On Christmas Day we celebrate the moment when God came to us in human flesh. The mystery and event of the Incarnation made possible the sanctification of the physical world which is our home. The Holy Land is truly holy because it contains the stones that were trodden on by the feet of the Word made flesh. Its trees lent Him shade and its waters quenched His thirst.
The remains of an ancient feeding trough from Bethlehem are venerated as a precious relic in Rome because they formed part of the holy manger in which the Blessed Virgin laid her infant Child. When He was an adult the touch of the hem of His garments would stem the flow of blood, and He would consecrate simple substances of water, bread and wine to be used as instruments of healing and salvation.
As far as we know, planet Earth itself has a unique status in the material universe as a magnificent monstrance which radiates glory into the distant reaches of the cosmos. This is because the Church’s mission has ensured that the Word made flesh Who comes to us on the altar at every celebration of Holy Mass is reserved day and night in tabernacles around the globe.
The nativity of the Incarnate Word 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem also facilitated the sanctification of time. Perhaps Christmas is that season of the year when many of us become most acutely aware of the passing of time. When we were children, the countdown to December 25 was so agonisingly slow that it seemed to take forever. As we grow older, each Christmas Day arrives more rapidly than the last, and is over so quickly that we can easily neglect to reflect on its significance. If this is the case then it means that we need to make some adjustment in our life, because we have allowed time to become our enemy rather than a friend.
The Church’s “liturgical time” is designed to save us from such spiritual and temporal impoverishment. If the skeletons of Christmas trees that start appearing on pavements on Boxing Day are a sign that for many of our neighbours Christmas has been and gone, for Catholics it has really just begun. The “octave” granted to Christmas in the liturgical calendar extends the beautiful celebration of Our Lord’s Nativity over a full eight days. In the Roman Canon of the Mass we continue to praise God for “that day when Mary without loss of Her virginity gave the world its Saviour” every day from Christmas Eve until January 1.
The Christmas Octave is also rich in feasts. If we understand them properly, they do not distract from our celebration of the season but rather illuminate the Mystery of the Nativity and its significance for the Christian life. Boxing Day is the feast of St Stephen, whose martyrdom reminds us that Christ’s message of salvation is not always welcomed in the world, but that there is a great reward in heaven for those who suffer for the faith. Before being stoned, Stephen sees the heavens open and “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”.
The feast of St John the Evangelist on the 27th is a good opportunity to reflect on the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, which describes the Incarnation in theological terms as the Eternal Word through Whom all things were created becoming flesh and dwelling among us, and as the Light of the World Who alone can dispel the darkness of sin.
The feast of the Holy Innocents on the 28th illustrates how the King of Kings came in meekness, so that earthly kings remained free to take Him or leave Him: the Magi would kneel in adoration, while Herod sought to murder. When our rulers disdain the kingship of Christ, the innocent and vulnerable inevitably suffer.
The feast of St Thomas Becket the following day teaches us that Christ the Prince of Peace calls us not to make compromises with the spirit of the world in order to obtain a false peace. Our Lord offers us a peace “such as the world cannot give”, but to acquire this peace will often require sacrifice and courage.
On Sunday, January 1 we celebrate the feast of Mary, Mother of God, whose trusting obedience played such a crucial role in facilitating the Incarnation. We can consecrate the New Year to her, and entrust ourselves to her intercession and protection.
We should make the effort, then, to keep the Christmas season holy, in the company of the great saints whose feasts enrich the Christmas Octave. In this noisy, angry world we need to make time for silence so that the Christ Child can speak to our souls and fill us with His peace. Two millennia after His birth in Bethlehem, He asks to be born afresh in our hearts today.
Fr Julian Large Cong Orat is Provost of the London Oratory