In his column this week, Monsignor Campion writes, As we stagger amid reports of scandal…
Understanding the greatest gift this Christmas
My friend and mentor John Lukacs, the most important historian of the 20th and early 21st centuries, used to profess himself a somewhat bad Catholic because he preferred Christmas to Easter. He understood intellectually why Easter is the greatest Christian feast, and did not disagree; but everything about Christmas — from the cultural emphasis on home and hearth and family and friends, back to the reality of the Incarnation that underlies it all — drew him more deeply into the mystery of our faith.
I’ve long felt the same way. Or, rather, I cannot think of a time when I have felt otherwise. As a child growing up in west Michigan, the sudden stillness of long December nights, with the yellow glow from every home on the sea of snow all around, was bound up with the sense of wonder I felt as I gazed upon the Christ child in the Nativity scene. I understood the importance of the empty tomb, but I wanted to be near the manger in Bethlehem.
Many of the Eastern Fathers of the Church were convinced that, even if Adam had not fallen, Jesus would one day have become man. That idea was taken up much later in the West by certain Franciscans, chief among them Blessed John Duns Scotus.
O felix culpa, the deacon chants in the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil: “O happy fault, that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” The words suggest that Adam’s sin is why Christ came to earth, even though we know that God’s will cannot be bound by the actions of his creatures. But what those Fathers of the Church and Duns Scotus said is that the Incarnation was part of the plan all along, the crowning glory of God’s creation. God became man so that man might become one with God — not because of Adam’s fall, but in spite of it.
Through Adam, we did find ourselves in need of a redeemer, and our recreation through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross brought new life to all of creation. And it all began with the humble acquiescence of a virgin to the will of a God whom she trusted without reservation. With her fiat, Mary united herself to the God who offered himself to her, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
In this extraordinary year, when so much of what we have taken for granted in modern life has turned out to be more fragile than we ever feared, we have spoken often of sacrifices but not nearly enough about the very gift of life. In the midst of pain and sorrow, of separation and sadness, of unemployment and uncertainty, we urge one another to look forward to the day when this, too, shall pass, and life will return to “normal.” But some of the life that we once knew will never return, and some people will live on only in our memories. That is the reality, a consequence of Adam’s sin and ours, that we must face.
But we face it this Christmas knowing that God is with us. Not in some abstract, platitudinous, Hallmark card sort of way, but in the person of the child in the manger: “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Is 9:5). His birth reveals the fullness of God’s glorious plan: Not a world built on the consequences of Adam’s disobedience, but one created in love, crowned in Christ, drawn into the life of God as surely as God himself has entered into the life of this world.
That is the meaning of this Christmas, and every Christmas: that God so loved his creation that he humbled himself to become part of it. This is his greatest gift: We know our life is worth living, because he wanted to live it with us.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.