The meaning of Christmas

I append here one of my recent columns from the Catholic Weekly of questions and answers on the Catholic Faith.

Recently my five year-old son asked me why Christmas is so important and while I think I gave him some good answers I suspect there may be more. How would you answer him?

 Actually, the Catechism of the Catholic Church answers your son’s question under the heading “Why did the Word become flesh?” It is a somewhat more sophisticated way of putting it but in the end it is the same question. Christmas is important because it celebrates the birth into the world of the Word of God, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, and his birth brought many blessings.

Many centuries ago St Anselm (1033-1109) wrote a whole treatise on the question entitled Cur Deus Homo? – Why the God man?,so it is a question that has been thought about down the ages.

Before we look at the answers the Catechism gives we should remind ourselves that the child Jesus lying in the manger is not just one more child – he is God the Word who has become man. As Pope Benedict says in his Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, “‘The Lord made his word short, he abbreviated it’ (Is 10:23; Rom 9:28) … The Son himself is the Word, the Logos: the eternal word became small – small enough to fit into a manger… Now the word is not simply audible; not only does it have a voice, now the word has a face, one which we can see: that of Jesus of Nazareth” (n. 12).

Returning to your son’s question about why Jesus’ birth is so important, we find the first and most important answer in the Creed we say in Mass on Sundays: “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”

That is, Jesus came to us in that first Christmas for our salvation – to redeem us from original sin and from our personal sins. In the words of the Catechism, “The Word became flesh for us in order to save us by reconciling us with God, who ‘loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins’: ‘the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world,’ and ‘he was revealed to take away sins’” (1 Jn 4:10; 4:14; 3:5; CCC 457).

The second reason for the Word becoming flesh is “so that we might know God’s love” (CCC 458). We know that God loves us but it is especially in his becoming man and living among us that we see the love of God made visible. St John writes: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 Jn 4:9). And Our Lord said to Nicodemus, “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).

Truly Christmas is a great manifestation of God’s love for mankind. The infant lying in the manger is God in the flesh, God who so loved us that he became man and dwelt amongst us in order to redeem us by his death on the cross. And by coming into the world as a new-born infant he is easy to love in return. Christmas is a good time to grow in love for Jesus.

The third reason for the Word becoming flesh is “to be our model of holiness” (CCC 459). We are all called to holiness, to be saints in our own state in life, but how do we achieve this? What is the model we are to imitate? The model is Jesus Christ himself, “perfect God and perfect man”, as we say in the Athanasian Creed.

Just as many people have a hero that they try to imitate, studying their way of being and mannerisms in order to imitate them and be more like their hero, so our hero is Jesus Christ. We make the effort to get to know him better by reading the Scriptures and other books about him,  so that we can become more like him, more Christ-like. He is the model of holiness. He himself said, “Learn from me” (Mt 11:29), and “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6).

The fourth reason why the Word became flesh was “to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature’” (2 Pet 1:4; CCC 460). That is, by assuming our human nature, and making us members of his Mystical Body through Baptism, Jesus allows us to share in the divine nature. Many Fathers of the Church express this truth, each one in slightly different words. For example, St Athanasius says: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God” (De inc. 54, 3; CCC 460).

As we see in these four reasons, Christmas is very important. It is truly a feast to be celebrated for the many lessons it teaches us and the benefits it brings.