The meaning of Christmas is well summarized in a patristic aphorism: “The Son of God became a son of man so that the sons of men could become sons of God.” This pithy saying covers two of the four pivotal mysteries of the Catholic faith, namely Incarnation and Theosis (adoption into divine sonship). Together with the other two mysteries, Trinity and Paschal Mystery, I call them the "Big 4":
Trinity: God exists outside of time, though in time He revealed Himself to be Persons-in-Relation: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Lover, Beloved, and Love.
Incarnation: The Father sent the Son into the world in human nature, possessing the human abilities to choose, to understand, and to submit one's emotions toward the higher powers of will and intellect.
Paschal Mystery: The Son offered Himself and all mankind to the Father in His entire life, though especially in His Passion and Death, which the Father soon honored by raising Him from the dead, glorious and immortal.
Theosis: By the act of faith and baptism, we begin a life of deepening immersion into the Christian mystery, disciplining our wills for goodness, purifying our intellects for truth, and attuning our emotions to beauty. Through the Word and the Sacraments, we come to participate ever more deeply in the divine life.
Trinity, Incarnation, Paschal Mystery, and Theosis: four aspects of the one mystery of Love.
The prophets were privileged to perceive, however dimly, that something grand was coming to the human race. Isaiah envisioned it in terms of a wedding: the union of God and Israel cemented a partnership of the entirety of life, marked by fidelity, stability, fruitfulness, sacrifice, and joy. “’Til death do us part”? No, not even death could separate the union of divinity and humanity in Christ. The Incarnation prepares, ultimately, for the Lord’s Passion and Death (the Paschal Mystery), by which the Son frees us from sin and death, and frees us for fidelity, stability, fruitfulness, sacrifice, and joy.
The 20th century boasted of a man named Thomas Merton. As a charming intellectual Merton knew how to live, yet also felt drawn to know God more deeply. That desire ultimately led him to a monastery in Kentucky, where he became a prolific writer and champion for non-violence. Merton became keenly aware of the presence of God in all people and situations, an awareness that fundamentally sprang from his Catholic faith yet was nourished by his encounters with Eastern religions. Trappist monks ordinarily did not leave the monastery, but Merton was permitted to do so for his community’s external business and for his own medical concerns. While walking the streets of Louisville Merton had a profound realization. Yes, he may have been a cloistered monk, but he shared with all people the call to spiritual transformation amid the challenges of secular life. In his work Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton says:
It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake. I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.Merton goes on to speak of God’s possession of us at our deepest level, where He directs the course of our lives. “This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.” The Christmas crèche declares God’s possession of mankind, and our total dependence on His grace that enables us to be agents of transformation, starting within and continuing in unimagined directions. Renewed by our Savior’s total investment of Self in the human race, we pray that He may renew us as children of Light and Love, and that we may commit to whatever changes will help us to become clearer channels of that Light and Love.