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By David O’Brien, excerpt cross-posted from NCRonline
by Herbert McCabe: “If you don’t love, you’re dead. And if you do, they’ll kill you.” So, love is the big idea here, and Jesus’ loving gifts of death and resurrection only make sense because of that first, hard to believe, loving gift of Emmanuel, God with us!
That’s one reason I am now so taken with Christmas. Then there is the fact that the Christian story begins with really good news: God has decided to accompany us in history. That’s more than enough reason to rejoice. Later the news of Good Friday is not so good, and the news of Easter is good but ambiguous: Jesus has risen but then he leaves and he will be back, we’re not sure when. But because of Christmas we know that the Crucifixion and Resurrection are good news: human history, our history, matters, because of that original gift of the Incarnation. As Pope Francis reminds us in “The Joy of the Gospel”: We should not be “sourpusses,” he says; our first Christian response should be rejoice!
I also like Christmas because there are so many people around. Mary and Joseph are on the road with almost everybody because of that clumsy census; that’s why there is no room at the inn. Then there are those shepherds, bottom-of-the-barrel caretakers of sheep, who are the first to get the message to rejoice. Then come the wise men from the East who, remarkably, follow the star to a stable and, without a moment’s hesitation, they enter, pay homage and give gifts. Then they return home.
Later things would be less simple. At the foot of the cross or in the days after the Resurrection there were already us and them, the followers of Jesus and the others, some of whom had murdered Jesus. But Christmas, as Jews are counted and shepherds are summoned and wise men from far away follow that star, is surely for everybody. And if we read the later stories of the life and teachings of Jesus in light of that story of God’s choice to accompany us, life and history open up. We can imagine ourselves at the foot of the cross or in front of the empty tomb in the light of that first story of God with everybody. Then we all might be able to say with the Second Vatican Council that “the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties, of the men and women of this age … are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”
One thing we American Catholics surely need is a rebirth of utopian vision, a confidence that there is a beloved community up ahead — we call it the kingdom of God. Living joyously in that faith, serving as best we can the whole human family, gives meaning and purpose to our own lives.
Christmas, celebrated as our living communion with our God who is love, is a great time to renew that vision of why God came among us and why we rejoice with the gift of God’s Spirit.
[David O’Brien is emeritus professor of history and Catholic studies at the College of the Holy Cross