Christ is born! As we celebrate this precious and glorious feast of our newborn Savior, the Incarnate Son of God and the Virgin Mother who gave Him her own flesh and blood so that God could become man, I’d like to begin with a quote from the mystical writings of the Greek-Italian priest, Fr. Theodossios-Marie of the Cross.
“I think,” he writes, “of dear Jesus, who, by inconceivable love, came from the world of uncreated light, from pure Being, from the splendor of being, with neither beginning nor end, came to participate in the world of continual changes and alterations, the world of death. I think of the Blessed Virgin, chaste and transparent as a clear winter sky, and as a fragrance of purest incense… an unobtrusive door, hidden by many delicate and fragrant flowers, which can be found everywhere and always, that leads directly to the mysterious enclosure… opening onto the real, the eternal Real. This door, most holy and tender, sweet and strong, is… the Mother of Jesus of Nazareth, the Mother of God.”
This is a kind of poetic summary of the mystery we celebrate today, the mystery we have been preparing for during the past six weeks, a mystery that God had prepared for countless ages. This mystery is God the Son, proceeding from his eternal abode of inaccessible Light, humbling Himself to become man, to become an infant in swaddling clothes, through the body of the pure Virgin Mary. She is the way Jesus came to us 2000 years ago, and she is also the way we can return to Him, for He has made her the Mother of Christians and the refuge for all weary pilgrims seeking to return from this land of exile to the heavenly Paradise.
“The Word became flesh and dwelled among us,” St John famously wrote at the beginning of his Gospel. But why did the Word do this? Many volumes have been written about this mystery, and I suppose it can be concisely summed up by saying that He did so in order to save our souls and to bring us into eternal and intimate union with the All-holy Trinity. But concise summaries are never adequate to the infinite mysteries of God. So for now I will just reflect upon a couple points offered by one of our liturgical texts, as a point of departure for further meditation.
As Advent began, a word came to me that helped guide my prayer and preparation for this feast. The word was “restore,” or “restoration.” I was wondering if this meant that God wanted to restore my soul to its baptismal innocence—wondering as well if this was even possible, even though God has said that He will make all things new.
Then, as we reached the midpoint of the season of preparation, we began singing a text which ended thus: “Christ is born to restore the long-lost likeness to God.” So that must be the restoration I was called to seek: the restoration of the long-lost likeness to God. According to the Eastern fathers, we are created in the image of God, and this can never be lost, even though it can be heavily obscured and distorted by sin. They make a distinction between image and likeness, the image being an innate and ineffaceable reality, and the likeness being something dynamic and capable of growth and development. This spiritual growth in the likeness of God is meant to result in our total transformation by grace, our theosis.
So while the image remains, even if obscurely, the likeness, being subject to change, can be lost, and so our souls also can be lost forever if the Lord sees no trace of his likeness in us when we stand before Him at the end of our lives. The Church, then, proclaims with joy today that Christ is born to restore the lost likeness, and this gives us hope for eternal life.
In order to convince us that no matter how seriously or for how long we have lost our likeness to God, it can still be restored—the Church provides this liturgical text that takes us all the way back to the original paradise, the Garden of Eden. The Virgin Mary is presented as the new paradise, the new beginning, the place from which springs the new Tree of Life. It says: “In a cave a Tree of Life did blossom forth from a Virgin. Her womb revealed itself to be the mystical paradise wherein grows the Divine Fruit, and eating thereof we shall live and not die as did Adam, for Christ is born to restore the long-lost likeness to God.”
So it is as if we are given a chance to start all over again, to undo the effects of our sins. The rise from our fallenness happens by a similar act to that by which our first parents fell: the act of eating. Adam and Eve, in the original paradise, cast themselves and the whole of humanity into sin and death by eating the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.
But what does our liturgy say? The womb of the Blessed Virgin has become a new and mystical paradise, for the Fruit of her womb is the very Son of God Incarnate, who gives us his flesh to eat, in a sacramental way, that He may abide in us and we in Him, and thus be granted eternal life. So the text says: “eating thereof we shall live and not die as did Adam…”
“From his fullness,” writes St John, “we have all received, grace upon grace.” And St Paul wrote that where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more. So this is the Good News, the Gospel, the joy of the celebration of the Nativity of Christ our Lord. “As for me,” proclaims another hymn from our liturgy, “I am returning to the bliss of Paradise, from which I had been banished by disobedience.” As we celebrate the Birth of our Savior, we return to the Virginal Paradise which grew the new Tree of Life, from which we eat and live forever. And the more we eat and drink the deifying Flesh and Blood of Christ, the more the lost likeness to God is restored.
