The readings from the Christmas Mass “during the day” (i.e., Masses celebrated after the Mass at Dawn) invite us to contemplate the expression of divine love revealed in the birth of Jesus. They do so via the notions of condescension and self-revelation.
Condescension?! Isn’t that a bad thing? To be sure, the verb “condescend” can connote a sense of superiority and haughtiness. But in its literal sense, it means “to come down.” The Gospel reading from John—which starts not with the birth of Jesus, but rather in the heavenly realm with a poetic reflection on the eternal Word who “was in the beginning with God”—uses the striking description of the Word descending and then, literally, “pitching his tent among us.” That beautiful image captures well God’s desire to draw near to us, and to draw us to him.
To condescend, at least in a theological sense, has the positive signification of lowering oneself to another’s level so that the latter can appreciate and understand what is communicated. I see this type of “condescension” at celebrations of Baptism. It’s fun to watch and listen to adults—parents, godparents, grandparents—holding an infant. They make faces, they tickle and caress the baby, and speak funny words like “gootchy gootchy.” Why? They are attempting to express their love in ways they think the infant can appreciate.
God, who is infinitely powerful and wise, does something similar to express the divine love for us in a way we mere mortals can take in and understand. How? By becoming one of us, entering the world as a little baby. Thank God for this loving condescension!
Another way to appreciate the expression of divine love we celebrate at Christmas is to reflect on what lies behind the notion of self-revelation. Today’s second reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews, declares that, while God has spoken “in partial and various ways” in the past, God now speaks to us “through the Son.” Think of the dynamism of people who are in love. They seek to reveal themselves to the beloved. We only reveal ourselves most intimately to those whom we love most, whether it be our spouse or our closest friends.
God so loves us that he has “spoken” his Word, the Word “who became flesh” and pitched his tent among us. When the evangelist John says that “the Word was with God,” he employs an expression in Greek that signifies that the eternal Word was turned toward God. There is a sense of intimacy implied, one made explicit at the end of the Gospel reading when John writes that the Son is (literally) in the bosom of the Father. That is the reason why Jesus can reveal who God is. He is the Word, the very self-expression, of God and God’s love.
In the Opening Prayer, we ask “that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” That is a bold petition! It is also a proper response to the gift we celebrate at Christmas. The Gospel reading announces that, to those who open their hearts to the gift of Jesus, God has bestowed “power to become children of God.” What Jesus is by nature, God’s Son, we become by adoption, God’s sons and daughters.
Christmas is a wondrous time for children. It can be a wondrous time for all of us, for we are reminded of our identity and dignity as children of God, the God who so delights in us that he took on human form. With the gift comes a task —or, better, a mission —to grow more and more into the “family likeness” of God. That is, we are to grow in self-giving love. To do that, we must first welcome that love into our hearts. The Christmas season is the time to bask in and absorb the greatest gift ever bestowed, the One whom Isaiah in the first reading describes as bringing us God’s comfort, redemption, and salvation.
When we do so, we are in a position to “re-gift.” But re-gift in the best sense of the term! This is not a matter of passing on to another something we received but don’t really want or need (that sweater or tie or pair of socks). Love by its very nature turns outward and is shared with others. We have the blessed opportunity to “incarnate”—to make happen in our flesh-and-blood existence—God’s love to others.
I invite you to take time in quiet and prayer to open your hearts to the mystery of love we celebrate these days, the mystery of God’s condescension and self-revelation. We can only share with others what we have first received. May God bless you and yours with joy and peace this holy season and throughout the coming year. Merry Christmas!