The True Christmas Exchange

Christ’s Striving to Take Flesh Anew

Paintings of the child Jesus with St. Joseph by Bartolome Estaban Murillo (1618-1682), The Second Coming by Harry Anderson, the Crucified Christ (artist unknown).

Christmas did not happen only in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago. The coming of Christ is not simply an historical event recorded deep in our human history. If it were, you and I would be historians but not Christians. The days of preparation we have just experienced, the eve and morning of fun and gifts could all still be had, but the event we celebrate itself would have no real meaning for us today.

Every saving act that Christ performed historically, is transmitted to all of posterity sacramentally, so as to be taken up by each generation of saint mystically. This is how the life of Christ is mercifully made available to those not living in first century Jerusalem. Christ, therefore, founded his universal Church so as to make real the same Divine Presence and, thus, the same graces to be given, to the entire world, for all time, for those living after Christ, and those well outside his own geographical restrictions. It is the same Christ, the same God, the same man. Yet, while the historical Christ is made real sacramentally, there is still one more reality, that this Christ-life must also be appropriated by creatures mystically. It is not enough simply to read scripture, it is not simply enough to avail oneself of the sacraments, those called by Christ must also appropriate all that Christ is, and does, into their own lives today.

If Christmas were only a “one off,” the Christian people would be doomed to either look back at our Savior, and recall him as we would any other historical figure, or to anticipate meeting him some day when we leave this world. We would not be much different than those folks who belong to some historical society, and may every now and then put on reenactments of the person or event that drew them together. But Christmas is not simply something that occurred on some starry night millennia ago. In a 12th century homily on this time of year, St. Bernard of Clairvaux preaches that there are:

…three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming, he was seen on earth, dwelling among men; he himself testifies that they saw him, and hated him. In the final coming, all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they pierced. The immediate coming is a hidden one; in it, only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In his first coming, our Lord came in our flesh, and in our weakness; in this middle coming, he comes in spirit, and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty. —Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) Sermon 5 on “The Advent of the Lord.”

This is the way love works: love longs for union, and even more, transformation. While we can never disregard proper conduct, and thirst for virtue, it borders on the pharisaical to reduce the Christian faith to rules or creeds. Salvation is not a matter of doing, as Jesus taught the Pharisees, and St. Augustine contradicted the Pelagian theory. Yet, the law is always easier than love, so we find ourselves once again back at Bethlehem, invited to let ourselves surrender to the cry of the babe and the community of his brothers and sisters.

This is what the Incarnation promises: that we will be brought into the same divine human union who is Christ Jesus. In his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis taught that such an assimilation of God’s own life, letting him become our own flesh and blood, is at the heart of the New Evangelization where people are convinced less by abstract ideas than by the joy of the Faith, streaming forth from a cheerful heart and a clear mind:

Realities are greater than ideas. This principle has to do with incarnation of the word and its being put into practice: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is from God” (1 Jn 4:2). The principle of reality, of a word already made flesh and constantly striving to take flesh anew, is essential to evangelization. It helps us to see that the Church’s history is a history of salvation, to be mindful of those saints who inculturated the Gospel in the life of our peoples and to reap the fruits of the Church’s rich bimillennial tradition, without pretending to come up with a system of thought detached from this treasury, as if we wanted to reinvent the Gospel. At the same time, this principle impels us to put the word into practice, to perform works of justice and charity which make that word fruitful. Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centeredness and Gnosticism (Evangelii Gaudium §233).

Notice what the Holy Father is teaching here: Evangelization is essentially linked to the Word’s constantly striving to take flesh anew. Just as God needed the flesh of Mary to become part of his own good creation, humbly hanging on her word of assent: fiat, “Let it be done!” As such, the same God continues to wait patiently for our “yes.” What he accomplished historically in the womb of our Blessed Mother, he just as eagerly wants to accomplish in our souls, in our bodies.

This is the principle end for every one of us: to allow Christ, the one in whose image and likeness we were all originally created, to live within us, and even live as us. The chief aim of all human living is to surrender to this particular, and most beautiful, grace: to continue the God-man’s life as instantiations of a human totally sinless, perfectly joyful, and wholly alive. “To let Christ be formed in you,” as St. Paul tells the Galatians (4:19). This is what drove the Apostles and early Christians to become who they were, why we remember them: it wasn’t by being nice folks, or keeping the rules, that made them the heroes and bedrocks of our connection with Christ. It was because they strove to imitate the Lord to such a degree, the two became one. This is the ultimate vocation of each and every one of us, to accept this reality that we are made for God, restless until we rest in him, creatures with an infinite hole in their hearts made to be satisfied by nothing else than the Infinite Lover himself.