Of course, this restoration can only happen if we eat and drink in a worthy manner, as the Scripture says. If we approach without the necessary preparations for receiving such an awesome divine gift, this flame of Divine Fire directly from the Heart of Christ, we do ourselves harm rather than good. But, having confessed our sins and resolved to live in obedience to the divine commandments, and according to the mind of the Church, which is entrusted with these most sacred Mysteries, we may approach and receive grace upon grace.
So the grace of Christmas is an invitation to restoration, a return to Paradise, a pledge by God that He can indeed make all things new. It may be, however, that despite the joy and hope to which the Church invites us, we look at ourselves—our long track record of sin and failure, the loss of the likeness of God, our damaged souls that seem unable to perceive anything of the divine and heavenly mysteries—and therefore we may think that we have permanently ruined our lives, or at least spiritually disabled ourselves to the point that we have nothing but dreariness to look forward to until we return to the dust from which we were taken.
But there is something I learned not long ago, from someone who has seen beyond some of the veils that conceal the mysteries of God from the rest of us. Christmas is par excellence a “family feast,” for the Scriptures and the Liturgy focus on the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The very mystery of the Incarnation reveals to us the mystery of the Holy Trinity, through which we learn that God by nature is a kind of “family,” a communion of persons in intimate and everlasting love.
And so what I learned was something about how the heavenly Mother of the family regards her children. Here I gave away the answer already: children. Our Lady sees us as children, not as the proud, self-important, self-sufficient grownups we think we are, who take ourselves oh, so seriously. This is another key to our spiritual restoration. I was thinking of this when praying early in the morning on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She called St Juan Diego “my dear little son,” though he was in his 50s at the time. So I realized in my prayer that if my heavenly Mother looks at me as a child, remembering how I was then, in all my baptismal innocence, then it really is possible that my soul can be restored.
It was as if she was saying to me: “I can still see your soul as it was when you were a child, with all its baptismal grace and potential for becoming holy and giving glory to God. I see what is still possible in you. It’s not too late to become all that God wants you to be. Come to me, and I will help you!” So it seems that Heaven does not look so much at the harm that we have done to our souls as at the potential for good that is still there, which can be increased to bear much spiritual fruit. God never gives up on us!
Some of the saints have had profound experiences when they first received Christ in the Holy Eucharist. I remember my mother telling me that I lacked all pious decorum after having received my first Holy Communion, returning to the pew with a big grin on my face! My friend who sees things that I can’t see said that Our Lady still looks at me that way, as a child whose joy at receiving Jesus in his heart overflowed into a big grin. And that is how she wants us to come to her, so she can bring us to God in her arms as her little children. It’s not that she doesn’t see the evil we have done, or that she doesn’t feel pain in her motherly Heart from our callous disregard of God’s holy commandments, or from our brushing her aside as some insignificant figure for whom we have little love or respect. But she digs through all that to find the wounded soul that longs to be restored, to return to its full splendor the obscured image, the lost likeness of God.
So today, as we try to contemplate the endlessly rich mystery of the Nativity of the Incarnate God for our salvation, let us begin with a couple concrete points. Christ is like a new Tree of Life, born from the new Paradise of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and if we eat of the Fruit of her womb in the Holy Eucharist, we will not die like Adam and Eve, but will find that the lost likeness of God in our souls is being gradually restored. And let us remember, too, that Heaven looks upon us as children. There was a time when we were pure and innocent, and this time is known and remembered by Jesus, by Mary, and they see and know that God can reach into our souls, into our histories, and can restore what we might have thought was lost forever.
Christmas is a time of miracles, after all. Even people who are grumpy and selfish the rest of the year often become generous and charitable and even pleasant around Christmas time. That is because God is pouring out grace upon grace. He is finding the innocent child hidden in the depths of our souls, and He is calling us to come to Him with a big grin on our face. Jesus said He wants us to be like children. It’s the only way to get into Heaven, by the way, so we might as well get some practice now.
We know that life is serious business, and that the Gospel is very demanding, yet there is more than the seriousness, more than the demands. There’s the fact that we are loved, endlessly loved by God, by Jesus and Mary, by all the citizens of Heaven. Their arms are open to us. We can please them and discover happiness in our own lives: by loving them back, by trusting and believing in their love and never doubting their presence and goodness and care for us, by accepting the power of divine grace to restore that which we had thought was lost. Christ is born to restore the lost likeness to God. Christ suffered and died to restore the lost likeness. Christ rose from the dead to restore the lost likeness. Christ even sends us his holy Mother from Heaven to help restore the lost likeness. So let us rejoice and run to Him like the children He loves. Christ is born!