Thoughts on the Second Reading
Christmas Day at Dawn
“Enter in; be born in us today.”
When the kindness and generous love
of God our savior appeared,
not because of any righteous deeds we had done
but because of His mercy,
He saved us through the bath of rebirth
and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
whom He richly poured out on us
through Jesus Christ our savior,
so that we might be justified by His grace
and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
Christmas has many meanings, each of which has its proper place. It is a holiday, which means it is a holy day. Poor secularists, the very language resists them. Changing the greeting from Merry Christmas to Happy Holiday still leaves a word that has its origin at the altar, for holiday really means the holy day of Christmas, the great celebration of the Savior’s Birth; and analogously the reflective will know that moving from AD and BC to Before and After the Common Era still leaves the inquisitive soul wondering what there was about a certain day in the reign of Augustus that made the world number time anew.
The meaning of Christmas can be obscured only with difficulty, for it means many good things. It means profit at last for the stores and industries that persisted profitless through the long summer, waiting for the day after thanksgiving when the ledgers will move into the black, prompted by that human activity called shopping, which usually means at Christmas shopping pursued with asperity but also with a touch of charity. It mean a day off from work, always welcomed in a culture marked by the relentless rhythm of the machine, enjoyed even by those who may not attach any meaning to Christmas . And who can miss the note of delight that makes those who do not worship Jesus give gifts and decorate their houses.
But for those who believe the joy of Christmas is founded in a reality of God’s appearing, the day celebrates the beginning of a new story for mankind and for every person. The kindness and generous love of God our Savior, says Paul, appeared, “not with swords loud clashing or roll of stirring drum” but in the quiet of a winter night in the little town of Bethlehem. We can know that when Paul says that God appeared, he was not following the gnostic line that Jesus a fleshless spirit ‘appeared’ because Paul writes that Jesus was in fact born, “born of woman, born under the law,” entering this world as has every son of Eve (Galatians 4:4). “Like us,” says Hebrews, “in every way except sin” (4:15).
Christmas is about more than the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. In the superscript from Titus, Paul is reciting the truth that His birth into this world means our birth into eternal life. At the beginning of his ministry as John describes it, Jesus answered Nicodemus’ unasked question not with the advice that he should be more faithful in the study of the law or in almsgiving, but with the then-enigmatic, “You must be born again.” When Nicodemus pointed out the biological impossibility, Jesus simply reiterated: “You must be born again.” This merciful appearing of our Savior did not in the first instance achieve God’s purpose through teaching, though teaching there must be, but by a new birth. We are not informed but regenerated, as Jesus tells Nicodemus, born again of Water and the Spirit; when God breaks in we are given “a new life through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” The words of the Gospel’s heralds are not intended to bring those hearing to the conclusion of an argument but to repentance and baptism. The great commission charges those sent on the apostolic mission to go into the world baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and then to teach. The fact of God’s appearing in Christ makes a compelling claim on heart and intellect, but it is not offered to us only for the perfecting of insight. The story of His deeds, His prophetic teaching and His miracles, ending in His death for us is intended not only to make us sharers in a common Christian narrative, but to make new creatures of everyone who has received the bath of rebirth and the renewal of the Spirit. At Pentecost, those hearing Peter’s proclamation that “God has made Him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified,” did not, as they might well have done, claim now to know the meaning of history. Rather, they asked, “What shall we do?” And Peter answered, “Repent, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38)
Perhaps many will not know that the words “I believe in one baptism” were added to the Creed of Nicaea at the second great council in 381, at least in part, to gainsay those, principally a North African schism called the Donatists, who believed that sin could un-baptize fallen believers. Could one go so wrong that the claim of Christ on the baptized soul could be foregone? The Church condemned this as erroneous because baptism gives an indelible character; there is always holy fire in the ashes of the most unfaithful, neglectful, life, waiting to blaze into new birth.