Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2020.
The nativity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is described in Saint Luke’s account of the Gospel, as we just heard. His taking the flesh of Blessed Mary is also described, though in far less detail, in Saint Matthew’s Gospel account. That the birth of Christ—which we not merely remember today but actually experience and participate in sacramentally and liturgically—received no mention from Saint Mark and Saint John (save very cryptic description in John’s Revelation), but a verse from Saint Paul, and nothing in the other of the apostolic writings bound up in the New Testament, is something to think about and ponder in our hearts as we celebrate this wonderful feast, so important and central to Christian religion, and so important and central to our lives in so many ways.
Now, I admit, this might sound like something only biblical scholars would find interesting. But this fact starts to become very curious when we consider the order in which the New Testament writing came in to the Church. Having a book called a “Bible” is a great gift but it also can obscure the fact that Paul’s letters—most if not all of them—came before any of the four Gospel accounts were written. Paul, as the primary teaching voice of the Church in the early decades, led in his apostolic teaching throughout the known world not with the birth of Christ but with His Death and Resurrection. He preached Christ Crucified and Risen time and time again. Paul, in all his letters (which are inexhaustible in richness for all time) gives us but one verse on the birth. It comes from Galatians chapter 4, and it reads: “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Surely the Church in its worship life knew of the virgin birth! Surely the Church in its conversations and fellowship knew of Mary. But why was such a momentous occasion as the coming of God as a human baby not part of the apostolic writings for three or four decades after Christ’s Passion?
Let it not be said that the significance of the Nativity was not taught in the decades before the story of the Nativity was written down. We hear not about the Nativity directly but about its significance from Saint Paul’s epistle to Titus today: “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us.” Certainly this can be interpreted as applying to being born of Mary in Bethlehem, announced to the shepherds by the angelic choir, “Glory to God in the highest!” But the language of Paul’s teaching here is primarily not the Nativity, but, its significance for our lives. Paul’s teaching about how our Saviour appears in our hearts and minds—how He is born in us, that we may grow up in stature according to His image in us. Paul continues: “He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit,” [note: this is baptismal teaching!] “which He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that we might be justified by His grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.” Paul, as he so often does, is pointing to the baptismal life of Christians who participate in the day to day liturgical and devotional ferment of the Church. Paul is as much reflecting on Christ’s appearing to us within the life of the threefold Regula as he is about Christ’s appearing to Joseph and Mary and the animals.
The reason the specific account from Luke and Matthew showed up later, long after Paul’s letters, Peter’s letters and the rest, is not that it was unknown until Luke and Matthew wrote about it, but rather because the story of the birth of Jesus fermented in the life of the Church’s prayer and was interpreted in light of the Cross, in the light of Christ’s voluntary self-offering of Himself to die. The Church needed, in other words, to grapple with the end before it the true significance of the beginning could be revealed. The details in Luke bear witness to this. The baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling cloths—wrapped like a body prepared for burial, and the images and icons of the Church bring this out strongly. He was laid in a manger—this is an eating trough, where food and water is placed for animals is where Christ was laid. Why? Because He offered Himself as flesh to be eaten sacramentally: we eat His Flesh and drink His Blood, and so He was placed on the manger, which takes on the symbolism of an Altar. And why all this? Because there was no room of them in the inn—because Christ came to Jerusalem for Passover on a donkey only to be killed there but a few days later, because there was no place for Him in their hearts, yet. Yet—until all was finished on the Cross, Christ having ascended the Cross and asked the Father to bestow upon the Church the Coming of the Holy Ghost.
As Christians, we begin in the Cross, and only then find the unspeakable beauty and wordless profundity of the Nativity. Brothers and sisters, continue these twelve days of Christmas to put the Lord’s nativity in your remembrance, meditating on the paradox of it all: that God shows Himself as a baby, that this Child was born in purity in order to die and forgive the darkness and sin of the world—indeed that God came to the world as a wee baby that He might be born in our hearts day by day in our prayer.