Life to the Full: The Gift of Christmas
One of the most important things about Christmas is that it is the first and most tender of all Christian reminders that every aspect of human life is an occasion of grace. The birth of Our Lord is the most accessible reminder of the Incarnation, by which God’s Son took on our nature so that men and women could forever share in the Divine life. In doing so, Christ refashioned human nature, perfecting its every feature by grace into a hymn of obedient love to the Father, a life-hymn in which all of us are invited to join.
Christmas reminds us that every action of both our bodies and our souls can be a manifestation of God’s presence, and not only every action but indeed every moment of our lives. In each moment there is an opportunity for our own human nature to be perfected by grace, and so for grace to manifest itself through nature to the world.
An Incarnational Faith
God is not, of course, incarnate in us in the same way that He was incarnate in Jesus Christ. We are not Divine persons with a human nature. But God does dwell within each Christian, making each of us, as St. Paul put it, a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19)—a living temple, just like the one Christ said He could raise up again in three days (Jn 2:19). Our Lord also said “my food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to accomplish His work” (Jn 4:34). And he said that “man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). We too are called to live every moment in fulfillment of our Father’s will.
We may be tempted in the flesh; it is a moment of grace to resist the temptation. We may be sick or injured; it is a moment of grace to accept God’s will and offer our suffering to Him so that, in our bodies, we might “make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (Col 1:24). In the same way, it is a moment of grace to employ our bodies in work of any kind for the good of our enfleshed brothers and sisters, work performed as much as possible in the perfection of love. When our bodies are listless, if we raise our hearts to God it is a moment of grace. When we are full of energy and brimming with enthusiasm, if we thank and praise God it becomes a moment of grace.
As with our bodies, so with our minds. Every thought can be referred by intention to God, and we can advert to God’s presence frequently throughout each and every day. Mental sufferings, mental challenges, mental triumphs: All are moments of grace. With Christ, we can grow each moment in wisdom and stature before God and man (Lk 2:52).
Life in Christ
This is not easy at first, this moment to moment life in Christ. But it is precisely Christmas that makes it possible, and not only possible but in the end habitual, worked into our very bones, part and parcel of our own nature transformed by grace. In this context, the letters of John the Evangelist, who as an old man seems sometimes to repeat simple and even vague phrases over and over again, no longer seem so much vaguely simple as simply true. Take, for example, this statement of his immense confidence in the power of Christ to transform our whole being:
I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his sake. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. (1 Jn 2:12-14)
Given the incarnational character of our Faith, by which every aspect of our nature is sanctified, it is clear that we are all at one and the same time little children, aged parents, and men and women in the prime of life: Children in that we have received the Christ-life without any merit of our own; aged parents in that through Christ we know the Ancient One Himself and even help to communicate his gifts; men and women in the prime of life in that we use the sword of the Word to fight and triumph over whatever would snatch us away from God. It is actually when speaking of the Incarnation itself that John reminds us that to be Christian is to experience a plenitude of Divine life and Divine love: “And of His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16).
Everything Works Unto Good
It is impossible to find any aspect or corner of our lives which cannot become an occasion of grace, which cannot be brought to mirror God’s incomparable glory. The merest movement of the will in trying to find such dark corners in order to shed light on them is a moment of grace. It does not matter what we experience; everything can bring us closer to God. Brought low by suffering, we turn to God in an effort to rise; buoyed by good news or accolades, we present our unworthiness to God in an effort to rise higher still. “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).
This confidence refers not just to some ethereal relationship of our souls to God but to the whole man. This seems to be the point of St. Paul’s account of his own trials:
Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches…. If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (2 Cor 11:24-30)
And why does he boast of this weakness he experiences in his human nature? It is because, when he complained of his bodily weakness, Our Lord told him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). St. Paul had good reason to conclude that “in everything God works for good with those who love Him” (Rom 8:28). There really is nothing whatsoever, whether of body or soul, that cannot be an occasion of grace.
But Not Without Christmas
None of this is fully possible without Christmas. If our relationship with God were purely spiritual, we would soon regard our bodies as something less than ourselves, either to be subjugated through the strictest possible denials as if the body is nothing but a drag on the soul, or to be allowed unfettered license as if what is done in our bodies has nothing to do with the spiritual purpose of life. Without Christmas, the beautiful harmony of our compound nature would be disfigured or destroyed.
This in fact is the first and most immediate result of any heresy which has ever refused to recognize that Jesus Christ is both true God and true man, just as it is the grave danger of all philosophies and religions which know nothing of the Incarnate Son. In early Manichaeanism, for example, we have at one and the same time, in different persons, the pattern of extreme asceticism and wild sensuality, which was reproduced yet again in the Albigensianism of the 12th century. In the Platonic ideas, the body (and with it, the ordinary man) is rendered worthless. In Islam, which so stresses obedience to a God whose will is essentially arbitrary, the application of reason is very difficult. Buddhists find themselves yearning for the loss of their own particularity as they aim to merge into a world soul. Modern secularists treat their human nature as if it is both infinitely malleable and utterly without moral significance. The Incarnation is at once the starkest and most delightful denial that any of these represent the truth about man, or the truth about God.
Thanks to Christmas we experience no such disfigurement or distortion. Our natural and supernatural lives blend into one, with grace once again perfecting rather than supplanting nature. We learn that the most essential mark of God is not the absence of a body but the absence of sin, the presence of pure love, ready to animate bone and sinew, mind and heart. Looking back to Christmas—or rather seeing through Christmas eyes—we look forward not only to a new heaven, but also to a new earth (2 Pet 3:13).
Through Christmas we also learn to acknowledge the law of the gift, “for the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). And does not Our Lord’s own teaching about gifts run directly through Christmas? He says: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Mt 7:11; Lk 11:13).
Or consider his words to the woman at the well: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (Jn 4:10). Yes, if only we knew the gift of God, we could “have life and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10), have it in every nook and cranny of our being, in every fiber of both body and soul. But in fact we do know the gift of God—because we have Christmas.
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Posted by: koinonia -
Dec. 22, 2012 8:15 AM ET USA
An excellent exposition of the beauty of God's gift of himself to us. May we appreciate this gift more intensely and experience it more acutely during this year of Faith. May we share this gift more generously with others in this time of the new evangelization. Thank you for this hopeful and inspirational elucidation of the Christian life- "the presence of pure love."