By Dom Columba Cary-E1wes
AS Christmas spins round on the huge top which the Church's liturgy seems to resemble, we would like it all to slow down to give us time to think. For this is the Great Day in the history of mankind, this the pivot point. Man's true history is his religious history, and in that long story Christmas is the most important date, the birth of Christ. This was the event towards which all history pointed and from which all good things spring. Christmas is central, not only for the life of each individual soul in its return to God, hut also for the life of ell mankind. Christ was born " heir of all things" and He was to draw all men to Himself.
The initial promise made by God that all would in the end be put right was made to the first man; and, though the promise was fulfilled by means of the Jews, all men were to benefit by it and all the races of men seemed to have groped towards it. Even in the Bible itself we have evidence, in the person of Job, of a non-Jew longing for the coming of salvation—a salvation which was fulfilled by the coming on earth of Christ.
Primitive men, whose CUltlare still survives (so students think) in remote corners of the globe, looked and look to God who is their all Father and remember a time when they were the friends of God. Christ by becoming our brother ha e made us not only friends of God, if we will, but sons by adoption, thus immeasurably enlarging the ideas that had survived from that primitive age. Our Father is more truly Father than any man had dreamed. for we, through the Nativity and Death of Christ. share the divine nature, The Three Cultures From these primitive beginnings sprang three great. separate and distinct cultures, The agricultural, the hunters and the herdsmen. Each in its own way sought God. though each also lost something of the early simplicity and early truth. Yet, even in this mixture of evil and good, Christ gathered what was worthy to be saved.
The herdsmen with their immense horizons and their vast wanderings, their life under the open sky, had glimpses of Dial infinity in God and that providence in His universe which is enshrined in the book of Job. Yet this way of life had its dangers, because so groat a being might become remote in His clear sky—as He did indeed in India among Hindu and Buddhist philosophers. In China God was tittle more than heaven or the sky— though at the beginning this was not so. Thus almighty God by clothing Himself in the nature of a man brought this infinity once and for all within the grasp of us humans and of our puny minds. How well Saint Augustine saw this when he wrote ill the Confessions that the philosophers of Greece may have seen that God was logos hut they had not known that " the Wont was made flesh,"
The Agriculturists That very ancient Archaic Culture of the agriculturists also was seeking God; and, mixed with much that was even wicked. there lay real gold. Nor was it despised by God. Both Saint Augustine and Saint Gregory would have us venerate the providence of God in using these glimmerings of light for the teaching of His own chosen people.
Speaking of the Egyptians the former wrote: " There was found among them some truths concerning the worship of the one true God Himself, as it Were their gold and silver" while Saint Gregory. as recorded by Saint Bede, wrote: " Thus the Lord made Himself known to His people of Israel in Egypt: and yet He allowed them to use the sacrifices which they were wont to offer to the Devil, in his worship. . ." Saint Justin. somewhat earlier, had grasped the same [path: " Whatever has been uttered aright by any man in any place belongs to us Christians." (Apology 11, xiii.) And so the idea of sacrifice came into the religion of Israel and was to be used as a basis for the supreme sacrifice by Jesus, born of Mary.
But in the Archaic Cultures there was something else which Christmas specially seems to fulfil. They had a ritual connected with the dying year and the new life of the spring. It was for them a symbol of their own rebirth, an earnest that death was not the end. This was dramatised in a myth—the story of a dying god who came to life again; very vague it was, very conflicting and nothing to do with the redeeming from sin. Nevertheless this was spread throughout the Ancient World, and it expressed in poetic language the yearning for iimartality.
All this is spiritualised by Christ. His birth is the rebirth of Man after death came by sin in Adam and us all. All that was good in those weird rituals was a preparation in the minds of the adepts for the spiritual truth: not earthly re newal but a godly one. The life Christ offers us is not the shadowy life of the Ancient Other-World, but life with God.
Even the hunters with their magic and their sorcerers were not to he entirety ignored in the providential summing up of history in the In carnation. All they did was not dross. It has been maintained (cf. Mr. Christopher Dawson's Religion and Culture) that the magic rites were in origin not magical but humble supplication, a use of imagery and symbol to coax the hard heart to feelings of subjection
to God. Christ has made use of material symbols to lead us to Himself. especially the sacraments. Precisely as God in His providence inverted the sacrifices of the ancients to serve Him, so He inverted the wrongful magic to be instruments of His grace. Magic tries vainly to force the hand of God, a sacrament is God using His own creation as an instrument of His grace.
The birth of Christ is itself a kind
of sacrament. God did not use blocks or stones, springs or rivers, mountains, animals, to bring men nearer to Himself, to worship as symbols of Himself; he need man's own human nature. Nor is this incompatible with the sublimity of God, for it is compatible with the weakness of men who will ever remain little and enclosed within their material creaturedom. God will therefore always use means for our salvation which are within our mental grasp. The sublimity of the Incarnation is a sublimity of condescension and of love.
It seems that only today the relationship between Christ's birth and the subcontinent of India is being truly grasped. Only now the West, through the noble labours of great scholar missionaries, chiefly of the Society of Jesus, is beginning to understand the deep things of the Hindu religion and of Buddhism. Where it seemed that these tended towards the annihiliation of the individual, now it may prove to be that these two great traditions believe only in a dying to self such as was taught by Our Blessed Lord, " unless the seed die. . . " Whatever be the truth of these Indian theories, the birth of Christ and His teaching gives the answer: we shall not be annihilated, nor our bodies vanish away, but all shall be restored in Christ. We are made for God but yet preserving our personality. The answer is the Mystical Body of Christ. That is the ever-presentness of Christmas, for it is a reminder of our rebirth in Christ, our Saviour. continued Incarnation of God in the world by Christ's action in us all. The Church is the Alter Christus, that living on by Christ in His Chttrch in the world, one in mind, one in love, one in prayer, one in ruling and one in action, simply because it is one thing, this New Man. It cannot he divided because Christ cannot be divided, neither in mind nor in love, nor in prayer, nor in ruling. To separate is to be cut off as a branch from the vine. From the very beginning the horror of heresy was intense. Remember all the sects which were cast off and which have perished.
The Church remains the dazzling reality of the modern world which is so chaotic or sinking into satanic slavery. if is unique, indivisible and as alive today. with its hundreds of millions in the unity of faith of government and of worship, as It was in its mustard seed beginnings.
It is fitting that the Holy Year should begin on the birthday of Jesus, for the Church is the continued life of Jesus on earth. It is fitting also that Catholics should turn their steps and their hearts to the visible symbol of that unity. the Holy See, to Pius XII. successor of Saint Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the Servant of the Servants of God, the Rock upon which the Church is
built. There is the tomb of the Fisherman. there the sure guide in Faith. If all this brittle world, contrived since the Renaissance, collapses and destroys itself. that Thing. the Church, with its visible head the Pope, representative of Christ on earth, will continue. ever the same, ever new. the same in faith, new in the vitality of its supernatural life. In a sense it was born that first Christmas night.