Again, think of how love works: love always begins with a mutual attraction. God so loved the world that he sends his only Son, and you and I are all created as part of the same family, made in that same God’s image and likeness. Becoming one with God, just as falling in love shows us, that this does not destroy our humanity, or take away our individuality, but like salt and light, it makes real what we were intended for, love—brings out what we all hope to become. This is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church points us to during this time of year—to Christmas—in order to teach us that:

To become a child in relation to God is the condition for entering the kingdom… to become “children of God” we must be “born from above” or “born of God”. Only when Christ is formed in us will the mystery of Christmas be fulfilled in us. Christmas is the mystery of this “marvelous exchange”: O marvelous exchange! Man’s Creator has become man, born of the Virgin. We have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share our humanity (CCC §526).

The CCC admits that Christmas is not yet totally fulfilled. The Incarnation is still ongoing, as the whole Christ is still making himself known in new members of his body, and you and I are still becoming our truest selves in Christ.

So, here is my thesis: The Incarnation of the Son of God made human is still going on, and is offered to you at every moment of your existence. The invitation is the Great Exchange: that Jesus Christ wants to become more and more himself as the head of a mystical body in you, and you are to become more and more your truest self in him, as an extension of his own godly life on earth. This is what the Church Fathers called the “Great Exchange”: God’s humanity for our divinity. To see this in a clearer light, allow me to make three central points that might assist us in our Christmas holiness.

The first is that Jesus Christ is the New Adam in and from whom you and I are also conceived, born, and now live our human lives. There is, therefore, something different about this birth. For a child is born unto us! Unlike the birth of other humans, this birth affects each of us, not just those biologically close to the Babe of Bethlehem. You and I are also born there. We, too, are Christ, as every orthodox Catholic theologian has stressed, and that is why this birth, that death on the Cross, are not just spectator events. There, we, too, are asked to be reborn, and to die. We, too, are present on Easter Morning, now realizing precisely why this child had been born.

The second point is that this same Christ wants to offer us his own perfection and joy, his own integrity and hatred of sin and injustice, and in return he asks us for our imperfections and broken human condition—in short, this Great Exchange is offered to us but we have to surrender freely. He has broken into our lives in order to take us to himself, to “recapitulate” a new family, and there to offer a new agency. We no longer have to live by our own fallen assumptions and selfish instincts. If we allow ourselves to let Christ love us, we can live on a new plane, with a new level of love, tenderness, and childlike joy and wonder.

Thirdly, in our Great Catholic Tradition, this Great Exchange is achieved usually by a four-fold manner: First, the gift of my Christian faith must be translated into the conviction of being perfectly loved, and accepted by a God, who is Love, and can, therefore, have no other response to his creatures. Why would I entrust myself to someone whom I did not thoroughly and radically believe that he loved me perfectly, with a love not dependent on how I was acting at any particular moment? This is one of the great moments of maturation in any healthy child’s life, yet it is one of the most difficult truths out of which to act consistently and convincingly. Second, I must ask for the grace to be freely detached from all that is not Christ—hatred of sin, and a desire to let go of anything that keeps me from receiving Jesus, and Jesus’ people. This has to be done with a healthy understanding of the goodness of all of creation, and the extraordinary dignity of every human person. Third, I seek to be actively abandoned to the Divine in every moment and situation, which means I let myself spend more and more time in prayer, becoming acclimated to the voice of the Spirit, and familiar with how God speaks to me authentically. Fourthly, and finally, I must seek to realize, evermore deeply, a greater unification between Head and Body as the “Whole Christ,” not dividing Church from Christ, but seeing in the Church’s scriptures, teachings, sacraments, and community the fonts of the divine life. We cannot have God for our Father until we surrender to his Church as our Mother.

Valeamus in Christo Nato!

Merry Christmas, and please know that I offer Mass for all of you who come to these pages, each and every month.

Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ About Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ

Fr. David Meconi, SJ is professor of patristic theology at St. Louis University and editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (HPR). Fr. Meconi would like you to know that he offers Mass each month for readers of HPR; please be assured of his prayers for you.

Comments

  1. Thank you, Fr. David. What a blessing to have such an insightful essay at our hands in this season..

    As I read, I could not help but silently intone, “By God, I believe he’s got it.” Beautifully written. Obviously flowing from a well formed spiritual life.

    Spiritual teachers are not as plentiful as they once were, so it is a joy to find someone teaching with such grace. Blessings.

  2. This is really an Ignatian Spirituality blueprint & so, a breath of fresh air !
    Esp: “Law is always easier than love.” Made me tear up. You must’ve had a good Spiritual Director ????

  3. Gerard Laskowski says:

    Thank you, Father, for another excellent essay.
    Many blessings for the New Year!
    Gerard