Tuesday, December 24, 2013

First Born in Eternity then in History

Christmas Mass During the Day 2013

Catholics attending this Mass or a later mass today are often surprised by the Gospel reading. There is no mention of a manger, a stable, shepherds, of Magi, of angels, of Bethlehem or, very surprisingly, of Mary and Joseph. If you came last night, you would not have been disappointed. But this morning’s Gospel starts in a manner which doesn’t seem to be in synch with the season: "In the beginning was the Word," and it continues to speak only of the Word of God. So why is this a Christmas Gospel reading?

Up until the liturgical reforms of the post-Vatican II era, the Prologue of St John’s Gospel, the text we just heard was and is still proclaimed at the very end of every Traditional Latin Mass, thereby earning for itself the misnomer ‘the Last Gospel.’ According to one source, the Last Gospel was inserted here to counter the heresy (prevalent among clergy at the time of its introduction) of denying the Incarnation, and therefore the divinity of Jesus Christ. The priest by reading this passage publicly attests to the orthodoxy of his faith. Whatever may have been the original reason for its insertion, it is a beautiful paradox that the Last Gospel of the Mass takes us back to the beginning, for it opens with the words "In the beginning."

The tradition of reading the prologue on Christmas Day has survived the liturgical reform. Though the practice of reading the Last gospel at the end of mass has been discontinued, it did serve the purpose of climaxing every celebration with the compelling and beautiful truth of the Incarnation, the dogma that speaks of the act and decision of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, becoming man – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The prologue situates the Christmas story outside the confines of human history. In fact, it provides for the words and works of the Incarnate Word an eternal background or origin and proceeds to proclaim his divinity and eternity. He who "became flesh" in time, is the Word himself from all eternity. He is the only-begotten Son of God "who is in the bosom of the Father." He is the Son "of the same substance of the Father," he is "God from God." He receives the fullness of glory from the Father. He is the Word "through whom everything was made. It is for this reason, in response to this great Divine Condescension, that we kneel in humble contemplation of the mystery proclaimed by the Creed, “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”

This focus on the Incarnation and the Divinity of Christ reminds us that we are not celebrating the birthday of a great hero, or a sagely guru, or an illustrious prophet. We are celebrating the birth into human history of the Divine and Eternal Word, the Son of God, the One from whom and in whom all things were made. "The Son of God became man", St Athanasius explains, "in order that the sons of men, the sons of Adam, might become sons of God.” With all the gift giving, merry making, commercialisation of our feast, it is quite easy to forget this very central truth.

While our culture is very open to the likes of Superman, Thor, Spider-man and other “super-beings” who are fictional, it is ironic that man regards the Incarnation, the fact of an Omnipotent God choosing to become mortal, a strange and unbelievable idea. There has been increased hostility and opposition to the biblical doctrine of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the rejection of his divinity. In history there have been those who have sought to sacrifice either the deity of Christ (e.g. the Ebionites) or remove his humanity (e.g. the Docetists). Quite recently there has been a bold attack on the doctrine of the incarnation made by several theologians and scripture scholars. In no uncertain terms the incarnation is dismissed as a myth, along with other fundamental doctrines of the faith. With the rejection of the Incarnation, they are surely evacuating the divine element from Jesus. They are attempting to harmonise the anti-supernaturalism of the modern mind with the church's teaching about Christ. The great quest of liberal theology has been to invent a Jesus who is stripped of all supernatural power, deity, and authority. They are not reinterpreting traditional Christology. They are simply abandoning it.

The doctrine of the Incarnation is central to a Christian celebration of Christmas, a truth that is currently under attack. The doctrine of the incarnation is one which is vital to the Christian faith because other doctrines will stand or fall with it. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “belief in the true Incarnation of the Son of God is the distinctive sign of the Christian faith” (CCC 463). Christianity shares with some other religions belief in an infinite and transcendent God, the source of the world’s being and of all its values. The doctrine of the Incarnation expresses the conviction of Christians that this God has made himself known fully, specifically and personally, by taking our human nature into himself, by coming amongst us as a particular man, without in any way ceasing to be the eternal and infinite God.

Perhaps the best way to underscore the importance of the doctrine of the incarnation is to consider the price for putting it aside. Nowhere is it more beautifully and succinctly articulated than in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which lays down these various reasons for the Incarnation thus pointing to its central significance:
  1. The Word became flesh for us in order to save us (CCC 457). According to the Nicene Creed, we all profess that "For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man."
  2. The Word became flesh so that thus we might know God’s love (CCC 458) – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16)
  3. The Word became flesh to be our model of holiness (CCC 459)
  4. Finally, the Word became flesh to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature.’ (2 Peter 1:4)

Can we truly celebrate Christmas and at the same time deny both the humanity and the divinity of Christ? The answer to that question must be a decisive ‘No’. Those who reject these truths empty our celebration of its essential content – Christmas is not just a celebration of the birthday of our founder, a sentimental reason for gathering as a family, an occasion for gift-giving and carolling, a cultic act to proclaim the legendary charity of Ole St Nicholas. For us Christians, Christmas must always be a celebration affirming our belief in both the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ. The Incarnation does not stand alone as a doctrine that can be severed from the rest. On the contrary, it is an irreducible part of the revelation about the person and work of Jesus Christ. With it, the Gospel stands or falls.

It is often the case that we are invited to admire the humility of our Lord Jesus Christ as he chose to be born in the Spartan conditions of a cave or stable in Bethlehem. But this morning’s liturgy also invites us to humbly kneel in adoration before the one who chose to kneel before his disciples to wash their feet. It’s time to rescue this Feast of Christmas from all that sentimental sugar coating. It is the Feast by which we affirm once again our belief in His Divinity. Together with Pope Benedict, we affirm that our “Faith is simple and rich: we believe that God exists, that God counts; but which God? A God with a face, a human face, a God who reconciles, who overcomes hatred and gives us the power of peace that no one else can give us.”

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