“O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it; grant, we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” With these profound words the Church opens its celebration of the Nativity of the Lord on Christmas day. Prayed at Christmas from ancient times, perhaps as far back as the fifth century, this opening or “collect” prayer touches upon one of the most fundamental mysteries of our Christian faith: the incarnation.
The incarnation describes God’s loving act of condescending to become human in the person of Jesus Christ, so that he might work out our salvation and “restore our dignity” as one of us, not infringing upon our human freedom but ennobling it and restoring it to an even greater honor than it had in the beginning, and even giving us the possibility of sharing by adoption in the divinity which Christ enjoys by nature. This is what is meant by the words of the prayer “that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
All throughout the history of humanity peoples the world over have naturally pined for someone or something to rescue them from the trials and travails of life. We see expressions of this desire in the most ancient art and the most ancient writings known to man. When God began to gradually reveal himself to his chosen people Israel they hearkened to the words of the prophets and found in them inspiration that such deliverance would indeed come, and it would come not by means of nature or the silly false gods that the Israelites’ neighbors created but by the Lord. We witness their joy over this hope of salvation in the first reading today: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings glad tidings, announcing peace, bearing good news, announcing salvation, and saying to Zion, ‘Your God is King!’” (Isa 52:7).
Later, in the period of Christian revelation, the inspired author of the Epistle to the Hebrews taught us that in Jesus Christ we behold the perfection of God’s revelation to all his children—those of Israel and those of the nations. We hear: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son” (Heb 1:1-2a). This means that in Jesus Christ we finally meet the one who brings the deliverance that humanity has been longing for, no longer in shadows and expectations but in reality.
Finally, in the Gospel at mass on Christmas day we hear the mystical words of the Prologue of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Saint John assures us that the child born of Mary and laid in a manger is the eternal Son of God, the infant of Bethlehem who is the perfect image of humanity and the perfect revelation of divinity, and who ushers in a new era of salvation for God’s holy people.
The awesome consequence of this is that through the incarnation we who have been hoping for liberation from all that binds us might now “share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” On this feast of the Nativity of our Lord let us join in making the words of the opening prayer at mass on Christmas day a reality, so that we can shout with the Psalmist “All the ends of the earth have seen the saving power of God!” (Ps 98:3b).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.