When I was in seminary, I worked for a year with a pastor of a large suburban parish in central Pennsylvania. He had a school, a huge Mass schedule, and a very diverse community. I asked him once what was the hardest thing about ministering to all those people. His answer surprised me: "Preaching something decent on the big feast days." After almost six years as a priest, I can echo that sentiment. What do you say that is new? This day is important - what will really touch people? And perhaps the day that demands the most out of the preacher is Christmas Day. What can you say that people haven't heard a thousand times before? In our society Christmas is the holiday most fraught with emotion and memories. The mystery of Christ's birth can almost be overwhelmed. How do you fight that - how do you pray in the midst of it? It can be a challenge when we get to the third joyful mystery of the rosary as well - Christ is born! Now what do I think about it?
The thing that speaks to me today is the poverty of the nativity. St. Jean Vianney once had a priest friend recommend to him that he meditate on the three places where Christ was completely poor: in the Eucharist, on the Cross, and in the crib. In fact it was St. Francis of Assisi, who mystically took Lady Poverty as his bride, who created the first nativity scene. And that truly strikes me. Poverty, suffering, nakedness, vulnerability - these are things the Christian simply cannot escape. If we follow Christ, we must follow him in poverty.
But that is not the end of the story.
If we follow Christ, we follow him to glory as well. And that is true of the Christian witness also. Beauty, nobility, peace, glory - these are also part of the Gospel message.
Both glory and poverty are present at the Nativity. There was a royal family, of the line of David, and yet they were housed in an ancient garage. There were angels, yes, but there were also poor shepherds. Three kings came to do homage, but then another king came with threats and made the Holy Family into a family of refugees. Glory and poverty joined - that is the mystery of the Nativity, and the mystery of Christianity.
One pole must never supplant the other. It is easy to turn Christianity into a religion of enlightenment and wisdom, a religion that brings out man's brilliance, and drives us to be the best version of ourselves - but then what of the poor, the suffering, the weak, the sinner? In such a Christianity we have no real room for those whom Jesus loved most. It is also easy to turn Christianity into an exaltation of the mediocre, a love of the squalid, a glorification of poverty and suffering as such. But then what of the revelation of man's glory in Christ Jesus? What of his call to greatness, to wisdom, to perfection? Glory and poverty, strength and weakness - we are torn by the paradox, and want to choose only one pole, only one value, and forget the other side. We are driven to synthesis, to unity - Christianity forces upon us a duality that can never be reconciled, and must be accepted as such.
What is the root of this? It is the nature of Jesus himself. As the Council of Chalcedon taught:
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the unity, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.
Jesus is wholly God and wholly man - fully glorious, and fully impoverished. His Godhead did not swallow his humanity, nor did his humanity destroy his divinity. He is irreducible to either man or God - he is both. In the Nativity, we celebrate that very fact, the fact of God born as man, the mystery of the Incarnation. And since Jesus Christ is BOTH God AND man, we his followers will always have a taste of both glory and poverty - just as he did.