Last week I argued that keeping Christ in Christmas does not mean saying “Merry Christmas”—a phrase much more connected to figgy pudding, Santa Claus, and consumerism than to anything about the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity—to Jews, Muslims, and secular people, which is to say almost everyone we encounter today. Keeping Christ in Christmas has to mean something about Christ, not something about preserving the secular aspects of the modern winter holiday we vaguely call Christmas.
This week I’d like to say something more positive.
Christmas is literally the feast of Christ. In England they still refer to the feast of St. Michael (Sept. 29), after which the Fall Semester for universities and courts is named, as Michaelmas. The English liturgical tradition calls the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Feb. 2), when candles are blessed (because it is bleakest midwinter and because Simeon calls Jesus “a light for the nations”) Candlemas. As Michaelmas celebrates Michael, and Candlemas celebrates candles, Christmas celebrates—Christ.
In liturgical Christianity, we celebrate lots of things. The Council of Trent (1545-63) had to point out, because people sometimes used to get confused, “the Church at times celebrates certain masses in honor and memory of the saints; but it does not thereby teach that sacrifice is offered to the saints, but to God alone, who crowned them; thus the priest does not say, ‘I offer sacrifice to thee, Peter, or Paul;’ but, giving thanks to God for their victories, he implores their patronage, that they may intercede for us in heaven, whose memory we celebrate upon earth.” In all things we celebrate the work of God Alone, but sometimes we celebrate that work as it appears in the lives of saints and angels, and sometimes in different mysteries of the life of Christ.
Even at Easter, we celebrate the greatest work of Christ. But at Christmas, what we celebrate is not a work, but Christ himself: the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of who he is, which comes before all the wonderful things he does. In Latin it is called Natalis, the birth, by which God is born as man—but the English tradition is onto something in calling it simply Christ-mas, the feast of Christ.
This Fourth Sunday in Advent, we read Isaiah’s prophecy that “the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” We read already the birth story in Matthew’s Gospel, which confusingly tells us that the angel tells Joseph “You are to name him Jesus . . . to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet . . . they shall name him Emmanuel.”
Emmanuel means God is with us, which is amazing. The name Jesus goes a step further in the same direction. Jesus is a Greek from of the Hebrew “Yehoshua.” Instead of Immanu-el’s generic “el,” “God,” the root here is “YHWH,” the supreme name of Israel’s God. And instead of “im-manu,” which means roughly “with us,” in Jesus’s name we get “yashah,” “he saves.” That God is with us, “Emmanuel,” is amazing. That YHWH acts in our lives to save us, “Jesus,” is more amazing yet.
So this Sunday we also read the opening of Paul’s masterpiece, Romans, where he calls himself “a slave of Christ Jesus,” consecrated to the “the gospel about [God’s] Son,” calling us “to belong to Jesus Christ.” He also mentions Jesus’s greatest work, “resurrection from the dead.” But before we get to the Cross and Resurrection, we have to look to Jesus himself. We need Christ-mas.
John Paul II talked a lot about a phenomenon he called “practical atheism.” Theoretical atheism means that you embrace the idea, the theory, that there is no God. Practical atheism means that you might theoretically believe in God—but in practice, it makes no difference in your life. Secular Christmas is a great example: you can claim to celebrate the feast of Christ, but nudge God out of it altogether. I fear that even a lot of people who claim to be devout Christians use Christianity more as a placeholder for a general conservative attitude than as a real relationship with God.
Taking things a step further, I’d add to “practical atheism” the danger of “practical theism.” By theism I mean religion (theos is Greek for God) without Christ. I fear it is awfully easy, especially in our current climate, to proclaim yourself a Christian in practice, but to have little or no place for Christ in your Christianity. There’s a lot of talk about natural law, a lot of religion that seems more excited about capital punishment and free markets than about the Gospel, lots of philosophical Catholics whose religious worldviews don’t have any place for Jesus.
That’s a problem. We need Christmas, an annual feast to remind us that every day we need to refocus on Jesus.
In our reading from Romans, Paul names three practices for recentering ourselves on Christ.
The first is Scripture. To believe that Christ is Savior is to believe that he teaches us something we wouldn’t know without him. I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to say Christ changes everything, and then to get all your ideas from philosophy. Philosophy plays a delicate and important role in Christian thinking, don’t get me wrong—and I should say more about that than I have space here to say. But if Christ changes anything, our thinking needs to be radically subject to his word. As Christians, as Catholics, we believe that Word is Scripture. To be Christ-centered has to mean subjecting our minds, again and again, every day, to that word: above all, to the Gospels, but also to the New Testament, and even to the Old Testament, in which Christ mysteriously proclaims himself. Christianity without Scripture is a Christianity where Christ is irrelevant: “practical theism.”
(I should add: by extension, the same goes for the papacy. In the age of Pope Francis, conservative Catholics seem enthusiastic about a Christianity without a Magisterium. Ultimately, that means a Christianity without revelation—and a Christianity without Christ, where we do it all by our own genius. Beware, conservative Catholics!)
A second practice Paul names for recentering ourselves on Christ is devotion to grace. Grace, I think, is the central content of Scripture. We need to be healed. We cannot fully know natural law, because we cannot live natural law, without Christ. We need devotion to the sacraments, devotion to prayer, devotion to the Holy Spirit—and beneath them all, devotion to grace, to Christ’s work in our lives. We need to recognize, in our lives and the lives of those around us, that the Fall is real: we are a disaster without Christ. That’s the real heart of Christian mercy: the recognition that of course we fall without grace—and that grace can heal, but in Christ’s mysterious plan, it heals us slowly.
And the third practice Paul names is simple devotion to the name of Christ: to think about the meaning of that name, but also just to say the name, to pray the Jesus prayer, to pray the Hail Mary with a focus on his name, to turn again and again and invoke the name of Jesus Christ.
Of course we also need to bear witness to Christ. But we can only bear witness to what we have discovered ourselves.
This Christmas, let’s redevote ourselves to Christ.
How do you return to Jesus?