THE CATHOLIC HERALD DECEMBER 23 2011
The night of the world’s remaking On Christmas night the Creator became one of his own creatures, says Fr Aidan Nichols OP, changing the very web of life itself
Each year the Vigil of Christmas and the Mass at dawn remind us that the event of the Nativity takes place under the cover of darkness. The youthfulness of God is made known to us as veiled by night. But the night of the Christian mystics – of St Gregory of Nyssa, say, or the author of The Cloud of Unknowing – is a very positive affair. Indeed, it is an ultra-positive affair: it is by excess of radiance, not a lack of it, that this night is dark. “Night” here is not, evidently, just a matter of climate or of clock time – it is not simply the cessation of the human day, the day of physical nature. It is the dawning of the great Day of God, that Day of the Lord which – as the prophets expected it – is necessarily painful and purifying and hence has a very important negative aspect albeit in the service of the positive. The Christian mystic, at the heart of his or her experience, is un-made so as to be re-made by God in the terms proper to God’s own order.
I mention the mystic because the mystic goes deeper into the common faith of the Church than the rest of us. According to the Thomist school, the soul that has nothing of the mystical life about it can hardly be said to have gone beyond spiritual adolesence. Every Christian has received the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, but the question is: do we let them predominate in our life and outlook? That is not possible if we are complete strangers to mortification, humility, docility. But for the Church, the transformation involved is not something just for individuals in their solitude (though there can be no serious religion without solitude). All rational creatures and in a sense all the beings of the cosmos are invited into this night of the world’s remaking, Christmas night, when its All-holy Maker became one of his own creatures and thus changed crucially the composition of the web of life. Revelation is silent on just how animals and plants and the nonanimate creation will share in the Age to Come, but we can be sure from the imagery of Scripture that they will do so.
The darkness of Christmas night, like the dark night of the soul described by John of the Cross as “more lovely than the dawn”, should be carefully distinguished from the murk in which much modern Christian sensibility seems to move. At the hands of some modern writers, apophaticism – negative theology, the theology of the dark night – is not what it once was. One contemporary Eastern Orthodox writer in the United States speaks of the emergence of what he calls a via negativa vulgaris – a vulgarised version of the negative way – which robs true apophaticism of its force by reducing it to saying that, since God is obscure, theological doctrine should glory in being hazy and provisional.
But in orthodox Christian tradition (little “o” or large), the affirmation of the divine incomprehensibility has nothing to do with being in a muddle about who or what God is. Rather, is it an expression of the adoration and longing of the Church in her worship and contemplation. In the words of Isaac the Syrian:
Behold, Lord, the waves of thy grace close my mouth with silence, and there is not a thought left in me before the face of thy thanksgiving. Apophaticism, from the Greek words for “not speaking”, an acknowledgement of the mystery of God, is not an excuse for practising shoddy theology, much less for pooh-poohing the whole value of the doctrinal tradition. What the Church worships and contemplates in her adoration and longing is the abyss of the Father as made known to us by the Son in the Holy Spirit with whose hypostases the Father shares out the divine nature. We would not practice apophasis as an expression of our loving approach to God were it not for the fact that the Father has expressed himself by the Son and the Spirit in the radiant darkness of the Incarnation.
The Eucharist gives expression to this. We are used to the idea that the Mass is the Sacrifice of the Cross, of the Atonement, enacted by means of a regime of signs. But every time we assist at
Palestinian Catholic priests celebrate midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
Mass we attend the Incarnation in sign also. The two – the Incarnation and the Atonement – are inter-related. In the Byzantine icon, the crib is often shown as a walled or stone edifice like an altar, while in western art the crib can appear as a coffin or sepulchre, and the Babe’s swaddling clothes resemble the grave clothes of the tomb, since from the start this Child is born to die in a different sense from the way we are.
In the Byzantine Rite the Incarnation is re-enacted liturgically when the Eucharistic Gifts are brought out from behind the iconostasis, through the royal doors, where the Annunciation – the beginning of the Nativity – is depicted as the central image of the Flesh-taking. In the West, the retable, or painted panel behind the altar, has functioned analogously to the Eastern icon screen. Hence its customary embellishment with images not only of the Easter cycle but of the Christmas cycle too. The Mass is a new Incarnation as well as a new Calvary. But unless married perhaps to a choir screen of the sort still found in many medieval parish churches in England (this is the Latin equivalent of the iconostasis), the western arrangements cannot make their point as graphically as do the Byzantine.
Part of the meaning of the eastward celebration of the Eucharist was to maintain the dialectic of hiddenness and revelation. For Newman, the Gospel does not remove the “veil” between this world and the next. “It remains, but every now and then marvellous disclosures are made to us of what is behind it.” And Newman went on to survey the sacramental life of this Church in this perspective:
We approach, and in spite of the darkness, our hands, or our head, or our brow, or our lips become, as it were,
sensible of the contact of something more than earthly.
We know not where we are, but we have been bathing in water, and a voice tell us that it is blood. Or we have a mark signed upon our foreheads, and it spake of Calvary.
Or we recollect a hand laid upon our heads, and surely it had the print of nails in it, and resembled Him who with a touch gave sight to the blind, and raised the dead. Or we have been eating and drinking; and it was not a dream,
surely, that One fed us from His wounded side, and renewed our nature by the heavenly meat He gave.
