This Thing that has Happened: Thoughts on Christmas
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’” (Luke 2:15)
In this vast desert of doubt that we call “the world,” the Divinity has made a move. He didn’t say much. And He didn’t move quickly. He came only in “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4). He walked for only three brief years in this desert.
It was all foretold on an unknown date in the history of ancient Israel: “For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it. It will certainly come and will not delay” (Habakkuk 2:3). Though the coming of Christ was expected, no one knew exactly when or how it would happen. Isaiah foretold that “a virgin shall be with child” (Isaiah 7:14), but no one knew what that meant.
Prophecy is cryptic. Even prophets themselves usually don’t understand what they are prophesying. How could they? The Holy Spirit, “who has spoken through the prophets,” is a light too bright for the eye of the mind. A prophet is disturbed when God gives him a message or a mission. And the people to whom he prophesies are even more disturbed. The fate of a prophet is not pleasant. “Listen, O heavens, and hear, O earth; For the LORD speaks, ‘Sons I have reared and brought up, but they have revolted against Me” (Isaiah 1:2).
God clearly likes the element of surprise. He acts neither according to our expectations nor according to the patterns of life to which we have grown accustomed. The shepherds near Bethlehem were not expecting anything on that fateful Christmas Eve. For them, it was a night watch like any other. They must have had some traces of innocence – like a relic of Adam before his sin – in order that they, of all humanity, would be the chosen to hear this divine message. Their reaction to the angels’ surprise appearance and announcement is striking. They seem to have accepted it all like a five-year-old who finds a dollar bill on the sidewalk. They were amazed, but not stunned. When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds’ response was boyish: “Let’s go to Bethlehem and check ‘this thing’ out.” They were like a gang of nine-year-olds who just heard that their town has a new fire truck.
A sense of serene wonder pervades the Christmas Mystery. The shepherds found Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and they told them their tale about the angels. “All who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them” (Luke 2:18). Even Mary “pondered all of these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19). The Birth of Christ is meant to be pondered. Doing so puts an indelible peace in our hearts from which we draw strength and life.
Christmas is a contemplative gift. We must ponder it with curiosity, wonder and a searching heart. This event should bring us back to the innocence of our childhood and, more importantly, to our baptism. We should ponder the deep mystery of our childhood in light of Christ’s childhood. For us, it’s not a matter of whether or not we had a happy childhood, or whether or not we had a healthy upbringing. The fact remains that we have been born into this world; and, at our baptism, the image of the Divine Child was given to us. The Christ-child identifies with everyone, for He is a “thing that has happened” as a gift of Love from our Father in heaven. He is the “Divine Move” into history, into time, into our lives, into our personal stories, into our souls, and into our destinies. He pervades us intimately. He invites us to share his own innocence. He invites us to the quiet and peace of Bethlehem, to that inner sanctuary of the crib, as a retreat from our conflicted world. He invites us to share in his Cross and Resurrection. He invites us to join Him in heaven.
It’s a sobering thought that, amidst the peace of Bethlehem, the Child was surrounded by Herod’s plots against his life. Not everyone who heard about the Christ was overcome with joyful curiosity like the shepherds. In our own times, a frightful darkness seems to be setting upon our world. There is a thunder in the distant sky. But there is one reassurance: the Divine Light of Innocence has come to earth. God is with us. He will not abandon us. We must return to Him daily as our source of strength and pardon. He is our Way to the Father. This Child teaches us how to conquer fear and death. This Child leads us to our heavenly Homeland. He is the Prince of Peace.
This Christmas, we should all reaffirm this most basic truth of our salvation. We should ponder these words that we say in the Creed, with all the joy and wonder that the shepherds felt when they found the Child in his manger: