THE COST OF CHRISTMAS
Pope Innocent VI was bishop of Rome in the mid-decades of the 14th Century. He was a good hymnologist as well. He is the author of the beautiful but very brief eucharistic hymn which for several centuries was sung in the West after the Consecration at Mass. It is known by its Latin title – "Ave Verum Corpus". In the 19th Century it was set to music by the incomparable Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This hymn celebrates the truth of things, literally the realities we associate with our Catholic faith. The first line celebrates the reality of the mystery of the Incarnation – "Hail true Body born of the Virgin Mary". The second line celebrates the mystery of the cross – "Hail true Body, truly suffered, sacrificed on the cross for mankind”. The third line continues the theme of the Passion – “Hail true Body whose pierced side flowed with water and blood”. The fourth and final line directly reflects the Eucharist – “Let it be for us, in consideration, a foretaste of death”. Jesus whom we call the Christ is no mythical figure. Neither is his heavenly Father who mysteriously identified himself to the prophet Moses in the words "I AM". Neither is his earthly mother who said to Gabriel, "I am the handmaid of the Lord." The Lord Jesus is for real – real in his birth, real in his dying and rising, real in the Eucharist we will receive this very day, foreshadowing God’s gift of eternal life. The "Ave Verum Corpus" celebrates these realities.
I would call your attention to one of the prayers that we find in the Sacramentary at this time of Christmas. We say to God our Father – "Fill our hearts with your love, and as you revealed to us the coming of your Son as man, so lead us through his suffering and death to the glory of his resurrection". Any welcoming of the Lord at Christmas carries with it the acceptance of Christ’s cross.
For a Christmas meditation, I would propose a reflection on what I shall call the law of the cross. What does this mean? In shorthand, it goes something like this – All of human history, everybody’s human history, is a story of progress and decline. Because of sin, decline, disorder, evil become the conquerors. Justice comes along to try to right the wrongs, but the enmities, the rivalries, the hostilities that come from sin continue to conquer. Just look at the front pages of our newspapers. Better still, look in the mirror and try to examine the human heart. Where justice fails, only love can prevail, only love can wipe the slate clean of sin. This is what is meant by the law of the cross. Through Christ’s life, death and resurrection, God wipes the slate clean, for Christ is the true Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. In other words, God has introduced into human history a process of reversal. The consequences of our sins become the very means of our salvation. The prime instance is Jesus. By willingly accepting the consequences of our sins, though sinless himself, he passed through suffering and death; and God’s power at work in Jesus made this the passageway to resurrection and life. S. Paul puts it this way – God showed his love for us in this that while we were yet sinners. Christ died for us. The law of the cross works something like this – Two persons have a quarrel. As long as each party returns evil for evil, the quarrel escalates, the situation worsens, no fresh start is possible. Only a process of reversal will bring peace. Only when one party is willing to love one’s enemies and to pray for one’s persecutors, only then will the decline of evil be checked, only then will redemption be effected, only then will our own human history make progress towards God’s kingdom. (A note of gratitude is needed here to Father Bernard Lonergan who directed me in my theological studies. The Law of the Cross is an important part of Lonergan’s Christology.)
This is what happened in Jesus. This is what he wills to effect in us. This is what Christmas is all about. We cooperate with God’s redeeming power by returning good for evil, thus transforming the evil that surrounds us into the cross through which alone we are saved. This was a scandal to some of the Jews of Jesus’ time. This was all folly to the Greeks. To those who believed, Jew or Greek, this was the power of God and the wisdom of God. The law of the cross is still folly for so many in our day. The philosopher Nietzsche would reject Christian humility and self-giving love as the religion of slaves who are really envious of the rich and the powerful. Karl Marx would reject Christian patience and the doctrine of the cross as ideological invention to facilitate the enriching of the rich and the enslaving of the poor who are thus deceived by Christian teaching and drugged by the empty hope of abundant life beyond the grave.
The feast of Christmas makes an affirmation and asks a question. The affirmation is this – Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners. In other words, God out of love wipes our slates clean. The question is this – Are we willing to do the same for our brothers and sisters? Only those who understand the law of the cross can truly say – Merry Christmas.