“The birth of Jesus Christ in that stable in Bethlehem is where all my questions begin to be answered”. The late Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster, wrote these words when nearing the end of his life. “If I want to look on the face of utter love, if I want to see what the lover will do for the beloved, I have to take myself with faith to the crib and look at the image of the Child lying in the manger”, he added (1).
Looking at the scene of Christ’s birth – this is exactly what Benedict XVI invited the faithful to do when he blessed the Bambinelli that children had brought to the Angelus Reflection in St Peter’s Square on Sunday, 13 December. He asked the “little ones” and their families to open their eyes to the mystery of this familiar scene of the Child Jesus and his Holy Family in the stable. In Italy the presepe, or nativity scene, remains the focus of Christmas decorations, with elaborate displays adorning piazzas and churches throughout the country.
As the Pope recalled, the tradition of the nativity scene began when St Francis of Assisi organized a re-enactment of the night of Christ’s birth in a mountainside cave in the small Italian village of Greccio:
“I want to do something that will recall the memory of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy”, St Francis explained during preparation for that first live nativity scene in 1223, as Thomas of Celano recorded in his biography of the Saint.
In that time, Thomas writes, “in the hearts of many the Child Jesus really had been forgotten, but, by his grace and through his servant Francis, he had been brought back to life”. What Francis most wanted to show the people, the Holy Father said on Sunday, was that because of his love for us the Son of God emptied himself completely and came down to earth as a tiny baby.
The depth and nature of this love is a mystery that – while remaining hidden to many, past and present – has been revealed to the “little ones”. Understanding the profound importance of this mystery and realizing what kind of person might begin to grasp it are both topics on which the Pope has consistently reflected, especially since the beginning of the new Liturgical Year.
“He concealed the great mystery of the Son… from the wise and the learned, from those who did not recognize him. Instead he revealed it to the children”, the Holy Father said. In order for our eyes to be opened, we need the grace to become small, he said. This is not to say, however, that the “becoming little” that is necessary for a deeper understanding of the faith means an abandonment of reason or a reversion to ignorance (2).
Instead, this process of becoming small involves the acknowledgement and consequent renouncement of the kind of foolishness that often leads to blind pride. All too often, people tend to think they “know everything” and see their own methods as “above God”. In order to look at the Christ Child and truly see what lies there before him a man must open himself in humility, recognizing how little he is in comparison to the greatness of God. It is “precisely by accepting his own smallness… that he arrives at the truth” (3).
So we are to look to children for inspiration, the Pope says. A large part of what makes them worthy role models seems to be their ceaseless wonder at the world. “God speaks very gently to children, often without words…. Creation provides the vocabulary – leaves, clouds, flowing water, a shaft of light. It is a secret language, not to be found in books” (4).
Indeed, seeing God in nature is often how mankind has come to experience this same mystery whose truth is revealed in Christ. In every age the beauty of Creation has brought Christians and non-Christians to catch a glimpse of that mystery. One might begin with St Francis, so well known for his exuberant praise of God’s handiwork, as expressed in his Canticle of the Sun. But someone like Albert Einstein, for example, found transcendent meaning in Creation as well. His religion consisted in “a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind”, he said. And he also had an appreciation for the importance of being like children: “People do not grow old no matter how long we live. We never cease to stand like curious children before the great Mystery into which we were born”.
The greatest minds – from theologians to philosophers to scientists – have often concluded their life’s work with a sense that what they know is, in the grand scheme of things, not much at all. St Thomas Aquinas is a prime example. His thought remains to this day an invaluable foundation upon which a considerable part of Catholic Doctrine firmly stands. Having produced a large body of theological and philosophical work, St Thomas reached a point late in his life when he decided to stop writing. This was prompted by a realization, as he described it, that all he had written seemed to him to be mere “straw”.
But the Baby Jesus was not to become a Man who spoke of his utter lack of wisdom. Instead, “slowly he grew to man’s estate, increasing in wisdom and grace before God and man, adding to the fruits of his knowledge by experience… growing conscious of the outward fabric of the universe which his own hands upheld”, writes English Dominican Bede Jarrett (5).
It is only with the realization of Jesus’ true identity, then, that the extent of his humility can even begin to be perceived. And it is this realization that lies at the very core of the mystery of the faith: “that at a given moment in history the Trinitarian God entered our history, as a man like us” (6).
Thus the Holy Father has asserted time and again that Christianity is no myth: “the Gospel is not a legend but the account of a true story…. Jesus of Nazareth is a historical figure” (7). By coming down to earth, God revealed a great deal of the mystery of his love. But in illuminating this mystery, “he cannot help blinding me even while he enlightens me, not because of his limitations, but of mine…. In other words, just because God is infinite and I am finite, it is to be expected that everything that he tells me of himself, while increasing light, will increase darkness at the same time. In those countries where the sun is brightest, there are the deepest shadows; the very brilliance of the sun adds to the blackness of the shadow that it casts” (8).
