Birthday of Our Eldest Brother
Fr. George Mary Claret
The purpose of Christian life is to become Christ-like – his brothers and sisters and thus the beloved children of the Heavenly Father. For this very purpose, God the Father had sent his only Son into the world. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Catholic Church has the Liturgical Calendar which begins with the Advent Season and ends with the Feast of Christ the King. This calendar is divided in such a way that the life of Christ on the earth is remembered and lived by His own whom He loved till the end (cf. Jn 13,1). Thus those participating in the Liturgy of the Church are given the grace to live with Christ His own life as God has given the wisdom to divide the Liturgical Calendar makes His whole life present here and now.
Though Christmas, the Birthday of the Lord, is an event which is remembered on a particular day, i.e., 25th of December, a whole season is named “Christmas Season” in the Liturgical Calendar. It begins with the Birthday of Jesus and ends with His Baptism. Christmas is the second most important solemnity after Easter which is also spread through a season. It is because that we must experience the overwhelming mystery of God sharing His very life with us – His very Self with us. It is mystery not in the sense of ‘something unknown’. It is incomprehensible for us without divine assistance. It is a mystery in the sense that God reveals His very Self and gives us the grace to know Him and we, creatures – finite beings stand in awe as we find it too deep to comprehend fully. The more we know it, we realize that we know nothing and thus dip deep into this overwhelming Mystery called God.
The Purpose of Jesus’ Birth
God is love and He wanted to share His very Self with someone outside Himself and so God wanted to create humans who would be in His very image and likeness (cf. Gen 1,27-28), and who would be able to understand the will of God – to share His very Self with them – and thus would accept God’s love and in return would give themselves and did God. This “Other” whom God wanted to created had to have a dwelling and so God created the whole universe for the sake of human beings. Having created everything very beautiful God was very satisfied and God placed the first-parents into it. But the “Other” of God loved the creation rather than the Creator who desired that the humans would choose Him above the “beautiful” creation that tells of the glory of God, the Creator.
But God, being love, had His own plans and so decided to send His only Son to redeem the “Other” who had fallen away from God because of their very sin of choosing the creation above the Creator. God, the Son – the Logos / Word – was sent by the Father into the world with this mission. Thus the purpose of the birth of Jesus is human-salvation. This salvation not something we would get but reach. Salvation is the process of becoming the beloved children of God, the Father and the brothers and sisters of the God, the Son and the friends of God, the Holy Spirit. This process is possible for the fallen sinful humans to reach this goal by themselves and so the necessity of the Redeemer and Saviour.
God becoming Man – the Mystery of the Incarnation
Humanity and history form a genuine unity. Human unity does not consist of a sum of individuals and biographies put together by our thought processes. This reality of human unity affects both the common physical and biological basis of humans and their world, and the human reality of humans and their freedom and history. This human unity, going beyond material and biological functions, is important for the soteriological connection between Jesus and the whole of humanity. Through his incarnation Jesus, thus, enters into communion with the single race of humanity, and not merely into the Jewish race of his time alone. Therefore we can say that we who are living around two thousand years after Him too are part of that same humanity that the Son of God lived and still is part of.
Was Jesus truly man? Is He still man? To answer these questions we must understand the correct meaning of incarnation and its difference from the Hindu concept of avatar. Incarnation or incarnatio comes the Greek word sarkosis meaning enfleshment, indicates the Christian mystery which affirms that the Word of God has assumed a human nature into personal union. The biblical (Semitic) origins of the term indicate that we should understand flesh as designating man rather than a component of man, implicit in the Greek terms for flesh or body. Incarnation is at the centre of the Christian faith and life because had the Word not become truly man, we are not redeemed from our sinfulness.
Avatar is an appearance of being someone which is not truly the nature of that particular individual. In Hindu belief, we find Vishnu taking many avatars. One of the striking differences is that none of them die! But that is not the case with the Incarnation of the Son of God. He became so human that even now He is man and so it is right to call the Son God-man. We would discuss about this little later.
The Word, the divine Person assumed the human nature. A person is an individual subsisting being, regarded as the ultimate centre of activity, attribution, and responsibility. Modern psychology sees person as performer but for classical theology personality is the source of the distinctiveness of someone. Assumption means the act of taking to oneself. Here it means that the Word taking the human nature to himself. Through the act of assumption, human nature was conjoined to the divine person in such a way that the divine Person subsists in it. This union of human nature with the divine Person in incarnation is greater and superior to the union of body and soul in human being. In Christ human nature is so assumed as to belong to the Person of the Son. Son assumed the whole of human nature – body, soul, and mind. God desires salvation for the entire person, without leaving out anything pertaining to human being. Therefore Word assumed both body and a rational soul – putting together soul and mind – ‘for what cannot be assumed cannot be healed.’
