The Nativity of Christ

Its Historic Reality

Joseph and Mary Arrive at Bethlehem, by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917).

In those days, Caesar Augustus published a decree ordering a census of the whole world. This first took place when Quirinius was the governor of Syria. Everyone went to register, each to his own town. And so Joseph went from his own town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea to his own town of Bethlehem—because he was of the household and lineage of David—to register with Mary, his espoused wife, who was with child. When they were there, the days of her confinement were completed. She gave birth to her firstborn son. … (Luke 2:1-7)

How can we talk about God today? The first answer is that we can talk about God because he has talked to us, so the first condition for speaking of God is listening to all that God himself has said. God has spoken to us! God is therefore not a distant hypothesis concerning the world’s origin; he is not a mathematical intelligence far from us. God takes an interest in us; he loves us; he has entered personally into the reality of our history; he has communicated himself, even to the point of taking flesh. (Benedict XVI, Audience, November 28, 2012.)1

Fox News recently did a review of what it called “The War on Christmas” that goes on in this and other countries. The program featured the head of some atheist society who seemed offended that even the mention of Christ’s birth is found in the public order. Of course, great strides have been made to eliminate any specific reference to Christ and his birth—no Nativity scenes, no reference to Christmas—but tinsel, secularized songs, greenery, and various glittering things that have reference to nothing, really. Some allowance seems still to be made for Christmas music, both the religious and the sentimental kinds. Much of it is too beautiful to ignore. A legal holiday is kept, not a Birthday. We are admonished to be careful about wishing “Merry Christmas” to unknown souls. It is a one-way street, of course; we are to be concerned with the sensibilities of others, but they need not concern themselves much about ours. Religious freedom now means: Keep it quiet, whatever it is you hold. If you say nothing or do nothing about your beliefs, we will let you play with us.

However, we ought to know just what this Nativity, that we call Christmas, really means. The history of much modern “critical” thought has been designed to deny a) that Jesus existed, and b) that scriptural accounts are credible. Christmas is a myth. The story of the incarnation and birth of a god is the common stuff of many religions. Yet, with all this in mind, we are really rather astonished at the coherence of the Nativity account and what it means. The fact is, that after centuries of trying to cast doubt on the reality of Christ’s Incarnation in this world, we must say that all the evidence, when carefully examined, indicates that Christ lived in a definite time and place. He was who he said he was. No other explanation suffices to account for the evidence. The effort to show that Christ was unreal or something else has failed.

This fact does not mean that everyone will suddenly grant the truth of the Nativity event. For the most part, efforts to show that Christ did not exist or that reports of his life are unreliable were always grounded, in the first place, in a will not to believe the fact. This voluntary rejection is what led to the searches for reasons why Christ was not what he said he was. These searches sought to prove what the investigator wanted to be true. The truth of Christ’s reality did not have to be taken into account. Most people saw clearly that, if the accounts of Christ’s life and the understanding that he was indeed the Son of God now present in the history of this world were true, mankind would have to take this fact into its understanding of what man’s purpose was.

And why was Christ born into this world? Our minds seek a reason to explain the fact. William of St. Thierry (d. 1148) put it well:

And this is clearly the reason why you (God) first loved us: so that we might love you—not because you needed our love, but because we could not be what you created us to be, except by loving you. In many ways, and on various occasions, you spoke to our fathers through the prophets. Now, in these last days, you have spoken to us in your Son, your Word; by him, the heavens were established, and all their powers came to be by the breath of his mouth.

This Word was made flesh and has spoken to us. We are addressed in our rational being. We are asked to understand. We exist because of nothing in ourselves. We are a gift unto ourselves. We exist in abundance and astonishment.

It is said that most people reject Christianity, not because they doubt the existence of an origin, of a God, but because of the claim that this God, within his being, has an inner life. The only begotten Son, the Image of the Father, becomes man. How could this be? Yet, if we look carefully at the explication of William of St. Thierry, we see the answer. God did not have to create the heavens and the earth. Why did he do it then? In order that beings which were not God could also love God. And when it was clear that God’s plan for mankind was rejected by free man, God responded. How? Gently. The Father sent his Son to dwell amongst us. Where? He was born in Bethlehem of Judea. When? During the time of Caesar Augustus. Why? In order that we be able to achieve the purpose for which we were created. God will not coerce us. We have to choose to see the reality of what occurred.

Why did this plan of God result in the Word becoming flesh? God might, perhaps, have redeemed us in some other way. But the way he chose was via the Nativity. A real divine Person, now true God and true man, appeared amongst us, so that we could freely respond to God’s love of us when we saw the consequences of our rejecting of him. Could God have done anything more than he did? Undoubtedly, no. Where does this leave us? It leaves us at the scene of the Nativity.

What do we see there through the testimony of those who have passed the account of Christ’s birth in the manger to us? We see him through the world he created now entering this same world. What is the conclusion? The only sensible conclusion is that the world is simply not the same as it was before this event in Bethlehem. The history of the world changes at this point. Without understanding what happened here, we cannot understand ourselves. And this is what is happening to us as we remove all signs of the Nativity from our eyes and souls. We find ourselves incapable of understanding ourselves. This is why the modern world is a world filled with human beings incapable of explaining themselves to themselves, but refusing to admit it. The name given to the Child at his birth was Emmanuel, God-with-us. It is still the name that best tells us what the Nativity during the reign of Caesar Augustus was about.

  1. Pope Benedict XVI, The Transforming Power of Faith: General Audiences (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2013), 42. 
Fr. James V. Schall, SJ About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, SJ, is professor emeritus of political science at Georgetown University, is retired, and in residence at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center, Los Gatos, California.

Comments

  1. Thank you for writing this article with the Lord giving you the exact words so that maybe…jusy maybe, people will STOP their buying and hustle and bustle……and get quiet w/ the Lord.
    This Christmas I shall be looking at pictures of Nativity scenes……
    Blessings,
    Dee

  2. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Here is a wonderful article from Father Schall , SJ. Love from God to us humans and back to God as we contemplate the Incarnation does give us Catholic believers a good and happy disposition. But we pray for those claiming to be atheists, or under apostakasis to find a nativity scene and look at it and meditate on why it is there. The stars cover us all and so the love from Christ covers us all.

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