Mystery of Christmas
by Dom Prosper Gueranger, 1868
Everything is Mystery in this holy Season. The Word of God, whose generation is before the day-star (Ps. cix.3), is born in time–a Child is God–a Virgin becomes a Mother, and remains a Virgin–things divine are commingled with those that are human–and the sublime, the ineffable, antithesis, expressed by the Beloved Disciple in those words of his Gospel: The Word was made flesh, is repeated in a thousand different ways in all the prayers of the Church;–and rightly, for it admirably embodies the whole of the great portent, which unites, in one Person, the nature of Man and the nature of God.
The splendour of this Mystery dazzles the understanding, but it inundates the heart with joy. It is the consummation of the designs of God in time. It is the endless subject of admiration and wonder to the Angels and Saints; nay, is the source and cause of their beatitude. Let us see, how the Church offers this Mystery to her children, veiled under the symbolism of her Liturgy.
The four weeks of our preparation are over–they were the image of the four thousand years, which preceded the great coming–and we have reached the Twenty-fifth day of the Month of December, as a long- desired place of sweetest rest. But, why is it, that the celebration of our Saviour’s Birth should be the perpetual privilege of this one fixed day; whilst the whole liturgical Cycle has, every year, to be changed and remodelled, in order to yield that ever-varying day, which is to be the feast of his Resurrection– Easter Sunday?
The question is a very natural one, and we find it proposed and answered, even so far back as the fourth century; and that, too, by St. Augustine, in his celebrated Epistle to Januarius. The holy Doctor offers this explanation: We solemnise the day of our Saviour’s Birth, in order that we may honour that Birth, which was for our salvation; but the precise day of the week, on which He was born, is void of any mystical signification. Sunday, on the contrary, the day of our Lord’s Resurrection, is the day marked, in the Creator’s designs, to express a mystery, which was to be commemorated for all ages. St. Isidore of Seville, and the ancient Interpreter of Sacred Rites, (who, for a long time, was supposed to be the learned Alcuin,) have also adopted this explanation of the Bishop of Hippo; and our readers may see their words interpreted by Durandus, in his Rational.
These writers, then, observe, that as, according to a sacred tradition, the creation of man took place on a Friday, and our Saviour suffered death also on a Friday, for the redemption of man; that as, moreover, the Resurrection of our Lord was on the third day after his death, that is, on a Sunday, which is the day on which the Light was created, as we learn from the Book of Genesis–“the two Solemnities of Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection,” says St. Augustine, “do not only remind us of those divine facts; but they moreover represent and signify some other mysterious and holy thing (Epist. Ad Januarium).”
And yet, we are not to suppose, that, because the Feast of Jesus’ Birth is not fixed to any particular day of the week, there is no mystery expressed by its being always on the Twenty-fifth of December. For, firstly, we may observe with the old Liturgists, that the Feast of Christmas is kept by turns, on each of the Days of the week, that thus its holiness may cleanse and rid them of the curse, which Adam’s sin had put upon them. But, secondly, the great mystery of the Twenty-fifth of December, being the Feast of our Saviour’s Birth, has reference, not to the division of time marked out by God Himself, and which is called the Week; but to the course of that great Luminary, which gives life to the world (St. John, viii. 12), because it gives it light and warmth. Jesus, our Saviour, the Light of the World, was born when the night of idolatry and crime was the darkest; and the day of His Birth, the Twenty-fifth of December, is that on which the material Sun begins to gain his ascendency over the reign of gloomy night, and show to the world his triumph of brightness.
In our “Advent” we showed, after the Holy Fathers, that the diminution of the physical light may be considered as emblematic of those dismal times, which preceded the Incarnation. We joined our prayers with those of the people of the Old Testament; and, with our holy Mother the Church, we cried out to the Divine Orient, the Sun of Justice, that He would deign to come, and deliver us from the twofold death of body and soul. God has heard our prayers; and it is on the Day of the Winter Solstice–which the Pagans of old made so much of by their fears and rejoicings–that He gives us both the increase of the natural light, and Him who is the Light of our souls.
St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Ambrose, St. Maximus of Turin, St. Leo, St. Bernard, and the principal Liturgists, dwell with complacency on this profound mystery, which the Creator of the universe has willed should mark both the natural and the supernatural world. We shall find the Church, also, making continual allusion to it, during this season of Chistmas, as she did in that of Advent.
“On this the Day which the Lord hath made,” says St. Gregory of Nyssa, “darkness decreases, light increases, and Night is driven back again. No, Brethren, it is not by chance, nor by any created will, that this natural change begins on the Day, when He shows Himself in the brightness of His coming, which is the spiritual Life of the world. It is Nature revealing, under this symbol, a secret to them whose eye is quick enough to see it; to them, I mean, who are able to appreciate this circumstance of our Saviour’s coming. Nature seems to me to say: Know, O Man! that under the things which I show thee, there lie Mysteries concealed. Hast thou not seen the Night, that had grown so long, suddenly checked? Learn hence, that the black night of Sin, which had got to its height by the accumulation of every guilty device, is this day stopped in its course. Yes, from this day forward, its duration shall be shortened, until at length there shall be naught but Light. Look, I pray thee, on the Sun; and see how his rays are stronger, and his position higher in the heavens: learn from that, how the other Light, the Light of the Gospel, is now shedding itself over the whole earth (Homily on the Nativity).”
