December 24, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – The Christian message is dominated by two events: the Nativity and the Passion. In each case we find Jesus Christ at the center of the picture, apparently helpless.
The culmination of the Passion sees Christ nailed to a cross before a jeering crowd: as the onlookers observe, he saved others, but, apparently, cannot save himself (Mat 27:42). In the Nativity he is a tiny babe, speechless, unable to walk, his family without even a home of their own, his bed a convenient animal feeding-trough. Here he, surely, can do nothing for anyone: indeed, everything must be done for him.
And yet we speak of Christ reigning from the Cross, and judging the world from that elevated position. St Luke places the good and bad thieves on either side of Jesus (Luke 23:33), recalling the image of Christ in judgement, placing the good on his right, and the bad on his left (Mat 25:33). This idea is sometimes extended, in depictions of the Crucifixion, with the group of the Virgin Mary, St John, and other supporters on Christ’s right, and the surly soldiers and Chief Priests on the other side. The Crucifixion is a moment of judgement (John 9:39; 3:17ff). Christ judges us from the Cross: or we may equally say that we judge ourselves. Those around Jesus on the Cross have sorted themselves into separate groups—the saved and the lost—by their attitude to what is happening.
At the crib the same paradox is displayed. The Wise Men leave no room for doubt: it is the King of Israel they seek (Mat 2:2), and naturally enough their first thought is to seek him in the royal palace in Jerusalem. Nothing dismayed, they find him at last in the stable, and, giving him gifts worthy of a king, worship him. The Christ-child graciously receives these great men from distant lands who have come to do him honor, as he accepts the more humble offerings from the representatives of his own, Jewish, people: the shepherds.
Not everyone is so well disposed to the newborn messianic king. Herod the Great seeks to kill the child, and his efforts to do so inject a note of violence and tragedy into the story. The arrival of the Christ forced Herod to a decision. Herod was ultimately judged by this tiny baby. Christ was already king, in his crib: already exercising his judicial prerogatives.
God came among men to bring healing and peace, and the domestic scene of the Nativity encourages us to focus on this reality. It must not be forgotten, however, that Christ also brought a sword (Mat 10:34), and that he warned his disciples that he would divide families (Luke 12:53). Why? Because he forces us to a decision. Are we with him, or against him? This question is raised from the moment of his birth, and the helplessness of the child in the crib raises the stakes. The violence offered to the child is just as horrible as the violence offered to the man, the worse for being offered to a child, and to those many small children in Bethlehem who died in Christ’s stead.
As we contemplate the infant in the crib this Christmas, the message he is there to give us is not a sentimental one. The infant is a stern judge, because by our reactions to him we judge ourselves sternly: we commit ourselves to the one side or the other. In the end, neutrality is impossible. When we reach the end of our earthly lives, we will make the final journey as friends of the Christ-child, or as enemies.
The infant came to share our burdens, however (Mat 11:28): to serve, and not to be served (Mat 20:28). He is not our judge only, but our Savior. It is through the grace he offers us that it is possible for us to choose the side of life. This is why the story of the Nativity is a joyful one: Christ is the hope of those who dwell in darkness, because he can lead us out of it (Is 42:7).
We are obliged to choose, as Herod and the crucified thieves were obliged to choose, by the circumstances which confront us throughout our lives. Each day we choose life or death in numerous small ways, and sometimes in big ones. Throughout our lives we are taking sides.
A serious, Catholic celebration of Christmas should not exclude the human and cultural expressions of joy associated with the season. They are appropriate because we hope to be saved by this tiny child, not by his indulging our vices, but by transforming us in grace. The Christmastide values of family solidarity, of song, food and drink, of fellowship and beauty, provide a worthy setting for this truth, as long as they do not obscure it.
May the Christ-child lend my readers the grace of final perseverance.