Like every other Christian, I’ve been on a quest for years, for the perfect spiritual Christmas. It’s an admirable search, but Christmas is not solely a spiritual event.
It’s about a body.
God was already “with us” in Old Testament times, before the birth of Jesus. God hovered over the Ark of the Covenant. The High Priest encountered Him once a year in the sanctuary. And God is always present in His creation.
What is different about Emmanuel, “God-With-Us”?
One thing: a body. God is BODY-ly with us.
But really, God came to us in the flesh nine months before the first Christmas, on the occasion of the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. Obviously, conception and fetal development weren’t scientifically understood in the first century the way we understand them now, but the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary has always been recognized by the Church as the seminal event (so to speak) of salvation history.
St. Athanasius of Alexandria, 296 AD proclaims of the March 25 Annunciation:
“Today is the beginning of our salvation.”
For centuries, New Year’s Day was celebrated on March 25, the date of the Annunciation! In England, until the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1752, March 25 was recognized as the first day of the new year.
So why don’t we celebrate March 25 with as much grandeur and solemnity as December 25?
One way to understand the feasts is Saint John’s lyric:
The Word was made flesh
at the Annunciation on March 25
and dwelt among us
after his birth on December 25
and we beheld his glory.
after the Epiphany on January 6
The Annunciation is the feast of the Incarnation; Christmas celebrates His Dwelling Among Us; and the world beheld his glory on the Epiphany.
The nine months between the conception of Jesus and His birth were hidden months, known directly only to Mary. No one else, even Joseph, could enter that communion in the same way, for the worlds of the mother and the baby in utero “are intertwined during pregnancy at every level of being: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.” Dr. Wendy Anne McCarty, a modern specialist in maternal bonding further writes:
“You are both held within a cocoon of moment-to-moment shared experiences, intimate communication, and a communion that goes beyond logic and reason or even conscious awareness. Like a synchronized dance, each of you is leading and responding to the other’s being.”
This communion with God had to have been a great joy to Mary, a sweetness made even more poignant because of its silence and privacy.
At the birth on December 25, Mary gave up that private communion, and in a sense, gave Jesus to us. In fact, St. John Paul II says that one attribute of being a mother is “entrustment.” The baby is entrusted to the woman; then the woman entrusts the baby to the world. Mary entrusts her child, the Son of God, to us at Christmas, and she will do so again on Good Friday.
During Advent, we inhabit a quiet, dark, and sweet place ourselves, much like Mary’s pregnancy: the days are early darkened, we don’t proclaim the Gloria at Mass, we slowly sing the minor chords of O Come, Come Emmanuel.
Now as we enter into Christmas with joy re-awakened, let us entrust Jesus to others who have need of experiencing His glory.
Merry Christmas to you all!
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