Merton on Advent and Christmas

ˇ§At Christmas, more than ever, it is fitting to remember that we have no other light than Christ, who is born to us todayˇKHe came down from heaven to be our light, and our life,ˇKto be our way, by which we may return to the Father.

ˇ§The Child that lies in the manger, helpless and abandoned to the love of His creatures, dependent entirely upon them to be fed, clothed and sustained, remains the Creator and Ruler of the universe. Yet, in this human nature of His, He wills to be helpless, that we may take Him into our care. He has become as poor as the poorest of us, that no man may be held back from Him by false shame. The arms with which He embraces us are not strong enough to harm any man, though they are the arms of God.

ˇ§Christ is born to us today, in order that He may appear to the whole world through us. This one day is the day of His birth, but every day of our mortal lives must be His manifestation, His divine Epiphany, in the world which He has created and redeemed. ˇX Merton, Seasons of Celebration, 103, 109, 112.

Commentary

John Wu, Jr.

From a certain perspective, Christmas may be regarded as a recovery of innocence, we may say, perhaps, even of Eden before the fall, and, therefore, a return to our authentic self. I do not think it would be wrong to say God the Father sent his Beloved Son to earth as an Infant to remind us that, despite being the corrupt sinners that we all are, we nonetheless retain in ourselves the basic innocence and purity of heart of a child. For, who could possibly account for the way we are able so naturally to identify with and the heightened feeling that gushes forth in us at the sight of the Baby Jesus in the manger?

During these days, beginning with Advent and far beyond Christmas itself, as we kneel and unabashedly pray before the creche we are suddenly granted the gift of self-forgetfulness. And, without the habit of self-consciousness that often deprives us of our natural spontaneityˇXthat which children used to have in large abundanceˇXwe are able to focus entirely on Jesus and the Holy Family. And as we pray our simple words of gratitude and adoration, all the accumulated vanities, scales and masks fall from us as if they were nothing and, as they do, a renewal of spirit seem to rush through us as in no other time of the year.

Christmas does this to us and no amount of academic theologizing or psychoanalysis could possibly explain this heightened feeling that shoots through us, making us want to jump for joy as only that sense of a recovered Eden could make us do. The miracle is that it cuts through all the layers of learned sophistication and worldliness that so much mar our path to living authentically. And, at least for this joyous period, we do recover ourselves sufficiently to live a life essential to every Christian: a prayerful existence in which nothing is more natural than to be thankful for all that the gift of life implies.

At Christmas, Godˇ¦s Gift to us is the Child Jesus, the gift the enormity of which human language cannot possibly convey. It takes us back to tiny Bethlehem, a place no bigger than a hamlet and where ˇ§there is no room at the innˇ¨ even for the Creator of the world. It is surely not the physicality of the place that draws us there but rather the silent and solitary calling of the Child to us to be His playmate in the midst of all the angels, shepherds and animals! And it is not so much that He wants us to worship HimˇXfor no child craves to be worshipˇXbut, rather, for us to learn again to share His joy in the utter incomprehensibility of His coming into the world as a Man-Child, in full identification with us. The enormous mystery that confronts us at Christmas is why He did not choose to remain in heaven with His host of angels and just let us continue to live without light and wallow in the contempt of ourselves and others, that is, in our normal fallen state.

Of the Incarnation, Merton writes, ˇ§God became man in order that men may become gods.ˇ¨ (Seasons, 111) An extraordinary statement that boggles the mind yet makes great sense. For is it not true that we are indeed images of God our Creator? That each of us indeed has that divine spark without which nothing would make much sense, but with which even the smallest things in life would put us in ecstasy? Merton goes on to say when we receive Jesus in Holy Communion and our spirit is nourished with His own Body and Blood, it is not that He comes to us ˇ§in order to transform us into Himselfˇ¨; rather, ˇ§He has given Himself to us in order that we may belong to Him.ˇ¨

As I meet the Child Jesus in His humble manger, my thoughts bring me to the time before the fall of Adam and Eve when humankind, eating from the Tree of Life, had not yet been exposed to willfulness or greed or pride. I think too that perhaps our recovery of EdenˇXwhich Iˇ¦m convinced has nothing to do with any of our so-called merits, of which in fact we have noneˇXis even sweeter than the fruits of the original Eden and that in fact we, collectively as humanity, now love Eden ever more in having suffered the pain of loss, and then recovering it. Or, far more truly, God in His infinite mercy and love allowing us unwittingly to trip upon Eden simply to share His extraordinary bounty. As I gaze at the Child, it dawns on me that the New Adam and Godˇ¦s Eden comes in the form of Pure Gift in the very Person of God Himself. A Blessed Christmas to all of you!