“The Nativity,” by Pietro Perugino (1448-1523); painted between 1506 and 1507; housed in the Art Institute of Chicago – WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (Public Domain)

Commentary

How Christmas Changed the World – and Still Can Today

The world does not think like God. If we were to plan how to stage the most important moment in history, it might involve a great military victory or a stunning natural occurrence that would catch everyone’s attention. How did God choreograph the moment that fundamentally changed human life? With a babe, lying hidden in a manger, surrounded by barn animals. This miraculous birth, which went unnoticed by most of the world, signaled a new beginning for humanity.

 Perhaps God was telling us that we have our priorities wrong. We tend to focus on the surface, while history truly flows from within, driven by the dynamics of the spiritual life. Does God care about empires, economics and architecture as much as he cares about one soul? What are the lengths to which God would go to show how much he cares about us? God’s entrance into the world is not just what he did for us but who he became for us. He loved us so much that he united himself to us so closely as to become human. The moment of his Incarnation (the taking on of our flesh) marked a new beginning, recreating humanity from the inside.

 Jesus also came to fix things. As C.S. Lewis describes in Mere Christianity, the Incarnation was a hidden rescue mission: “Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise.” Here also, we might have our own ideas of how to fix the brokenness of the world and of our own lives as well – if only God would take away our problems and just make them disappear! God solves problems not by taking them away but working through them, once again from within, where it matters most. The babe lying there on the manger, has come to offer himself as the problem-solver, who takes our sin onto himself and overcomes it with and for us.

 As the center of history, the Incarnation is not simply in the past. When we celebrate the great events of our salvation in the liturgy, they become mystically present to us. We can enter the manger scene, with front row seats at Mass, kneeling next to ox and ass, rejoicing with the shepherds, and bringing our gifts along with the wise men. Jesus’s vulnerability, lying there wrapped in swaddling clothes, should disarm us. As we draw close to him, he can change us and begin transforming our lives from the inside out. Jesus came to recreate humanity as a whole by joining it to himself, and that reaches to everyone, ourselves included. He tells us, from the crib, “I did this for you.” He invites us, “accept me into your heart that I may be born there too.”

 Christmas takes on new significance in our apostolic times. The day is so significant that it remains one of the most important of the year, even in our secular culture. As we gather with family and friends, we can, very naturally, keep Christ as the center of Christmas, continuing to point to the event we are celebrating. The carols, such as “Silent Night,” are still there, witnessing to what Jesus did for us. This reality, rather than vague notions of chestnuts and chimneys, gives the celebration its true depth and joy as it is the true reason why we give gifts and want to spend time together. Something so important happened that we have to keep celebrating, even more than 2,000 years later.

 We have a mission this Christmastime, as the revolution of the Incarnation continues. We bring our burdens to the manger and can refocus, by meditating on the baby Jesus, on what truly matters most. We can invite others to do the same, helping them to see Christmas with new eyes, to tell them what Jesus did for them, and why the nativity scene matters so much. There is no other time when Catholic images and themes feature so prominently in our culture. We gather with so many people at work and school, and in homes with family and friends. These gatherings give us natural opportunities to talk about what Christmas means for us and why the day still matters.

 Even though there is so much standing in the way of the true meaning of Christmas, we are called to help people to experience the true wonder of the season. Jesus can and will change our lives, if we let him, as we receive the hope that he brings in coming to us, becoming man for each one of us. He joined himself to us, so that we could become one with God, forever. This is worth celebrating in supreme fashion and is worth talking about! This Christmas we can recapture the story, experience the wonder anew, and share the joy that it brings.

Jared Staudt, Ph.D., is associate superintendent for Mission and Formation at the Archdiocese of Denver and visiting associate professor at the Augustine Institute in Denver. He is author of “Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture” and “The Beer Option: Brewing a Catholic Culture, Yesterday & Today.”