Reflections on the Nativity
Just one verse each day.
A Filipina lady whom I know told me that her mother was born on Christmas Day — La Natividad. So naturally her parents named her “Natividad” or shorted “Navidad. Jose Feliciano’s now famous Christmas song, Feliz Navidad, remains one of the most popular and widely enjoyed of modern Christmas songs. “Happy Nativity”—“Merry Christmas” — “Feliz Navidad” — at Christmas, my sister plays this song on her piano.
The Mormon church in Palo Alto has an annual display of crèches from around the world. Evidently, the Mormon world-wide mission endeavor resulted in many missionaries bringing home artifacts from various places on the globe. In the general Palo Alto area, moreover, many people have crèches that they have collected over the years. In total, there seems to be some fifteen hundred elaborate, multi-figured scenes of the Nativity, from Mexico, Peru, Cambodia, Africa, Germany, Switzerland, American Indian tribes, Portugal, and just about anywhere. There was a lovely dark blue Murano glass Madonna. Each year some 350 of these different Nativity scenes are displayed in a lovely setting in the church halls. Striking figures of Joseph, Mary, and the Child, the Wise Men, the shepherds, the animals of all sorts, and even carved breads and eggs are displayed. The dress of Mary and Joseph, as well as their facial features, usually reflects the time and country of origin of the artist.
The Nativity — what is it? It comes from the Latin, to be born. What is the origin of any child born into this world? We really must recall that any born child is already a conceived child, with a nine-month inner-worldly record already in place. At the moment of his conception, all that he is, his unique being, is already present. What is left for this child is simply to grow, to become fully what he already is, a human being, male or female. No parents know ahead of time just what this child begotten of them is like. Though x-rays can follow his development, they have to wait to find out by seeing the child once born. They then see him grow, develop into what he already is. The birth of a child is, at the same time, both an astonishment and a lesson in the responsible care of another, as if to say that the latter, the care, flows from the former, the amazement, that such a new thing could exist as it is at all.
Yet, no child is understood if he is considered to originate in absolutely nothing, if he is held to be a total product of chance. His very body is related to the genes and looks that belonged to his grandparents and ancestors on both sides of his family. His soul, what makes him to be human as such, originates in God. It is, though related to a body, itself immaterial, hence immortal. Human life, moreover, has origins in the Godhead. Before we were in our mother’s womb, God knew us. But He did not know us apart from our parents or them apart from their parents. We are always individual persons, yet related to others and them to us. His interchange constitutes our lives.
Such reflections have two implications. Our very being is ultimately found within God’s intention to create the world in the first place. In doing so, each of us is included. We do not have any choice about whether or not we will be given existence. If we did have such a choice, it would logically mean that we existed as we are before we existed as we are at birth. Our parents do not engineer us. All they know is that children can be born of them. They never know which ones until they see them. Our conception and birth, in other words, are best understood as a gift, not as something “due” or constructed. Yet, once we are conceived, our growth, which needs love, help, and attention, proceeds by the necessity of our being what we are. We will reach infancy, youth, middle age, old age, and death. The only way to stop this subsequent flourish as a human being is to kill it, though such a killing does not prevent that which is killed from reaching the purpose for which it was made in the Godhead.
The second consequence of our having an origin in the Godhead is that, while we are related to others of our kind—we are familial, social, and political beings–we are also present to God who sustains our being in its very existence. Something inexhaustible is discovered in each human being reflecting back on himself. As we proceed to know one another, we always find some inexhaustible depth in ourselves and in our neighbor, something that we did not put there, something we cannot fully fathom. Our being reaches the Godhead in which the idea of our existence first resided. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, guides us to the understanding that God is not only in the world but also within us, sustaining us, loving us. This divine presence is the source of our dignity, of the fact that even God treats us after the manner of His creation, after the manner of what we are. This truth is why our relation to God is both indirect through the things that are and direct through our reflecting on the divine presence sustaining us in being, in loving us.
We can, of course, refuse to be what we are. This refusal explains, in part, why we have “The Nativity” of the Child of the Holy Family. “Nativity” here means, not just the birth of any given person, but the birth of the Son of God into this world at a definite time and in a definite place, when Caesar Augustus was Roman Emperor. Early Christian heresies are largely complicated efforts not to admit that Christ, the Child born in Bethlehem, was both true man, hence born of woman, and true God, hence the Son of the Father within the Godhead, the Logos, the eternally begotten Word who fully knows the Father. But this Christ was born in the City of David. He is Christ the Lord. This Nativity of the Son into the world is sometimes called by Church Fathers His “second” birth, since He was first born, begotten not made, of or from the Father within the Trinity before all ages, a phrase that does not imply a time when the Word was not.
But like all births, Christ’s birth was also a looking forward. Simeon warned Mary that a sword would pierce her heart. And it did. The Nativity of Christ begins a relatively short life of only thirty-three years, much of which was “hidden”, as they say. Looking back on Christ’s life, the evangelists began to consider what they knew of Christ’s birth and the town he lived in. Subsequent generations recalled what they knew of Christ’s birth in the light of his subsequent life. They often tried to reproduce or narrate its setting. Simeon, on seeing this Child in the Temple with his parents tells us that “my eyes have seen the salvation of Israel”. Imagine saying this! “My” eyes have seen, not thought about, the “salvation” while he was looking at an Infant.
“Salvation” first had to do with a person, then, on His maturity, on His explaining what it is He knew of His Father, of His plan for our salvation. The Nativity of Christ is not an abstraction; it is not just a nice idea. It is a real birth. And who is this Child? Why bother about Him? If He were just another child born into the Roman Empire, we would not need to pay so much attention to Him. But if He is indeed the Word, the Son of the Father, made man, the whole world is changed. But we can find reasons not to accept this fact. We can find reasons to deny that it is a fact. What we cannot do is change the fact. The Christian calendar calls each year after this birth “in Anno Domini — in the Year of the Lord. Hence, this year lies in Anno Domini, 2014.
Has the full reason why Christ became men been completed? Evidently not. Why not? No doubt, it has much to do with “the day and the hour known only to the Father”, with the purpose of this Incarnation, with the constant re-presentation to mankind in the Nativity that, yes, this was the Son of God sent into your world. There will not be another. All needed evidence has already been presented. Each year this Nativity is celebrated again. Its story, its songs, its lore are known to us. We notice an increasing rejection of it, a wanting not even to hear about it. “Why is this?” we wonder. In spite of the evidence, many want it not to be true. They build their lives and their polities on this premise. Two kinds of “silent night” exist. One is rooted in awe and glory; the other in the rejection of the two gifts, the two nativities that constitute our being and our salvation.
James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Classical Moment: Selected Essays on Knowledge and Its Pleasures (St. Augustine Press, 2014).