Last weekend saw the Youth 2000 Christmas Retreat in Newbridge College, a secondary school under the care of the Irish Province of Dominicans. We Dominicans are involved in Youth 2000 in all sorts of ways – Fr John Harris is the national spiritual director, many Youth 2000 prayer meetings are held in our priories, some of the student brothers are spiritual directors to prayer groups, and many of us help out in different ways at national and regional retreats (in the photos below you can see Br Philip giving a wonderful talk on Our Lady, and her role in his conversion). In fact, even before joining the Order, many of us have had deeply formative experiences at Youth 2000 events. It’s always a joy, then, to return to these gatherings, where Christ is in the centre as the ever-new source of life, for the young people who are meeting Him for the first time, and for the more mature too!
Pondering the gift God has given us in Christ’s incarnation, Pope Saint Leo the Great joyfully exclaimed “O Christian, be aware of your nobility”. That God should take on our lowly human nature says something of the exalted status with which He regards it. This is a gift for all people, believers and non-believers alike. Yes, the birth of Jesus means different things to different people and to some it means nothing at all but there is a unifying theme in it that says to all people, ‘it is a good and beautiful thing to be alive’. It says, ‘I am a person and I have a dignity and value simply by virtue of the fact of being’. This is a truly inclusive celebration for all people. It is a celebration of humanity in all its full, tangible reality.
However humanity on its own, apart from God, does not give a full account of itself. In its fullest Christian sense, the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, changing the whole course of human history. For unbelievers, the Word is but a word. Yet it was still powerful enough in its own right to have changed the whole course of Western civilisation nonetheless. Something happened all those years ago in Bethlehem that simply cannot be ignored.
That happening is a person. St. Luke tells us that Mary wrapped Jesus in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manager. Some of the early Church Fathers saw in this not only the first Christmas but the first Easter as well; the swaddling clothes prefiguring Christ’s lifeless body tightly bound with bandages and the manger as an altar of sorts, bearing the sacrificial lamb.
The first reading at Mass today hints at the reason why this particular child’s birth is so significant. The prophet Isaiah says that “the Lord bares His holy arm, in the sight of all the nations” (Isaiah 52:10). What does baring His holy arm mean? We often speak of poker players ‘showing their hand’. Here Isaiah says God is showing His hand. What is more, St. Luke says God is showing not only His hand but His eyes, legs and even his mind in the infant Jesus.
God’s plan of redemption from all eternity has come to fruition now, at this time in human history. God has shown his hand by sending his Son for the salvation of the world. He has revealed Himself so completely in the child Jesus that St. John of the Cross believes God has no more to say. God has spoken His only Word, revealing everything to us – He has shown his hand; the hand that trumps all other hands in human history and gives them true perspective. God holds all things in being. The whole Christ event, from His conception at the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary, right the way through to His passion, death, resurrection and ascension into Heaven, stand at the centre of human history for believers. Only in this event, in this person, can there be any sense or meaning to human history or even in creation itself.
O Christian, today of all days, enjoy being loved by God. Many in our modern society are yet to discover this beautiful gift of God, engaging with Christmas in superficial ways. It is our task as believers to point beyond ourselves highlighting the full import of the dignity of being human in relation to God so that Jesus’ own joy may be in them and their joy may be complete.