O magnum mysterium, O great mystery
et admirabile sacramentum, and wonderful sacrament
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, that animals should see the new-born Lord,
jacentem in praesepio! lying in a manger!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
meruerunt portare was worthy to bear
Dominum Christum. Christ the Lord.
These words are an ancient chant from the 6th Century composed for the liturgy of the Divine Office of Readings on Christmas Day, and they present to us in a marvelously succinct way the great mystery, the Magnum Mysterium, which we celebrate on Christmas Day, the birthday of Christ Our Lord. God has become man so that we in turn might become true children of God.
Who, then, is this new born child who is laid in an animal’s manger and yet whose very being constitutes the great mystery that breaks forth for us in Bethlehem? Our Christian faith confesses today in a special way that this new born child is in fact the Son of God who has now become the Son of Man, the greatest gift given to us by the Father of Mercies, for our salvation. This child is the one whom Isaiah called both Mighty God and Prince of Peace. It is this astounding truth that alone accounts for and justifies the way we celebrate His birthday with a joy that fills our hearts and souls and lights up our world. For into the darkness of this world the Son of God has chosen to enter on our behalf, to assume our mortal condition and offer Himself for our salvation. This helpless child is our Savior, the very Son of God who even while an infant is the source and foundation of the whole universe, the one who created it and the one who there in that manger continues to sustains it by his power.
That is the tremendous mystery of Christianity and Christmas in a nutshell: God has lowered Himself to become a child of man, so that in turn He might raise us poor and destitute creatures above the rest of creation as true children of the Almighty. This is the foundational belief of our Christian faith, and we either confess this truth in word and deed, by our very life, or we have no authentic reason to be celebrating the birth of this child, no true rationale for our Christmas celebration.
The truth of God’s incarnation in our weak humanity shows just how far God’s ways outstrip our human minds. For who could ever have imagined that God would act this way on our behalf, that Almighty God would become a tiny bit of His creation in order to save His whole marvelous work, and above all man? Indeed, the great books of the Old Testament testify that God utterly surpasses all of his creation, and there is never any hint that he could or would ever become part of it. For instance, listen to Psalm 113 from today’s Divine Office: Who is like the LORD, our God who has risen on high to His throne, looking down on heaven and earth? That is what we would naturally expect from the Almighty one. It is what seems perfectly fitting for our Creator God.
But then we turn to this marvelous passage in the New Testament where St, Paul is marveling at the truth of what actually took place on Christmas day and changed our whole way of understanding both God and man:
Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)
God does not simply mount His throne, looking down on us from above as Psalm 113 proclaims, but, wonder of wonders, God empties Himself of his natural glory, taking the form of a slave, becoming one of us in all humility as a tiny and helpless child and then empties Himself to the extreme limits by being obedient, even unto death on a Cross. That is the truth about God that we celebrate today on the birthday of Christ.
There is no possibility of understanding this great mystery of Our God by reason alone, for it is totally beyond our human logic, our human way of thinking. Only faith can accept this stupendous fact of God’s incarnation. Only faith can make us bow before the child whose birthday we honor today. Only faith can enlighten our reason to enable us to even begin to fully appreciate the mystery, even while the mind remains truly dazzled by its implications.
But once faith takes hold, then Christmas becomes the foundation of a whole new life for us, because we now believe that the child we adore in that manger has begun a whole new world, in which He the new born is also the first-born, for because of Him there will follow countless men and women of faith who will be reborn in Him. Faith, then, enables us to see in this blessed child a source of unwavering hope for our salvation and immortality. The new Christian logic is convinced that if God has gone this far in order to save His people, what can we not hope for from Him when it comes to His mercy and grace.
Moreover, this great mystery, the magnum mysterium of God made flesh, not only gives us a new understanding of God, the God whose love caused Him to lower Himself to become Man so man could be saved, but also transforms our understanding of the mystery of man as well. For our Christmas faith now will ask a new question about humanity; if God could actually become a human being, then what kind of dignity must human nature itself possess to be capable of being assumed by God?
In this mystery of Christmas, we can grasp more clearly the depth of the truth about man enunciated already in Genesis, that God made man in his very image and likeness! How great is this image/likeness dignity conferred upon human nature that can make it capable of being assumed by God; and in fact one day it would in fact be assumed by the Eternal Son of God. If God can become man, how great then must his human creature actually be? And if God has become man to save man, how can we ever doubt that the other side of this mystery is also true, that man is destined to become God? We too are called in Christ to share his divine nature just has he has assumed our human nature. That is the very purpose of his incarnation, to enable us to be divinized in Him.
Sin has for ages obscured and continues today to obscure the true dignity of man, the great dignity of human nature called to be raised up to God asnd to share His divine life. This obscurity caused by sin began to be dissipated by the light that came into the world in Bethlehem in that tiny child laid in a manger, visited by shepherds and kings who pay their respects, and worshiped by Angels from on high. The light shines in the darkness and begins to illuminate the world and God’s plan for mankind. Come, then, let us also adore, and then we can begin to understand the joy of this day.
May the child of Mary bless you on this Christmas day, by filling you with an unquenchable desire for his salvation, and a willingness to do whatever is necessary to be His disciple. He has come to rescue us ll from the darkness of this world, and the chains of our sins. May His name be blessed forever, and may His mercy reach to the end of the ages, Amen.