Solemnity of the Lord's Nativity (Vigil)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA
Every religion in human history has its prophets, mystics, saints, avatars, bodhisattvas, miracle-workers, and gurus. By whatever name they are called, these human-divine combos serve the same general purpose: to bring the natural world of man into closer contact with the supernatural world of the divine. The idea seems to be that closer human contact with the divine will somehow “save” or “redeem” or “enlighten” the lost, the ignorant, and the just plain evil among us. Most religious traditions claim to be founded on revelation or some sort of mystical experience. Most have the expected accoutrements of worship: clergy, laity, sacred texts, prayer, temples/churches, vestments, etc. And most claim a certain exclusive access to universal truth and goodness. However, of all the religions currently practiced in the world, only one claims to follow an incarnated god; only one can credibly claim that its founder and central figure of worship walked among us a person, fully human and fully divine. We call the arrival this person in human history, “The Nativity of the Lord.” And it is this event that we remember and celebrate this evening. Once again, we welcome the Christ, Emmanuel, “God is with us.”
For our welcome to be truly sincere, it's important that we understand—to the degree possible—who it is that we are welcoming among us. A good start on this understanding would be to identify who we are NOT welcoming. We are not welcoming a person who is half and half, half human and half divine. Nor is he man with a human body and divine soul. Nor is he really just a man with a divine mind; nor a god who has taken on the appearance of a man. Or, as the current theological fashion argues, an enlightened man who had evolved beyond being merely human. The Church has considered all of these possibilities and rejected them as heresy. In fact, all of these possibilities for understanding the nature of Christ were rejected in the year 451 A.D. by the Council of Chalcedon
. For at least 1,561 years, the Church has taught and defended a single view on the nature of the Christ, the Chalcedonian Formula
. This formula explains part of the Nicene Creed: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father
. . .” Christ is consubstantial with the Father
, meaning Christ and the Father are of the same substance, the identical divine nature. Thus, Emmanuel, “God is with us,” is the perfect name for Christ.
Now, why in the world am I pestering you on Christmas Eve with a mini-lecture on christology? Well, here's why: the Chalcedonian Formula does more than simply define the true nature of Christ—tell us who Christ is. By telling us who Christ is, the formula also tells us Christ's purpose—what it is he came among us to do. And giving us these two bits of info about Christ helps us to welcome him with true sincerity. The Formula reveals that Jesus Christ is a divine person, the Son of God, with two natures: one human and one divine. By comparison, each one of us is a human person with just one nature, human. Because Christ is a divine person with both a divine and a human nature, he is uniquely placed in our salvation history to be the one (and the only one) to bring us into full union with God. Here's how the CCC puts it: “The Word became flesh to make us 'partakers of the divine nature'.” Then quoting St. Athanasius, “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God” (n. 460
). So, when we welcome Christ among us at his Nativity, we also welcome among us our only means of attaining perfect union with our heavenly Father.
Knowing all this, we might ask: what was preventing the possibility of perfect union before Christ's nativity? Simply put: sin; or rather, no perfect means of forgiving sin. Look at the gospel. Joseph is thinking about divorcing Mary b/c she's pregnant before they have consummated their betrothal. In a dream, an angel of the Lord visits Joseph and lays out for him exactly who it is that his wife is carrying in her womb. The angel says, “Joseph do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” Thus, we have the two natures of Christ: the divine from the H.S. and the human from Mary, herself immaculately conceived. The angel continues, “She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” The divine person of Christ is the means by which God's people are saved from their sins, the sins that prevent us from being in perfect union with the Father. Again, we not only welcome the birth of the Christ Child tonight, we also welcome the birth of the possibility of becoming a child of God as well. The first step along this path is to open your heart and mind to the H.S. and follow Mary's humble example, saying with her, “Let it be done to me according to your word.”
This resounding “fiat” highlighted Mary in history like no other woman had ever been before or since. She has been known through the centuries by many exalted titles and she is known now by many more: God-bearer, Mother of God; Mater Dolorosa, Mater Gloriosa; Mediatrix of All Graces; and Queen of Heaven. Though all theologically sound and historically accurate, these titles tempt us to forget a vital fact. We must remember—especially on the eve of Christ's nativity—that Mary was a teenaged girl, a virgin betrothed to Joseph and placed at the center of a cosmic drama that brought to fulfillment some 5,000 yrs of God's plans for mankind. If we welcome among us tonight the birth of the Christ Child, then we must also gives our thanks to Mary for her faithfulness, her courage, and her strength in the face of what we can only imagine was a harrowing adventure, a truly frightening and rewarding journey toward perfection. She is the model for how the Church best responds to the Father's invitation to live with Him forever. And as such, she is also the model of each one of us as we choose and pursue the narrow path toward holiness.
We give Emmanuel a sincere welcome. We give thanks to Mary. We offer the Father our praise and the H.S. an invitation. And as we continue our welcome, we also pray. What should we pray for on this Holy Night? The Chief Shepherd of the Church, Pope Benedict, urges us to pray
: “Lord Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, come to us! Enter within me, within my soul. Transform me. Renew me. Change me, change us all from stone and wood into living people, in whom your love is made present and the world is transformed. Amen.”
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