People say: “They have taken the mystery out of the churches” or “They have taken the mystery from the Mass”, and such comments are often regarded as either silly or dangerously illinformed. They sink the specificity of the Gospel, it is said, in some general notion of the sacred that has nothing distinctively
CNS photo by Reuters
Christian about it. But sometimes at least those comments are founded, I believe, in the feeling of the faithful for the Incarnation. They represent a reaction of the sensus fidelium in what touches the coming forth of God from out of his own mystery, his coming forth in a revelation which, thanks to its abundance of light, is all the darker the more thoroughly it is perceived. Fr Aidan Nichols’s recent books include Lost in Wonder: Essays on Liturgy and the Arts and The Poet as Believer: A Theological Study of Paul Claudel. This is an extract from a forthcoming book, Lessons in a Rose-Garden: Reviving the Doctrinal Rosary which will be published in 2012
The hinge on which Christianity turns At the Incarnation God himself entered into the dysfunctional and ambiguous family of man, says theologian Fr Robert Barron
The Gospel reading for the Mass of Christmas Day is taken from the prologue of John’s Gospel, and it includes what is probably the best-known line of the New Testament: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” God’s Word became flesh, entering into the temporality, finitude, muck and mud of our human condition. This Incarnation of God is the hinge on which the whole of Christianity turns.
To get a further feel for the texture of it, I would suggest that we turn from the prologue of John to the prologue of Matthew. The opening lines of Matthew’s Gospel – and hence the first words that one reads in the New Testament – are a listing of the genealogy of Jesus, the 42 generations that stretch from Abraham to Christ. If the Word truly became flesh, then God had, not only a mother, but also a grandmother, cousins, great-aunts and weird uncles. If the Word truly dwelt among us, then he was part of a family that, like most, was fairly dysfunctional, a mix of the good and bad, the saintly and the sinful, the glorious and the not so glorious. And this is such good news for us.
Let me highlight just a few figures from Jesus’s family tree. Matthew tells us that the Messiah was descended from Jacob, a great patriarch and hero of Israel, and also a man who wrestled with God. In a lyrical passage from the 32nd chapter of the book of Genesis, we hear that Jacob struggled all night with the Lord and was wounded permanently in the process. I imagine that there are some reading these words who have wrestled all their lives with
The south dome of the inner narthex at Chora Church, Istanbul, depicts the ancestors of Christ from Adam onward
God, questioning, doubting, wondering, struggling mightily with the Lord, perhaps even bearing spiritual wounds as a consequence. Well, the Messiah came forth from Jacob and was pleased to be a relative of this fighter. Matthew’s genealogy informs us that Ruth was an ancestor of the Lord. Ruth was not an Israelite, but rather a Moabite, a foreigner. She married into an Israelite family, and even after her husband died she remained loyal to her mother in law, returning with her to the town of Bethlehem, where she eventually married Boaz and became the mother of Jesse, who in turn became the father of King David. I would be willing to bet that there are some reading these words who have felt all their lives like outsiders, not part of the “in” crowd, perhaps looked at askance by others. Well, the Messiah came forth from Ruth the foreigner and was pleased to be her relative.
And we should say a word about Ruth’s famous grandson, who is mentioned prominently in the genealogy. David was, it could be argued, the greatest figure in the Old Testament. He was the slayer of Goliath, the king who united Israel and formed her into a great power, a man of intense prayer and piety, the composer of psalms, and an incomparable warrior. But he was also a murderer and an adulterer. Re-read that devastating account of David’s seduction of Bathsheba from the Second Book of Samuel to get the details. I’m sure that there are some reading these words who feel a bit like David. Perhaps you’re a person of great success, power, and influence… but harbour a secret sin. Perhaps you’ve abused your power in order to freeze out someone who was threatening you or to demean someone whom you envied. Maybe you’ve done worse. Well, the Messiah came forth from David and was pleased to be a relative of that deeply ambiguous character.
If preserving Jesus’s respectability was Matthew’s goal, he would certainly have found a way to eliminate the name of Rahab from the genealogy. As you recall from the Book of Joshua, Rahab was a prostitute living and working in Jericho at the time of the Israelite conquest of the promised land. When Joshua sent spies into the city, Rahab hid and protected them. As a consequence, when the entire city was destroyed and the people put to the sword, Rahab and her family were spared. Are there people reading these words who feel like Rahab? Who think that their whole lives have been sunk in sin, who have become unrecognisable to themselves? Well, the Messiah came forth from Rahab the prostitute, and he was pleased to be her relative. And Matthew mentions Abiud, Zadok, and Azor as ancestors of Jesus. Who were they? No one really knows. Their identities and accomplishments are lost in the mists of history. I’d be willing to bet that there are some reading this article who feel like those forgotten figures: unsung, unaccomplished, unknown. Well, the Messiah was pleased to become a member of those nobodies Abiud, Zadok, and Azor.
The good news of Christmas is that God himself pushed into the dysfunctional and ambiguous family of man. And he continues to join us, even though we, like so many of his Israelite ancestors, are unworthy of him. Like them, we are flawed, compromised, halffinished. But he becomes our brother anyway. That’s the amazing grace of the Incarnation. Fr Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry Word on Fire and the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at University of St Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois. He is also the creator and host of a new 10-episode documentary series called Catholicism