Christmas – Wonder & Praise

Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm. This reflection first appeared in New Creation, Number 12, Volume 6.

There are many ways of looking at Christmas, just as there are several perspectives within which we can view Mary and her Child. Even in the New Testament we find four different accounts of the Incarnation, the central mystery of our faith. Each has a different insight and emphasis, and in fact represents the favoured aspect of a different christian Church: the account in Luke 1-2 is the one largely preferred by Roman Catholics as Mary is contemplated – Mary with her Child; dear to the Lutheran tradition is the infancy account in Matthew chapters 1-2 which presents Jesus as the new Moses, giving the law of freedom; the mystical vision of the opening of John’s gospel lies close to the heart of Orthodoxy which loves to contemplate the mystery of the eternal word made flesh; some of the Calvinist Churches feel most at home with the stark statement of Paul in Galatians 4:4, ‘when the completion of the time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman’, a text that leads us into the lovely truth that we are adopted by God as a result of the Incarnation and the sending of the Holy Spirit (vv. 5-7).
Poets and painters, musicians and theologians, preachers and believers have constantly reflected, and reflected on, these texts to bring out their deepest meaning. In the Catholic Church we have a Christmas reflection that we may not fully appreciate as it is prayed in the Mass each year. It is the first Christmas Preface, surely a supreme gem of the Roman liturgy. Its theological roots go back to Pope Leo the Great (+ 461), one of the doctors of the Western Church who most carefully exposed the mystery of the Incarnation for the whole Church. The central five lines of this great preface can bring us to the very heart of the Christmas celebration.
In the wonder of the Incarnation
your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith
a new and radiant vision of your glory.
The glory of God is his eternity, his immensity, his power. Yet in the infant this glory has found a new expression. The unfortunate tendency of cribs to give us a rather mature child – at times with a hand raised in blessing! – can allow us to lose sight of the littleness of the Bethlehem baby, and so distract us from the mystery. A tiny weak bundle of flesh of six or eight pounds is a radiant vision of God’s glory. Everything that we know about babies has to be applied to the God who became an infant. Our contemplation of Christmas gives us new insight into the hymn of Philippians, ‘He emptied himself’ (Ph 2:7).
Wonder is a key to Christmas. In its secular form we find it in the eyes of children in shops, in Toyland, visiting Santa. For the believer Christmas will never reveal its secret if we do not allow ourselves to be lost in wonder.
The preface continues:
In him we see our God made visible
and so are caught up in his love of the God we cannot see.
There is a special revelation of God’s majesty in the helplessness of a child. It is a revelation of love, the same love that would leave Jesus no less helpless on the cross. It is in part the depth of God’s love, shown in his costly involvement with humanity that is a new and radiant vision of his glory. The verb used in the preface, ‘caught up’, is not precise, nor should it be. Christmas is not a matter of cold reasoning but most profoundly a matter of wonder, amazement, and awe.
It is of course the crib that will help us to appreciate the mystery. But there are several ways of approaching a crib. In Rome there is the custom of visiting the cribs in the various churches: there we find an exuberance of imagination, a variety of ways of presenting the scene, often with dozens of figures and buildings which allow us to recapture the miracle that is taking place in the very ordinariness of daily life in Palestine, even if it is a Bethlehem often with strong Italian colouring. But any crib, even the simplest, can speak to us. ‘Speak’ is somehow the right word. A crib is silent, nothing moves. But even as we allow ourselves to be drawn into its silence, it speaks to our hearts. It takes time for a crib to address us. We need to stay before it, not saying prayers, but allowing the sense of wonder and astonishment to take us over. To be ‘caught up in the love of the God we cannot see’ is to allow the crib to speak to our hearts rather than to our heads, its very stillness having a resonant eloquence.
Clearly the crib speaks to us of that peace which the world cannot give, and which is at the heart of the Christmas message. The very stillness of the crib breathes a peace that can still the anxieties and cares of our hearts, and draw us upwards towards a new vision of ourselves enveloped by the love of the God who came to us as a baby. Human wisdom, personal ambitions, the selfish grasping of people and of things, are humbled and healed in the silence of the crib. In the presence of this new revelation of God’s glory we can only remain in silence to allow his peace some greater entry into our lives, that peace which in the end is the only thing that will ever satisfy our restless hearts.
The meaning of the Preface at any Mass is to tell our God why, at this time, on this particular day, we are about to praise him by offering his Son Jesus on the altar. The marvellous first Christmas Preface permits us to get the right attitude for the celebration of the feast: praise, yes, but a praise that ultimately will draw us into a deeper worship of silent awe before a mystery that we cannot utter, but one that we can endlessly ponder:
In the wonder of the incarnation
your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith
a new and radiant vision of your glory.
In him we see our God made visible
And so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.