An awareness of Jesus’ identity and his humility unveils what seem at first to be contradictions. The paradox of his life emerges – a life begun on a bed of hay and finished on a wooden cross. If Christ is truly King, why would he lower himself to that kind of existence? Why would he choose to place himself in such poor circumstances? A helpless child might be considered the very epitome of vulnerability. But then, “to love at all is to be vulnerable”, as C.S. Lewis writes (9).
Christ knows the human condition inside out, but instead of exploiting humanity for its frailty, he chose to share in its trials. It was this loving desire that led him to dwell among us: “In becoming Man, the Lord himself wanted to love us with a heart of flesh!”, the Pope explained (10).
The moment in which that heart of flesh started beating, the course of human history was drastically changed. Christ’s entrance into the world would bring a new intimacy to mankind’s relationship with its Creator, one that did not end when he ascended into Heaven. He is still present today: “God is here, he has not withdrawn from the world” the Pope said, explaining that this phrase constituted “the essential meaning of the word adventus” for Early Christians (11). He described the Advent Season as a chance to “pause in silence to understand a presence. It is an invitation to understand that the individual events of the day are hints that God is giving us”, signs of his love (12).
Yet Advent is also a time of anticipation. “The Lord is at hand!”, we heard during Sunday’s Liturgy in the Letter of St Paul – notably the very same “great scholar” who had become a “little one” and was hence able to perceive “the folly of God as wisdom” (13).This anticipation is expressed, for example, in the way that in Italy traditionally the Infant Jesus is not placed in the manger until Christmas. The tension between this sense of expectation and the divine presence that can be experienced today is in itself symbolic of the Christian journey.
The balance between them was illustrated poignantly in St Peter’s Square on Sunday. There in the centre of the piazza was the large, covered manger scene, soon to be unveiled. But from the Square filled with the faithful, Baby Jesus figurines in hand, one could see the Virgin holding a newborn Child just to the right of the Basilica. Upon the mosaic, a work commissioned by Pope John Paul II, are written the words: Totus Tuus – totally yours. Parallel to Mary and Jesus stood the Holy Father at his window, reminding the faithful that “the crib is a school of life, where we can learn the secret of true joy”. This consists “in giving oneself as a gift for others and in loving one another” as God loved humanity – completely.
For Christians, it is a joy rooted firmly in hope. Christ did not come only to share in the human condition, he came to sanctify it, to lift it to himself: “Christ’s nativity places ‘in our hands’ the potential of personal participation in God’s sacred life and love in an endless progression” (14). The sense of anticipation that comes with Advent is in fact reminiscent of humanity’s insatiable longing for union with its Creator, its waiting to return home to him.
This same Creator made himself a humble servant out of love for his creatures. It is the Christ Child, both vulnerable Infant and Almighty God, both ever present and near at hand, who makes possible “the hope of our salvation”. Such is the message that Benedict XVI has continually sought to convey. Thus whoever can look – through the eyes of a “little one” – at the nativity scene, welcoming the Baby within as the centre of their lives, will find both “the source of true joy” and “the heart of the world” (15).
1) Cardinal Basil Hume, Mystery of the Incarnation, (London: Dartman, Longman and Todd, 1999), p. 10.
2) Cf. Benedict XVI, Homily During Mass for the Members of the International Theological Commission, 1 December 2009; L’Osservatore Romano English edition [ORE], 9 December, p. 6.
4) Text of a French catechetical document as cited by Cardinal Hume in his above-referenced work, p. 60.
5) “Jesus Christ”, Bede Jarrett Anthology, ed. Jordan Aumann, OP, (London: Aquin Press, 1961), p. 35.
6) Benedict XVI, Homily During Mass for Members of the International Theological Commission; ORE, 9 December 2009, p. 6.
7) Angelus Reflection, 6 December 2009; ORE, 9 December, p. 1.
Note: This latter description can be dangerous when taken alone, however. Many academics have reduced the “great mystery of Jesus, the Son made Man” into a historical Jesus, “a tragic figure; a ghost, not of flesh and blood; a man who stays in the tomb” (Homily, Mass for Members of the International Theological Commission).
8) Bede Jarrett, OP “Faith”, Bede Jarrett Anthology, p. 296.
9) The Four Loves (London: Harcourt Brace, 1960), p. 111.
10) General Audience Catechesis, 2 December 2009; ORE, 9 December, p. 16.
11) Homily During First Vespers for the Beginning of Advent, 28 November 2009; ORE, 2 December, p. 7.
12) Cf. ibid.
13) Benedict XVI, Homily During Mass for Members of the International Theological Commission; ORE, 9 December 2009, p. 6.
14) Bartholomew I, Patriarchal Proclamation Upon the Feast of Christmas 2008.
15) Benedict XVI, Angelus Reflection, 13 December 2009.
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© L’Osservatore Romano English edition