As we are now officially in the season of Advent, and can turn our minds towards the birth of Christ, I thought it might be a good time to consider what Christmas means. Part of the problem of trying to ascertain what Christmas means in its essence, is that there are so many overlapping themes that surround it. Putting to one side the secular themes of merriness, goodwill and (of course) rampant commercialism, the traditional and theological meaning of the birth of Christ is often not easy to categorise in a straightforward fashion either.
Amidst the instantly recognisable motifs built around and stemming from the Incarnation, such as joy, hope, salvation, kingship, peace, and of course the Parousia (the Latin translation of which is Adventus), there is also another theme that is, if not forgotten, then often overlooked. T. S. Eliot draws attention to this particular aspect of Christmas in his poem The Journey of the Magi, where, after describing the discomforts and doubts accompanying the wise men on their long trip to Bethlehem, he concludes:
‘…All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.’
Here Eliot links the birth of Christ to death – the death of the wise men to themselves. In seeing what they know (from the prophecies that have drawn them to the City of David) to be the arrival of the true King of the Jews in the form of a weak and helpless child born into poverty, they instinctively know what consequences this has for them. Their ideas of kingship and power have been turned upside down, and, according to Eliot, they now know that to be true followers of goodness and truth, to be truly alive, they must die to themselves. The ‘hard and bitter agony’ that the birth of Christ represents to the Magi, is nothing less than the metanoia that all disciples of Christ must undergo before taking up their cross and following Him.
Eliot’s poem implicitly draws attention therefore, to the Cross of Christ, which is of course logically (and temporally) prior to the taking up of our crosses in discipleship. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in one of the last published works of his papacy, writes with great perspicacity, scholarly attention and devotion on the infancy narratives as described in the New Testament. In doing so, he also draws attention to the message of the Cross hidden in Christ’s birth:
‘Mary wrapped the child in swaddling clothes. Without yielding to sentimentality, we may imagine with what great love Mary approached her hour and prepared for the birth of her child. Iconographic tradition has theologically interpreted the manger and the swaddling cloths in terms of the theology of the Fathers. The child stiffly wrapped in bandages is seen as prefiguring the hour of his death: from the outset, he is the sacrificial victim…The manger, then, was seen as a kind of altar.’
taken from Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (2012), p.68, Bloomsbury.
Here, drawing on some startling patristic imagery, Benedict draws a direct link between the Incarnation and the Atonement, reminding us that this is why the Christ-child was born – ‘for this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth’ (John 18:37); the truth being that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). The Cross of Christ is the means by which we are delivered from our sins, and the supreme manifestation of the love of God. To return to Pope Benedict’s treatment:
‘The theology of glory is inseparably linked with the theology of the Cross. The Suffering Servant has the great mission to bring God’s light to the world. Yet it is in the darkness of the Cross that his mission is fulfilled…
…God is love. But love can also be hated when it challenges us to transcend ourselves. It is not a romantic “good feeling”. Redemption is not “wellness,” it is not about basking in self-indulgence; on the contrary it is a liberation from imprisonment in self-absorption. This liberation comes at a price: the anguish of the Cross. The prophecy of light and that of the Cross belong together.’
Thus the good news proclaimed in Luke’s presentation of Christmas, the ‘great joy which will come to all the people’ (Luke 2:10) is this liberation – the hope and joy which Christmas represents to all of us is intrinsically linked to the redemption brought to us through the Cross of Christ, and also (as Eliot saw) the working out of this redemption in our daily lives through a discipleship of service and self-sacrificial love. The Nativity should challenge us and shake up our world just as much as the Cross does, and for many of the same reasons.
Indeed, an indirect connection can be seen between Eliot’s vision and Benedict’s insights, via the offerings that the Magi bring to Christ at his birthplace. When Eliot’s wise men say that they would be ‘no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods’, it is suggested that they have recognised in the Christ-child more than just an earthly King – what they have witnessed has profoundly upset their preconceptions, not just about kingship and power, but about the very nature of the child. He offers a challenge to them that no mere earthly king could so do. Pope Benedict draws attention to this in his reflection on the gifts offered to Jesus and the worship that they offer Him:
‘The wise men do a proskynesis before the royal child, that is to say they throw themselves onto the ground before him. This is the homage that is offered to a divine king. The gifts brought by the wise men may be explained in similar terms. They are not practical gifts, of a kind that the holy family might have had use for at this moment. They express the same thing as the proskynesis: they acknowledge the royal dignity of him to whom they are offered…
…In the Church’s tradition – with certain variations – the three gifts have been thought to represent three aspects of the mystery of Christ: the gold points to Jesus’ kingship, the incense to his divine sonship, the myrrh to the mystery of his Passion. The myrrh actually appears in Saint John’s Gospel after the death of Jesus: John tells us that Nicodemus had prepared myrrh, among other ointments, for the anointing of Jesus’ body (c.f. Jn 19:39). Through the myrrh, then, the mystery of the Cross is once again associated with Jesus’ kingship and mysteriously proclaimed in the worship offered by the wise men.’
This vision shared by Benedict XVI and T. S. Eliot (not articulated as explicitly by the latter, but his is a poetic vision and so this should not necessarily be expected) offers a profound insight into the deep interconnectedness of Christ’s birth and death. By relating the two events, a deep unity to the entirety of Christ’s mission is revealed, and the wise providence of those aspects of his life that are recorded in the New Testament is confirmed. The gap between his childhood and his public ministry is often remarked upon, leading to some interesting reflections on what might have occurred during this period. But the preservation of the information we do have recommends to us the central message of Christmas, and of the gospel as a whole, that ‘to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger’ (Luke 2:11-12).