We live in a busy, troubled world, and it is tempting to take time here to denounce the “evils of the day” – apostasy from the faith, sins of many types, false teachings from many pulpits, unjust laws from many legislatures, the oppression of the weak and poor in many places which cries out to God for help – which cries out to all of us for help.
But at Christmastime it is essential to recall our great hope: that evil is already conquered, that the victory of life over death, of good over evil, has already, and eternally, been accomplished.
And it began in a manger, in a cradle, with a young mother, Mary, and a helpless babe, as each of us once was.
So I wish to focus on that hope, and, in a few words, drawing on two early Christian writers, relay this “good news.”
The story begins, as all good stories should, with a mystery, and a secret. The anonymous Letter to Diognetus, written around 125 AD (and used in the Roman Catholic Office of Readings for December 18) discusses this secret plan of salvation from sin and death which St. Paul calls “the Mystery.” The letter is addressed to a pagan reader and therefore is clear, simple, and unadorned.
First, the anonymous Christian author tells us about God. “God, the Lord and maker of all things, who created the world and set it in order, not only loved man but was also patient with him,” he writes. “So he has always been, and is, and will be: kind, good, free from anger, truthful; indeed, he and he alone is good.”
Then, this early Christian tells us about God’s secret plan to end the reign of sin and death and bring about an “era of holiness” – though many have thought God would do nothing.
“God devised a plan, a great and wonderful plan, and shared it only with his Son,” he writes. “As long as he preserved this secrecy and kept his own wise counsel he seemed to be neglecting us, to have no concern for us. But when through his beloved Son he revealed and made public what he had prepared from the very beginning, he gave us all at once gifts such as we could never have dreamt of, even sight and knowledge of himself.”
The author acknowledges that it took some time for this plan to unfold, many centuries in fact.
“When God had made all his plans in consultation with his Son, he waited until a later time, allowing us to follow our own whim, to be swept along by unruly passions, to be led astray by pleasure and desire,”?the author says. “Not that he was pleased by our sins: he only tolerated them. Not that he approved of that time of sin: he was planning this era of holiness.”
Then God acted – Christmas, the Incarnation.
“When our wickedness had reached its culmination, it became clear that retribution was at hand in the shape of suffering and death. The time came then for God to make known his kindness and power (how immeasurable is God’s generosity and love!). He did not show hatred for us or reject us or take vengeance; instead, he was patient with us, bore with us, and in compassion took our sins upon himself; he gave his own Son as the price of our redemption, the holy one to redeem the wicked, the sinless one to redeem sinners, the just one to redeem the unjust, the incorruptible one to redeem the corruptible, the immortal one to redeem mortals.”
From a letter of St. Athanasius (297-373 AD) to Epictetus we learn of the role in this plan of Mary. (The text is in the office of readings for the feast of Mary, the Mother of God, on January 1).
“The Word took to himself the sons of Abraham, says the Apostle, and so had to be like his brothers in all things,” Athanasius says. “He had then to take a body like ours.
“This explains the fact of Mary’s presence: she is to provide him with a body of his own, to be offered for our sake. Scripture records her giving birth, and says: ‘She wrapped him in swaddling clothes.’
“Her breasts, which fed him, were called blessed. Sacrifice was offered because the child was her firstborn. Gabriel used careful and prudent language when he announced his birth. He did not speak of ‘what will be born in you’ to avoid the impression that a body would be introduced into her womb from outside; he spoke of ‘what will be born from you,’ so that we might know by faith that her child originated within her and from her.
“By taking our nature and offering it in sacrifice, the Word was to destroy it completely and then invest it with his own nature, and so prompt the Apostle to say: ‘This corruptible body must put on incorruption; this mortal body must put on immortality.'”
And so that is the news: a long-hidden plan to give life eternal to dying men, has, through Mary, brought us incorruptible life, and this divine plan is still unfolding today.
Who is this Jesus, who was born on Christmas?
Pope Benedict has been spending every spare moment of his time studying this question, preparing his second book on Jesus. I am going to re-read the Pope’s first book, and try to understand what he has written about Jesus, and share that in these messages.
I re-read the Letter to Diognetus, and found this description of the early Christians, and wonder if we are as they were:
“For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life…
“They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring…
“They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted. They are unknown, and still they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life.
“They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance.
“To put it simply: What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but does not belong to the body, and Christians dwell in the world, but do not belong to the world…
“The world hates Christians, even though it suffers no wrong at their hands, because they range themselves against its pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and its members; in the same way, Christians love those who hate them.
“The soul is shut up in the body, and yet itself holds the body together; while Christians are restrained in the world as in a prison, and yet themselves hold the world together.
“The soul, which is immortal, is housed in a mortal dwelling; while Christians are settled among corruptible things, to wait for the incorruptibility that will be theirs in heaven.”
It is with such thoughts that we set out on our way towards Christmas.