“Let us, my Brethren, rejoice,” cries out St. Augustine (Sermon on the Nativity of our Lord, iii.): “this Day is sacred, not because of the visible sun, but because of the Birth of Him, who is the invisible Creator of the sun. * * He chose this Day to be born on, as He chose the Mother He was to be bom from, and He made both the Day and the Mother. The Day He chose, was that on which the light begins to increase, and it typifies the work of Christ, who renews our interior man, day by day. For the eternal Creator having willed to be born in time, His Birth Day would necessarily be in harmony with the rest of His creation.”
The same holy Father, in another Sermon for the same Feast, gives us the interpretation of a mysterious expression of St. John Baptist, which admirably confirms the tradition of the Church. The great Precursor said on one occasion, when speaking of Christ: He must increase, but I must decrease (John, iii. 30). These prophetic words signify, in their literal sense, that the Baptist’s mission was at its close, because Jesus was entering upon His. But, they convey, as St. Augustine assures us, a second meaning: “John came into this world at the season of the year, when the length of the day decreases; Jesus was born in the season when the length of the day increases (Sermon In Natali Domini, xi).” Thus, there is mystery both in the rising of that glorious Star, the Baptist, at the summer-solstice; and in the rising of our Divine Sun in the dark season of winter. It is almost unnecessary to add, that this doctrine of the Holy Fathers, which is embodied in the Christmas Liturgy, is not in any degree falsified by the fact that there are some parts of God’s earth, where Christmas falls in a Season the very opposite of Winter. Our Lord selected, for the place of his Birth, one which made it Winter, when he came upon earth; and by that selection, He stamped the Mystery, taught in the text, on the Season of darkness and cold. Our Brethren in Australia, for example, will have the Mystery without the Winter, when they are keeping Christmas; or, more correctly, their faith and the Holy Liturgy will unite them with us, both in the Winter, and the Mystery, of the great Birth in Bethlehem. [Translator’s Note.]
There have been men, who dared to scoff at Christianity as a superstition, because they discovered, that the ancient Pagans used to keep a Feast of the sun, on the winter Solstice! In their shallow erudition, they concluded, that a Religion could not be divinely instituted, which had certain rites or customs originating in an analogy to certain phenomena of this world: in other words, these Writers denied what Revelation asserts, namely, that God only created this world for the sake of His Christ and His Church. The very facts, which these enemies of our holy Religion brought forward as objections to the true Faith, are, to us Catholics, additional proof of its being worthy of our most devoted love.
Thus, then, have we explained the fundamental Mystery of these Forty Days of Christmas, by having shown the grand secret hidden in the choice, made by God’s eternal decree, that the Twenty-fifth Day of December should be the Birth-day of God upon this earth. Let us, now, respectfully study another mystery:–that which is involved in the place, where this Birth happened.
This place is Bethlehem. Out of Bethlehem, says the Prophet, shall He come forth, that is to be the Ruler in Israel (Mich. v. 2). The Jewish Priests are well aware of the prophecy, and, in a few days hence, will tell it to Herod (St. Matt. ii. 5). But, why was this insignificant Town chosen, in preference to every other, to be the Birth-place of Jesus? Be attentive, Christians, to the mystery! The name of this City of David signifies the House of Bread: therefore did He, who is the living Bread come down from heaven (St. John, vi. 41), choose it for His first visible home. Our Fathers did eat manna in the desert and are dead (St. John, vi. 49); but, lo! here is the Saviour of the world, come to give life to His creature Man, by means of His own divine Flesh, which is meat indeed (Ibid. 56). Up to this time, the Creator and the creature had been separated from each other;–henceforth they shall abide together in closest union. The Ark of the Covenant, containing the manna which fed but the body, is now replaced by the Ark of a New Covenant, purer and more incorruptible than the other–the incomparable Virgin Mary, who gives us Jesus, the Bread of Angels, the nourishment which will give us a divine transformation; for, this Jesus Himself has said: He that eateth my flesh ahideth in Me, and I in him (St. John. vi. 57).
It is for this divine transformation that the world was in expectation for four thousand years, and for which the Church prepared herself by the four weeks of Advent. It has come at last, and Jesus is about to enter within us, if we will but receive Him (Ibid. i. 12). He asks to be united to each one of us in particular, just as He is united, by His Incarnation, to the whole human race; and for this end, He wishes to become our Bread, our spiritual nourishment. His coming into the souls of men, at this mystic season, has no other aim than this union. He comes, not to judge the world, but that the world may he saved by him (Ibid, iii. 17), and that all may have life, and may have it more abundantly (St. John. x. 10). This divine Lover of our souls will not be satisfied, therefore, until He have substituted Himself in our place, so that we may live not we ourselves, but He in us; and in order that this mystery may be effected in a sweeter way, it is under the form of an Infant that this Beautiful Fruit of Bethlehem wishes first to enter into us, there to grow, afterwards, in wisdom and age before God and men (St. Luke, ii. 40, 52).
And when, having thus visited us by His grace and nourished us in His love, He shall have changed us into Himself, there shall be accomplished in us a still further mystery. Having become one in spirit and heart with Jesus–the Son of the heavenly Father–we shall also become Sons of this same God our Father. The Beloved Disciple speaking of this our dignity, cries out: Behold! what manner of charity the Father hath bestowed upon us–that we should be called, and should be the Sons of God (I. St. John, iii. 1)! We will not now stay to consider this immense happiness of the Christian soul, as we shall have a more fitting occasion, further on, to speak of it, and show by what means it is to be maintained and increased.