“No more let sins and sorrows grow, / Nor thorns infest the ground; / He comes to make His blessings flow / Far as the curse is found, / Far as the curse is found.”
Like many other carols, this rarely sung verse of “Joy to the World” leads us into the profound mystery of the Christmas feast. In the little child whose birth we celebrate, we gaze on the face of our champion in a struggle that could not be won without him. Listen to St. Leo the Great:
For unless [Christ] the new man, by being made in the likeness of sinful humanity, had taken on himself the nature of our first parents, unless he had stooped to be one in substance with his mother while sharing the Father’s substance and, being alone free from sin, united our nature to his, the whole human race would still be held captive under the dominion of Satan. (Epistle 31, 3; LH vol.1, 321)
For this child, the road that begins in Bethlehem continues on to Golgotha, and beyond to glory. The enchanting beauty that surrounds us on this feast of the nativity of our Lord celebrates the glory of the champion of our salvation. But between the nativity and the glory there was the cross, the passion and the death of our precious Savior. With Mary we gaze with joy on the child over whose ruined body we shall later shed bitter tears. The Father of heaven and earth did not hesitate to allow his only-begotten Son to become the Son of Mary in order to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.
From Bethlehem to Golgotha. As another carol reminds us, the destiny of this child is prefigured in the harsh circumstances of his birth:
In the bleak midwinter,
frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
snow on snow,
the bleak midwinter, long ago.
The mighty conqueror comes into the world in piercing cold, in a stable “because there was no room for them in the inn”.
In the bleak midwinter
a stable place sufficed
for the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Already knowing in faith the destiny of this child, we find ourselves at the absolute center of the Christmas mystery. What Mary and Joseph, the angels and archangels, the shepherds and now, brothers and sisters in Christ, all of us—what they and we behold with nearly breathless wonder is the birth of the one who, taking on our humanity, will lay down his life for us in the sacrifice of the cross so that we can become sharers in his divinity. This wonderful exchange restores us to life, making possible things otherwise completely beyond our reach and imagination—namely, participation in the divine life, and forgiveness and healing of our sins. St. Leo reminds us, “The Conqueror’s victory would have profited us nothing if the battle had been fought outside our human condition.” Born into our human nature, Christ makes it possible for us to be reborn as his brothers and sisters in the communion of Trinitarian love. By assuming our human frailty, the sinless one is victorious within the very arena of earthly existence where we lay under the curse, condemned to sin and death.
Not from outside, but from within the arena of human existence, he comes to make his blessings flow. Like a flowing river, the uncontainable surge of his grace streams into every crevice and corner of our lives sweeping away our sins and sorrows, and all the thorns that infect the ground. How far? Far as the curse is found, deep into the dark fissures of our hearts where the thorns of envy and malice, pride and lust, greed, hatred and despair would find a niche and thrive. How far then do his blessings flow? Far as the curse is found. As far, even, as the world of unbelief.
When exhorted to “put Christ back into Christmas,” I ask myself, “But who could have taken him out of Christmas?” It would be better to speak of revealing or uncovering his ineradicable presence at the very heart of Christmas. Is it not possible with the eyes of faith to see in every Christmas tree, in every wreath, in every exchange of gifts, in every instance of generosity to the needy, in every family reunion of loved ones from far and near—to see in every Christmas celebration, even of those who do not acknowledge him, remote outposts of his blessings that flow as far as the curse is found?
Consider those who would see Christ erased from their so-called “Holiday Season.” They are of two sorts. There are those who want to see God everywhere else but uniquely in Christ. They are confounded by the claim that God is specifically located in a particular person—with a birthday and a birthplace, a nationality, a genealogy, and a biography, as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed, of one “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried . . . [and] on the third day rose from the dead.”
Then there are those, far more interesting, who think of God as, at best, a construct of the social psyche. God is not everywhere but nowhere. Yet they are content to join their cause with the first group. Together they are determined to expunge every sign of precisely this mysterious divine particularity from the public square—every crèche, every Christmas tree, every wreath, every carol.
What makes this second group interesting is that, like the demons, they spy the real truth about Christmas as much as they hate it: Christ cannot be erased from Christmas, nor can the flow of his blessings be interrupted or blocked. Christmas itself would have to fade away. Not very likely.
But we who believe in him must embrace his blessings and shake off the attachments to sin that keep us mired in the realm of the curse. We must strive to keep our hearts pure, to confess our sins regularly, not just twice a year in Advent and Lent, so that we allow the devil no point of entry into our hearts and minds, souls and bodies. We cannot change the world. But we can open our hearts resolutely to the Christmas grace.
The Dominican friars sang Christmas carols at various locations in downtown Washington last week. On Thursday evening when we were singing Christmas carols at the corner of 12th and G Streets—just across from Macy’s, a New Yorker cannot fail to mention—something marvelous happened that evening.
All of a sudden, we were joined by a homeless woman who sang a couple of carols along with us, assuring us that she could sing alto or bass. We were at the end of our caroling, and ready to leave. She ignored her friend waving her away from this strange group of twenty-odd black and white robed friars. She had one request before we parted ways. Would we sing “Silent Night” for Newtown? When we had done so, she nodded, turned away smiling, and said: “For Newtown.” She understands the meaning of Christmas, I thought.
Like this good woman, the Holy Mother of God would, in effect, be homeless on Christmas night, prefiguring the terrible day on Golgotha when her son, naked to the world, would give his life for us. My brothers and sisters in Christ, may we be one with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and that cheerful homeless lady, as in faith, hope and love, we confess and sing that he comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found.
J. Augustine Di Noia, O.P. is vice-president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, Rome.
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