The Mystery of Christmas in Two Patristic Texts

After walking our Advent journey the time has come for us to celebrate the feast of Christmas, the Feast of feasts as St Francis of Assisi used to call it. Il Poverello called itso because Christmas unravels God’s most astounding Humility. Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, (1 Tim 6:15), humbled himself to such an extreme that, as we profess in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man.

What is professed in the creed has also been the attention of the Fathers of the Church. Many of these great eminent teachers and, after all, passionate pastors of Christ’s flock, felt attracted and fascinated by this great mystery which only a God who has madly fallen in love with his creation can do. Their contribution is important because it opens us to gladly contemplate, enjoy and let ourselves be transformed by this outstanding mystery of mysteries in the whole history of the universe.

Christ’s insertion amongst us is a sure hope which dismantles our fear of our mortality. It was Saint Leo the Great who came up with this great reflection on Christ’s birthday when he said: Our Saviour, dearly-beloved, was born today: let us be glad. For there is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity. No one is kept from sharing in this happiness.

How relevant is Saint Leo’s today when, unfortunately and sadly, many tend to think that there is no other life after this world. What sort of existence we would have if there is no continuation of this life in which there are certainly joys but also tears of immense sadness, disappointment, helplessness and frustration. The profound thought of Saint Leo also reminds of what is written in the Book of Revelation on the just who will live eternally in the Heavenly Jerusalem: They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Rev 7:16-17).

The second patrisitic text which caught my eyes which speaks beautifully about Christmas is that coming from the Epistle to Diognetus. In this patristic text what strikes the eye is the fact that in front of our wickedness God, instead of judging, punishing and abandoning us altogether, simply chose to bear with us and love us. In other words, God chose to accompany us to the point of saving us. Here is what this intriguing text, coming from the second century, says:

But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for those who are mortal.

God’s answer to our deadly ingratitude was simply an overflowing of love and mercy from his eternally merciful, loving and caring heart. Such God, today, is telling you and me, surrounded as we are with evil and sin, which sometimes find it also in ourselves, to combat evil with good. In Pauline terms, God, who became man for you and me, is telling us personally and straight in the eye: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom 12:21).

These two patristic texts drive home for me what we find written in the Peace prayer by Saint Francis of Assisi: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

This is the focal point which both texts point to. The fact that I know that in Christ I have eternal life that reality by itself drives me to let Christ live in me so that in and through me He keeps saving me and all those around me by fruitful good works of salvation.

Happy Christmas to all of you!

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Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap was born in San Gwann on August 26 1972. After being educated in governmental primary and secondary schools as well as at the Naxxar Trade School he felt the call to enter the Franciscan Capuchin Order. After obtaining the university requirements he entered the Capuchin friary at Kalkara on October 12 1993. A year after he was ordained a priest, precisely on 4 September 2004, his superiors sent him to work with patients as a chaplain first at St. Luke's Hospital and later at Mater Dei. In 2007 Fr Mario obtained a Master's Degree in Hospital Chaplaincy from Sydney College of Divinity, University of Sydney, Australia. From November 2007 till March 2020 Fr Mario was one of the six chaplains who worked at Mater Dei Hospital., Malta's national hospital. Presently he is a chaplain at Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre. Furthermore, he is a regular contributor in the MUMN magazine IL-MUSBIEĦ, as well as doing radio programmes on Radio Mario about the spiritual care of the sick.