December is supremely the month of Christmas. Somewhat dark, cold and forbidding in our northern hemisphere, it amplifies and brightens in a crescendo of unforgettable glory as it rushes onward, through the intermitting shadows of reappearing sunlight over the icy lakes and rivers, manifesting a snow-covered plain of glistening beauty supporting trails in and out of woodlands echoing utter silence, save for the shake of harness bells or the whir of an occasional snowmobile.
All the sights and sounds of a late December add up to, in a Christian’s soul, recollections of Christmas, that “wonderful time of the year.” The phrase cited appears in a traditional Christmas carol, one of those sacred songs we learned in childhood and which we shall always retain in our memories throughout every Christmas season. “Adeste Fideles,” “Silent Night,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “O Holy Night”: how can we ever forget these chants, much less suppress them? Can we possibly ignore the mysterious summons to meet for Mass on Christmas at Midnight? Or during the Day? Is there a Christian who would prefer not to have a Christmas tree, with Christmas ornaments and lights?
And what about Christmas foods and Christmas gatherings, and Christmas stockings and children’s Christmas stories?
The point is that even in our overly secularized world, Christmas remains so special, so incomparable, so joyful, so relevant, its ultimate meaning penetrates all the outward aspects of its place within the minds and hearts of Christians. That meaning is, of course, the Incarnation; Christmas recalls the Second Person of the Triune God’s assumption of human nature in order to redeem humankind and to throw open the gates of an eternal homeland. Christmas recalls the Eternal God’s Nativity into our world so that we can be ultimately drawn into the awesome reality of God’s own life. All the customs and practices of Christmas – the tree, caroling, Christmas foods, etc. – reflect this fundamental truth.
Christmas is the annual festival recalling the re-creation of the world; for St. Paul, Jesus, born at Bethlehem, is the new Adam, born of the Virgin Mary. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his trilogy, Jesus of Nazareth, “humanity’s silent and confused dreams of a new beginning came true in this event – in a reality such that only God could create.”
What we profess in the Creed, therefore, is not a myth; the Son of God did indeed become incarnate in the Virgin’s womb. Here Pope Benedict cites the great Protestant scholar, Karl Barth, who argued that there are two very special moments in Jesus’ story when God intervened directly in the material world: the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. This affirmation shocks the secular world, which holds that God cannot intervene in the material world; it is said that he simply “does not belong there.” Yet, as Benedict responded, “God is God and he does not operate merely on the level of ideas…If God does not also have power over matter, then he simply is not God.”
But God does have such power, the power of creation. Isn’t this why we affirm that the Virginal conception was not an act of procreation, but fundamentally of creation? In Jesus, God has created the human race anew. Thus the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection are “the cornerstones of faith.” (Ibid.) Barth’s argument for the Virgin Birth also can be applied to Christmas itself; specifically, that the reason for Christmas is Gott; Gott allein; Gott selbst.” (“God; only God; God himself.”)
For all the reasons cited above, Christmas for Christians is no mere calendar date, like a holiday in the secular order, to be observed in any way the current culture dictates. For Christians, Christmas evokes profound religious beliefs and prayerful reflections – beliefs which become stronger and richer as the years progress, much as the light and warmth of a late December day gradually brighten and energize the grey and icy beginnings of the final month, beyond which a fresh new year awaits.