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What Is “The Nativity”?

The Nativity of Christ Our Lord was an historical event. That meant a definite place and time, with definite people. No myths, no imaginings.

“What is?” questions are of particular significance. When we see or hear of something before us or of something happening, we want to know what it is. We are not satisfied until we find out. Even if we cannot find out, we still want to know what is going on here. We call it a mystery, a challenge, or an object of scientific investigation.

When we speak of “the” Nativity in this context, we distinguish “the” Nativity from “any” nativity, like that of our own or of our parents and siblings. We come to understand what “the” Nativity was first understood through knowing what “any” nativity was. We say, at the end, that “the” Nativity was like and unlike “any” nativity. We have to put it that way at the risk of not covering the whole reality of that particular event we call “the” Nativity.

When things happen, we have to think about them, or at least we ought to think about them. We are not settled in mind if we know that something happened but not why it happened. Surely, with such premises, we are not being told that we can understand “the” Nativity as if it were exactly like any other nativity?

Yet, if we make “the” Nativity so different from every other nativity, we risk separating it so much from the human experience that it seems to have nothing to do with this human race. But the whole point of “the” Nativity is that it does have something to do with the whole human race. This is why it happened in the way that it did. Who was born in “the” Nativity was true man.

One line of thought, on this basis, maintains that being a “true man” was all that this Nativity of Christ implied. Another line of thought wanted to downplay the messiness of the human side. It was an illusion. “The” Nativity was only God. Much of subsequent theological and cultural history was to establish that both sides were true in one sense and false in another. Christ was true God and true man. He was not “just” man or “just” God.

The validity of this true man and true God position turned out to be surprisingly divisive. It soon became clear that this truth about “the” Nativity could rend apart souls, nations, and cultures.

I have always marveled at the relatively recent “zeal” or dogged persistence in our current culture to remove any reference to Christ, especially in His Nativity. We still can hear Bach’s Christmas motets on classical radio. People have taken to wishing us “merry Christmas” in a sort of defiant way. We can even find Tennessee Ernie Ford singing his 1968 version of “Adeste Fideles—Oh Come All Ye Faithful.”

We have heard it said that “by your fruits, ye shall know them.” We might also say that “by what is forbidden, ye shall know what is right.” In recent years, what is sinful or forbidden is not so much the deeds, but the calling of these deeds by their right name. We have light shows, songs, trinkets, decorations, and  cards that are externally colorful and lovely to the eye but they are only about sound and shape, not about what is seen in “the” Nativity.

One might think that if someone wants to maintain that Christ was true man and true God, so what? Let him ramble on. But for some reason it does not work this way. The amendment about freedom of speech has almost become a dead letter for fear that someone might actually hear a frank explanation of what “the” Nativity is. There is a fear not only of the fact but, perhaps even more, of hearing of the fact—especially of hearing it praised, sung, and acknowledged in worship by free men.

What then is “the” Nativity? “The” Nativity is a consequence of an earlier event—what we call the Incarnation. Any human birth makes visible something that has been “hidden” from its origin in conception. No doubt, today, through technology, anyone can follow the gestation of a human child from its very beginnings. Parents now regularly send sonograms of their children at say six months, still moving in the womb.

The abortionists with their political, cultural, and scientific allies, of course, forgetting their own origins, tell us that this “thing” in the womb is not human. But this is a lie and everyone knows it. One of the most interesting things about Christ’s Nativity was the fact that Herod, on hearing of His existence and thinking Him a rival, tried to kill Him—infanticide, not abortion. He ended up missing his target though he seems to have killed many other “holy innocents” in the process of trying to kill “This Child”.

St. Ignatius of Loyola pictures the Persons of the Trinity, looking on the rather sad and confused condition of existing mankind left to their own freedom. The divine Persons seek to come up with some way that would meet the problems without causing some greater evil. They had to respect their own creation. They could not “force” men to be free, to cite a famous philosopher.

They decided to send into the world one of their own members, the Son, the Word. He was sent to His own but they did not much recognize Him (cf. John 1). The ones that did were sent out into the whole world. It turns out that keeping clear what and who this Word made flesh was proved to be a tough task even for the Church assigned to keep before the world what was handed down, not its own imaginings.

What was “the” Nativity? It was an historical event. That meant a definite place and time, with definite people. No myths, no imaginings. The “what” of “the” Nativity was a divine Person. He was also, without contradiction, true man. Since this event is true as it happened, “the” Nativity keeps presenting itself before the world. Because of it, the world cannot be the same, as if it never happened. And it is not the same. The “rejection” of “the” Nativity is what dehumanizes man. This is the meaning especially of the logic of our time when we see a more active rejection of the truth of “the” Nativity.

A refrain from Adeste Fideles sings: “O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.” Somehow, it is not possible to reject the truth of “the” Nativity and still remain human. We are not so remaining. On the premises of universal love and compassion, no Christian would want to believe this result is true, until, that is, he sees it happening before his very eyes.

(Editor’s note: This “Sojourns with Schall” column originally posted at CWR on December 21, 2016.)

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).