Incarnation in no way diminishes divine dignity. It was the result of his unconditional love for us. It shows his willingness to come nearer to us and it helps us to go closer to Him and to know Him better and thus respond better. The Logos of God truly became man and not merely appeared so. Christ is not the form in which God appears but he is fully man and fully God. It is important to remember that the development of most of the dogmas and doctrines is the gift of heresies which provided the Church with all possible angles of comprehending a certain mystery. The present understanding of the mystery of the incarnation is the fruit of the challenges from heresies like, docetism, Apollinarism, monophysitism, and monotheletism.
One of Us but Without Sin
The Son of God became man in such a way that He was like any one of us but without sin. The Letter to the Hebrews says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested (tempted) as we are, yet without sin” (4,15). But St. Paul would say that He was part and parcel of the sinful humanity. He says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin…” (2 Cor 5,21). This is how the prophecy of prophet Isaiah would be fulfilled as he says, “… and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53,6).
We can make a comparison among Adam, the whole of sinful humankind because of the original sin and Jesus. Adam’s personal sin became the original sin of which every human being is born part, though it is not the personal sin of all. Therefore the children of Adam are also sinful having partnership with the sin of Adam. But Jesus, though sinless, took upon himself the sin of the whole world. That is why St. John presents Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (cf. 1,29).
He was like us in every way. Why? God could have saved us even without sending His only Son as a man! Definitely! But why did He not do so? That is a mystery, a mystery of love! About this mystery John says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (3,16). Therefore it must be kept in mind that God became man not due to the human sinfulness rather because of divine love for His “Other”. Jesus was fully human: he was born, we grew up like anyone of us, he worked as a carpenter, he felt hungry, thirsty, angry, rejected, dejected, depressed, tempted and tasted death which is a distinctive factor that differentiates Incarnation from avatar.
He was born one of us but the nature of conception is different. Jesus had two births: the one eternal and the other temporal. In His eternal birth He was born of the Father without a mother and in the temporal birth of a mother without a father. He is different from us in the sense that he was and definitely is human but not a human person. He is and was a divine Person who assumed the human nature. (To understand what I am saying, please see above where I have explained about the meaning of person and assumption).
He was born of the ever Virgin Mary who was born without sin. This is commonly called Immaculate Conception, a feast celebrated in the Catholic Church on 8th of December. This is essential not for Mary but for Jesus to be born without sin. If not He too would be part of the original sin. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1,20); “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Lk 1,35).
But as I mentioned above, God sent His only Son for the salvation of the humanity and the salvation is a relationship which is developed over a period of time. The relationship between Jesus, the Son of God and the whole of humankind is fraternal – we are His very brothers and sisters. It was because that the Father wanted to have many children and thus made His natural Son to be the firstborn of all His adopted children. St. Paul writes of this in his Letter to the Romans, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family (among many brothers and sisters)” (8,29). For this very reason Jesus became human because all the family members must share the same flesh and blood. We call one our brother or sister, in a strict sense, only those born of the same father and mother. About this necessity the Letter to the Hebrews reveals something very important as it says, “It was fitting that God, for whom and though whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters…. Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood he himself likewise shared the same things” (2,10-11 & 14a).
How do we share the flesh and blood of the Father? By sharing our flesh and blood, Jesus, the Son of God gave us the grace to share the flesh and blood of the Heavenly Father of which He feeds us in every Eucharistic celebration. That is the very reason He said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…” and he compares this abiding with him with his abiding with the Father as he says, “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me” (Jn 6,53 & 57).
Christmas as the Celebration of the Birthday of our Eldest Brother
There is a big dilemma about the relationship of Jesus with us: is He our Father or Brother? Most mistake Him for the Father! If so, we must begin to pray the Our Father as “Our Grandfather”! Is it not? Because Jesus addressed the Heavenly Father and toughed his disciples to call Him Father. If the Father is one and the same what should be the nature of the relationship of those calling Him Father, if not brotherly and sisterly?
