Shower, O heavens, from above,
and let the skies rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation may spring up,
and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also;
I the Lord have created it (Isaiah 45:8).
Christmas can seem so quaint: bells, tinsel, fake snow, not to mention goofy elves and other unmentionable accretions. We can lose sight of the cosmic breaking forth of God into the world. Christmas is not once and done. It has unalterably and fundamentally changed the world and our lives.
Christmas shows us that God is breaking down cosmic barriers, transforming the world and uniting things that don’t seem to go together. As Gerard Manley Hopkins has put it, Christmas reminds us that “God’s infinity dwindled to infancy” (“The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe”). Infinity and time unite; the uncircumscribed becomes circumscribed; the Creator enters his creation.
Luke’s Gospel frames this cosmic revolution in dramatic terms. The world is dark without God. We all know that. We can feel it. When we live without prayer, without grace, our lives are black (maybe the image of snow isn’t so quaint after all!). Yet Zechariah tells us that it is precisely with the coming of the Messiah that the darkness of the cosmos is overcome:
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (1:78-79).
What is the dawn from on high? Is it the seventh day – the perfect rest and peace of eternity that has entered into the world of time and change. The light of heaven shines on earth by the birth of the Word.
This cosmic revolution is reinforced by heavenly messengers coming and proclaiming glory and peace.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:13-14)
God’s glory is manifest in the world as the highest heaven comes down to earth. This coming down brings favors with it. And to see what this favor ultimately entails we have to turn to John’s Gospel. Christmas not only brings a cosmic transformation as God and heaven break forth into earth, but it also brings about an equally or even more shocking reality: man becoming kin to God.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God (John 1: 11-13).
Christmas means we have been given the power to become God’s own children. He has given us his Son that we might become a son in the Son. As St. Athanasius asserted: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God” (CCC §460, quoting On the Incarnation). This is a cosmic change as well. The earthly and limited has been raised up to the divine and heavenly. Heaven breaks upon earth so that earth can rise up to heaven.
This new reality, however, is still a work in progress. As John also makes clear in the above reference: “his own did not accept him.” The quaintness of this holiday can overshadow its immense weight, its overwhelming glory, which we so often take for granted. In fact, our society is losing sight of the invitation to divinity more and more.
We stand in need of a great reminder of the shockingness of Christmas. It is almost as if the world is returning back to the paganism from which Christ has drawn us. As Bl. John Henry Newman has so presciently pointed out, the loss of faith is the one and most pressing challenge of our day.
The special peril of the time before us is the spread of that plague of infidelity, that the Apostles and our Lord Himself have predicted as the worst calamity of the last times of the Church. And at least a shadow, a typical image of the last times is coming over the world. I do not mean to presume to say that this is the last time, but that it has had the evil prerogative of being like that more terrible season, when it is said that the elect themselves will be in danger of falling away (“The Infidelity of the Future”).
Christmas is actually the right moment to face down this challenge. Christ needs to be born into this world anew, with all of the earthshattering consequences shining forth as if for the first time on this dark world.
We, as born of God, are also Christ’s continuing presence in the world, and can continue the cosmic revolution. In this unfaithful age, if only people in our culture would say as they did against Paul:
These people . . . have been turning the world upside down! (Acts 17:16).
Yes, let’s turn the world upside down. Let’s become revolutionaries for Christ, empowered by the divine favors he has brought us in his own coming into our world. He came to us to change us that we may in turn change the world. The victory has been won—heaven has already come down to earth—but what is lacking is our own full realization of this victory. Let us make this Christmas a renewal of the deepest revolution the cosmos will ever know.