What are we celebrating on Christmas? What happened on that day?
On a certain level, nothing. As we rightly point out when talking about abortion, nothing metaphysical happens at birth. The day before and the day after, the child is the same. Life begins at conception – and the great metaphysical moment for Christians is the Annunciation, not the Nativitiy. March 25 is the feast of the Incarnation. That’s when he empties himself and takes the form of a slave.
Nor does Christ do anything great on Christmas. His great actions are still thirty years away. His greatest action is on the Cross, another mystery of March.
But something great does happen at birth: the mother sees her child. Birth is no small moment for ordinary mothers, including the mothers we counsel about abortion. And the birth of Christ is no small moment for Our Lady and the Church of which she is the first member. She sees him.
The Liturgy for Christmas is full of this theme. This year (for various reasons – Christmas is all about interrupted plans) my family attended the noon Mass – there are, you know, different readings for Christmas Eve evening, midnight, “dawn,” and “during the day,” so that we can read about the angels, the shepherds, and the Prologue of John, and remember that before midnight, Christ is not yet born.
At the daytime Mass, the reading from Isaiah begins, “how beautiful,” talks about him “announcing good news,” and says, “they see directly.” The reading from the beginning of Hebrews compares Jesus to the angels, but sets the tone for the rest of that letter by saying, “he has spoken to us through the Son.” And though the Prologue of John talks about who Jesus is (the Incarnation, a mystery of March), it concludes, “No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him.”
Like every birth, Christmas is about the revelation of the child, the appearance of the mystery that was hidden in the mother’s womb. And so too the readings tell of hearing him speak: though the child does not speak, that first look at him on Christmas reminds us how fortunate we are to have a God who is no longer hidden, but revealed, a God who speaks to us.
So too at midnight, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9), “the grace of God has appeared” (Titus 2), and the angels “proclaim to you good news . . . and this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant” (Luke 2). And at dawn, “The Lord proclaims . . . say to daughter Zion, your savior comes” (Is 62), “the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared” (Titus 3), and “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see” (Luke 2).
Seeing, joined with hearing the good news: revelation.
I have been thinking this Advent about the Canticle of Simeon, which we pray every night in Night Prayer:
Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, according to your word,
For my own eyes have the seen the salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of every people
A light to reveal you to the nations
And the glory of your people Israel.
I am not like Simeon. Simeon “goes in peace” because he was an old man, “being instructed by the Holy Spirit, he was not to see death before he would see the Christ of the Lord.” Simeon is ready to die – but surely I am not?
And Simeon’s “own eyes have seen”: Jesus appears before him. I have not seen.
But I have heard, in Scripture, and I have touched, in the Sacraments. (John says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled – 1 John 1:1.)
At Christmas I am reminded how close Jesus has come, so close that we could see him, touch him, hear him. Like Simeon before the Presentation, I still long to see him face to face. But he is not altogether hidden, and every day I rejoice at how much I have seen, in the Word and Sacraments of his Church, and so I long to see him fully.
And so I too can go in peace, can even contemplate, as we do throughout Night Prayer, leaving this life behind. Because we have seen him, and we go to see him, and that is all that matters.
And we can hope already to be like Stephen, “full of the Holy Spirit, looking up intently into Heaven, he saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, Behold, I see.”
How different is your life because Jesus because you have heard the Word of Jesus? What difference does it make that you have not yet seen his face?