During Advent every year I try to imagine what it was like for the people of Israel as they waited for the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham, David, and the prophets. We live in a time after the Paschal Mystery, but we do still wait for Christ in the Second Coming. We approach Christmas each year knowing that Christ has come and He is reigning over the universe. We live in the light of the Son of God who became a baby, died a prophet’s death on the Cross, and rose from the dead.
The Israelites lived for centuries suffering exile, persecution, and darkness. As in our own Fallen lives, much of what they suffered was self-inflicted because of sin, but God repeatedly comes to their aid and our aid despite the battle we wage against the darkness in our own hearts. God never forgets us, nor ceases to forgive us when we come to Him with contrite hearts. Christ is the light of the world, or as Lumen Gentium begins: “Christ came to be the light to the nations (LG 1).”
The Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord is the time we celebrate the fulfillment of God’s plan to bring light to a Fallen world. As C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity:
Enemy-occupied territory — that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.
Christmas is the stealthy landing behind enemy lines in which God condescends Himself to become a babe in a manger in order to bring about the salvation of the world. He descends into the utter darkness, weakness, and helplessness of the human condition so that He may shed a great light upon us and draw us into friendship with Him. This is accomplished in the most unexpected way imaginable!
There is little doubt as we look at the world around us that we live in Enemy territory. The news is a constant barrage of violence, injustice, disease, natural disasters, and suffering. Every single day people suffer immensely. In truth, the greatest suffering and tragedy to befall each one of us is sin. From a material perspective this doesn’t seem to be the case, but in truth it is spiritual wounds that cause the most damage to us and our relationships. Christ tells us: “There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed on the housetops. I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more (Luke 12:2-4).” Sin is what we do in darkness, but all will be brought into the light of God. It is this darkness that Our Lord seeks to free us from by His divine light.
The light of truth and charity
The light we are given at Christmas is the light of truth. It is the gift of God Himself who calls to us. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explains in his Christmas Homily in 2005:
But first, light means knowledge; it means truth, as contrasted with the darkness of falsehood and ignorance. Light gives us life, it shows us the way. But light, as a source of heat, also means love. Where there is love, light shines forth in the world; where there is hatred, the world remains in darkness. In the stable of Bethlehem there appeared the great light which the world awaits. In that Child lying in the stable, God has shown his glory – the glory of love, which gives itself away, stripping itself of all grandeur in order to guide us along the way of love. The light of Bethlehem has never been extinguished. In every age it has touched men and women, “it has shone around them”. Wherever people put their faith in that Child, charity also sprang up – charity towards others, loving concern for the weak and the suffering, the grace of forgiveness.
God provides us the truth, so that we may live in charity. He shows us that our lives are meant to be given away in self-emptying love. This is most fully realized on the Cross, but it is also seen at a deep level by the total self-emptying of the Son of God in His taking on human flesh and becoming completely vulnerable as a human baby.
We have a tendency to domesticate (to borrow a term from Bishop Robert Barron) the love of God. It is easy for us to view God in a sentimental way and to see love as a feeling we have towards God and others. In reality, love in any form is not a feeling—it is a matter of the will–and the love of God is all consuming. Love demands everything from us. I started to understand this reality when I was living in Washington, DC in 2009. I attended Sunday Mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception each week. There is a depiction of Christ in the Basilica that is fascinating, and not just because the image is blonde. The look on Christ’s face is of great intensity and at first glance appears to be wrath. It is intimidating and uncomfortable in the beginning. The more I meditated upon it, the more I realized the intensity is not wrath, it is love. God’s love is a fire. It burns away all of our impurities so that we may be as white as snow, as the Psalmist tells us. The light we celebrate this Christmas burns with such an intensity that nothing can be hidden or held back from it. God wants all of us and He wants to give us Himself in return, nothing less than everything will do.
As long as we walk in the light we will dwell in charity and truth. 1 John 1:5 reminds us: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness.” We are called to constantly live in the light each day of our lives; not only will this secure our own salvation, but it will draw others who live in darkness to the light. Charity demands that we share the light we have been given to others. We know the great joy of Christmas and the Good News. That joy is meant to be shared with everyone we come into contact with, which is why we must rely on God to help us always remain in the light. If we falter or fail, then we crawl, march, drag ourselves, whatever we have to do to get back to the Confessional in order to begin again.
The light down through the ages
The Church’s history and the lives of the saints demonstrate the impact the light of God has on people and the world. Holy lives radiate the love of God. Holiness is infectious. When we meet truly holy people, we desire to be like them because we have encountered God dwelling within them. We see the joy that comes from being a person of the light.
From Bethlehem a stream of light, love and truth spreads through the centuries. If we look to the Saints — from Paul and Augustine to Francis and Dominic, from Francis Xavier and Teresa of Avila to Mother Teresa of Calcutta — we see this flood of goodness, this path of light kindled ever anew by the mystery of Bethlehem, by that God who became a Child. In that Child, God countered the violence of this world with his own goodness. He calls us to follow that Child.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Christmas Homily 2005
Christmas is not about what we will receive in the form of material possessions. Presents are fine and good within reason. We are meant to celebrate the joy of the season, but we can run the risk in our rather fast-paced, secular, and consumer driven culture to forget the real gift we are given at Christmas. The real gift we receive each Christmas is the light of God in celebrating the birth of Our Lord and Savior. We have received the gift of truth and charity by the grace of our Baptism. It is up to us to rely on God to keep that light burning bright throughout our entire lives. That light should burn brightly as we celebrate the gift of this holy Christmas season. It is a holy season that leads us deeper into the great mystery of our Triune God.