Has Christ Been Born for You Yet?
God is very close to us right now. Isn’t that the promise of Christmas, God-with-us? What is the right response to that closeness? God has chosen to create a closeness between Himself and ourselves. He has taken our body on Himself. It’s His doing, His “project,” from start to finish. What should be the result of that? Or, from God’s point-of-view, what is the desired outcome?
What should happen is what naturally happens whenever lover and beloved are close: joy and peace. A sense of being at rest, of having all I need to be happy.
To see your life in those terms—that you are the object of a relentless pursuit by the divine lover—opens up many places in our lives that are otherwise dark and painful. Sometimes He meets us with sorrow, at other times with joy, or it is sameness and tedium, or consolation and exultation. St Paul eventually understood that none of these alternatives are really decisive in our relationship with God: Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ!
Perhaps his first intuition came when, as Saul the Pharisee, he witnessed St Stephen with an unusual peace and joy standing there as the target for rock-throwers. His face, as Acts tells us, looked like that of an angel.
St Bernard of Clairvaux, whose sermons fill the Office of Readings during Advent and Christmas, asks his fellow monks this “Christmas” question which can help us reflect on the degree of joyful intimacy we have with the Lord:
Dearest brethren, are not your souls replenished at this moment with heavenly joy, inasmuch as you can at least say with truth, ‘The Child is born for us’?
And this is our question: Are our souls replenished with heavenly joy? They are only to the extent that heaven fills our soul, only to the degree that God is warmly welcomed at our center.
Jesus promises us a joy that no one will be strong enough to take from us. It’s untouchable. And you find it everywhere in the lives of holy Christians—not just every now and then, but always. Saint Stephen had this heavenly joy as he stood in the eye of the storm, before a hostile crowd of accusers. He knew what he was doing. Stephen knew that they were quite prepared to kill him. He knew that they weren’t really listening, but looking for evidence.
While stones strike him like hornets he has the presence of mind to ask pardon for those who have not the joy of knowing Christ: “And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” These stone throwers don’t see what Stephen sees: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.” They don’t see the Son of Man anywhere, and so they have no peace, no rest, no joy.
Saint Bernard describes them very well in the following words, but ask yourself if they don’t also apply to you in some way:
There are some for whom Christ is not yet born, and some for whom He has not yet suffered, and some for whom He has not yet arisen, and some for whom He has not yet ascended, and some finally upon whom He has not yet sent down the Holy Spirit.
The idea that we might be practically living as though Jesus didn’t do all of these things for us is worth taking seriously.
Right now, you might feel tired out. The mind might have trouble focusing. It’s hard to judge how your soul is doing when you feel exhausted or distracted. But isn’t it for such people that Jesus is born? Didn’t He come for exhausted and distracted people like ourselves? “The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue,” the Messiah says, “That I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.”
And so the question repeats itself: “Dearest brethren, are not your souls replenished at this moment with heavenly joy, inasmuch as you can at least say with truth, ‘The Child is born for us’?” However we feel right now, we can still choose Yes. We can and should dismiss any evil spirit that says we shouldn’t be joyful. We are sinners. We go to extremes. We fail our God. And the evil one will tell us: Look at the evidence. I’m not making things up. I’m an impartial observer. What right have you to rejoice?
We say: We have no right. It is God’s gift. How can I look at the Babe in the manger and be so self-preoccupied as to feel sad? Look at the evidence. I’m not making it up.
Joy in the Spirit, which St Stephen enjoyed even unto death, brings healing to the soul’s sadness. Each soul has pockets of sadness caused by sin. It seems like our joy can only go so far before a bad memory or a temptation heads it off at the pass. The healing medicine is to recall the cause of our joy: The Child is born for us. We have to put aside every preoccupation and worry and just rejoice in the Lord. Thoughts and feelings that are hard to shake off, these we must send away. Because if we can rejoice in the birth of Jesus, then our souls will not only find healing, but also the strength to return to those concerns with greater peace and confidence.
Joy is medicine for the sadness of the soul. And our Lord comes among us as a little one to bring us this healing. We can’t just pass by the manger unmoved, the way so many did in Bethlehem on that holy night. We can’t adopt the attitude that it’s just another Christmas, just more work to do, setting up and cleaning up, etc. The closeness of the infant Jesus must make a deeper impression on us each year, if we would be healed in a deeper way of any bitterness or sadness that may have found a place in our souls.
As St Stephen was breathing his last, offering up his spirit and forgiving his enemies, Saul was standing there taking it all in. At first, he was unimpressed. As far as he was concerned, Stephen was just one less Christian he had to deal with. But the seeds had been planted; the impression had been made.
Go to Jerusalem and see. Go to Bethlehem and see. See Stephen falling to the ground like a seed and Saul rising up like a righteous shoot. See shepherds and angels gathering around a cattle shed, faces to the ground, in adoration. Once the impression is made, changes will come in us also.
What else can this Infant bring us? He doesn’t tell us anything with His voice. He won’t preach to us for another thirty years. He won’t suffer for us and rise again for even a few years more. This birth is for our consolation and strength. It is for our joy, for we can say with truth: The Child is born for us.
December 26, Feast of St Stephen, the First Martyr. Acts 6:8-10, 7:54-59; Mt 10:17-22