of the sinless Jewish maiden. And this without the fearful shouts that accompanied the emperors, but with joyful, angelic exclamation. “He has”, wrote Chesterton, “strayed like a thief or a lover” into the wilds of the world and the human heart.

The readings make mention repeatedly of God’s proclamation, appearing, coming, and speaking—and doing so in definitive, earth-shattering terms.

The opening chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews states, “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son…” (Heb 1:1-2). In John’s Gospel, the entrance of the creative Word into creation is described as light shining into darkness, just as light broke into darkness at creation: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (Jn 1:9; cf. Gen 1:3-5).

When light meets darkness, there is division. The world rejects the light because it claims to be above such division; in reality, the world rejects the definite lines and clear shape of the Incarnate Word, who scandalizes with his particularity—born of a first-century Jewish girl in Bethlehem!—and with his perfect power: “He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him…” (Jn 1:3). This divine paradox has always been a source of consternation to those who do not accept Christ; it has always been a source of joyful consolation for those who accept him.

Some of this delight in the incalculable wonder of the Christmas mystery is conveyed in an Eastern Christian hymn:

He has come down to us from a Mother all-pure and yet He has remained unchanged: He has remained true God as He was before, and has taken on Himself what He had not been, becoming Man out of his love for man.

So, what is the point of Christmas? That is, why did God become man?  The Catechism, in one of its most unsettling and glorious paragraphs, quotes St. Irenaeus: “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God” (par 460).

The Son has come so we might become children of God. And so “a god too great for the sky” comes to us, lives among us, and dwells within us. Merry Christmas!

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the December 25, 2011 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1196 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. Wonderful for those who already know, but the readings at Midnight Mass at my parish left a very bad impression. Our good deacon got confused and seemed to fumble through and then skip a lot of the Gospel (Matthew). Then he found his place and ended with Matt. 1:25, plainly saying, “Joseph had no relations with her until she had given birth to her first born son.” I think a small shock wave went through the air. A packed church of people who may only come once a year heard unmistakable news about Mary and Joseph’s postpartum sex life. Perhaps I blaspheme in putting it like that, but I thought I had witnessed something malicious and tragic.

    • We go to the Byzantine Church, and the priest also ended with “Joseph had no relations with her until she had her first born son, and he named him Jesus.” Which is exactly what The Bible says in Matt 1:25, although my Ignatius Press Bible puts it more poetically.
      I assure you, no, nothing malicious or tragic, and I doubt the once-a-year folks remembered it once they left the pews to return home.
      Actually, that there were many once-a-year folks would be surprising to me. A Roman Rite parish in our town did Mass-by-Reservation only. We had quite a few faces I did not recognize at our parish–pretty sure they were Roman Rite (Lutheran? SSPV? SSPX?)folks looking for an in-person place to go. Always happy to see new people, sad that they may be refugees from their own parish family.

    • No need to be scandalized. In fact, the quoted line says nothing, absolutely nothing, about any conjectured postpartum sex life, or not. It speaks only to the time prior to Christ’s birth.

  2. As if flinging away his divinity he left his throne, “burst out” says Chesterton. Isaiah the great foreseer depicts God angered with Israel’s iniquity, horrified, parents immolating sons and daughters to demon Baal. He adds elsewhere I will not let my name be profaned, I will shatter mountains make a wasteland send rains and gentle breeze to restore. Anomaly of rage and compunction typical of a jilted Lover. I do this for my sake, for sake of my name. Don’t be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. You will become pregnant, give birth to a son,
    and name him Jesus (Gabriel).

    • Although “Joseph had no relations with her until she had given birth to her first born son.” can suggest that Joseph and Mary had a post-partum sexual relationship, it does not say that they did. It merely says that they had no relations before the birth. The most common statement is “The perpetual virginity of Mary is the doctrine that Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, was a virgin ante partum, in partu, et post partum—before, during and after the birth of Christ.” It is the “during” birth that most skeptics focus on–that Jesus did not pass through the birth canal, which would have violated her virginity. So, how did He get out? His second miracle–after His immaculate conception–His Incarnation–9 months before His birth. He is, was, and always will be God, able to do anything, including a bloodless, incision-less C-section birth! Google “Perpetual virginity of Mary” for many references.

  3. Merry Christmas Carl Olson, and unceasing thanks for the gift of Catholic World Report, ever faithful.

    “Let there be Light…and there was Light!”

  4. Of “the great mystery of the Incarnation,” Pope Benedict called in more than “astonishing,” but “alarming,” and von Balthasar has this to say:

    “In everything that had previously happened in history–in the covenant between God and man, in the law, in the prophetic word, in the cultic sacrifice–something like a dialogue was initiated. But a DEFINITIVE [italics] self-showing, self-saying, self-giving had not taken place. For that, something else would have been necessary […] And for those who felt the impact of this collision [a “collision”!], this would have been preposterous, inconceivable: for God is in his heaven and we are on earth, since God of course is spirit and we are bodies […] impossible that this THING [!] italics is the one, all-encompassing God […] ‘What we have seen, heard, and touched with our hands is the Word of eternal life'” (John’s First Epistle). (von Balthasar, “Epilogue,” Ignatius, 2004).
    A collision!

    Have we so much lost sight of the Other (!) that the historical fact and real nearness of the Incarnation is now as domesticated as a house pet?

    • “Truth Exists…The Incarnation Happened.”

      (Warren Carroll, the convert from atheism, who founded Christendom College)

  5. Christ’s first dialogue is with the Virgin Mary and everything about Him pours forth from her, most specially her. A literal translation of ex maria virgine, says, “from the virgin sea” and this is the awesome and enervating gloriousness of the Mother of God.

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