Jesus is the only natural Son of the Father; it means that being/becoming the children of the Father is only a sharing in the sonship of Jesus Christ. By nature, human beings are slaves in the household of God and it is this natural Son who redeems us – shares his sonship with us by freeing us from the slavery as Jn 8,36 reads, “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Only the Son imparts his sonship and freedom to the slaves, for he is the only one who has in His own being this condition of sonship. Paul complements this good news of Jesus saying, “So you are no longer a slave but a child” (Gal 4,7a). Is there no difference between the sonship of Jesus and divine sonship of humankind? There is, the Word is the natural son of the Father, whereas divine sonship of human beings is only a free gift of God. In this process of adoption, the interior realm of the individual is changed like the natural Son of God (cf. Heb 4,12-13).
Christ is the only-begotten (cf. Heb 1,6; Jn 3,16). This only-begotten becomes the first-born of the whole creation through the incarnation (cf. Heb 1,6; Col 1,15) – the first-born among many brothers and sisters (cf. Rom 8,19-29), the first to return from the dead (cf. Col 1,18). Union and resemblance with Jesus is the basis for the participation in the sonship of Jesus –in which Jesus himself stands to the Father. Ultimately this is the goal of incarnation (cf. Eph 1,4-6). God makes us his adopted sons and daughters and leads us to eternal life. Salvation is becoming sharers in the Son’s divine nature through the Spirit of adoption and entering into an intimate shared life with the Most Holy Trinity.
It is in Christ that we become children of God. “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (Gal 3,26). How? It is because by faith one is incorporated into Christ. Baptism is an expression of faith, through which one participates in the Paschal mysteries of Christ – his passion, death, and resurrection by which one is clothed oneself with Christ as Paul says, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3,27). Baptism is incorporation or grafting into Christ. He joins people to himself so that they can receive the benefits of what he did. Through the grace of baptism, the Father makes us members of His family, as we pray in the Holy Mass, “Hear us, almighty God, and, as you have bestowed on your family the perfect grace of Baptism, so prepare their hearts for the reward of eternal happiness.” (Prayer after communion, Tuesday in the Easter Octave, The Roman Missal, 371). This is what the Vatican II has to say of our relationship with the Father and Jesus, saying, the baptized “children of God and brothers of Christ” (Lumen Gentium, n. 37).
The Father has caused us to be reborn to His life by adopting us as His children in his only Son. He adopts us by baptism by incorporating us into the Body of His Son and through the anointing of his Spirit who flows from the Head to the members, He makes us other “Christs” (CCC, n. 2782). This is what we celebrate in the Holy Mass, when we pray, “… that he might make us sharers in his divinity” (Preface II of the Ascension of the Lord, The Roman Missal, 546). Thus as Ambrose says, “… From being a wicked servant you have become a good son … Then raise your eyes to the Father … But do not claim any privilege …” All the proclaimers in the Bible begin their mission with the call to conversion/repentance, placing God above all and to believe in the good news that God loves us (cf. Mk 1,15). But Christian life demands a continual conversion and new life, thus developing good dispositions: first, the desire to become like God, by cooperating with His grace; second, a humble and trusting heart that enables us to become like children (CCC, n. 2784-2785).
Having realized our relationship with Jesus, we are ready to celebrate the Birthday of Our Eldest Brother! What must we do worthy of this celebration? I would suggest the following points:
Have Him in our Celebrations
First of all we must have the Birthday Baby, i.e., Jesus, in our families. Therefore we must first examine ourselves whether or not He is present in our families, communities and parishes where we gather together to celebrate His Birthday. He is not dead but alive with us. He is more alive than we are! His name is Immanuel – God with us! He promised that He would be with them till the end of age (cf. Mt 28,20). It is a conditional promise! What is the condition for his presence? We presents it in the gospel according to Matthew itself, saying, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (18,20). Let us not keep Him knocking at the door of our families when we are gathered together to celebrate His Birthday with lot of noise, if not He would be standing outside knocking with great pain and sorrow (cf. Rev 3,20)! Would we want the Birthday Baby be so while we fool ourselves that we are celebrating His Birthday? Let Him in, into our hearts, families, communities, parishes, dioceses, nations and in the universe as a whole.
When birthday comes, what comes to our mind first and foremost is gifts! Both the birthday babies and their near and dear ones think of gifts worthy of the birthday baby. Gifts symbolises the kind of relationship one has with the celebrant! If so, what kind of gifts can we give to the Son of God, King of the universe, so rich, the Creator, the master? What can we give Him? What gifts are worthy of Him? But the same rich King is shivering without enough clothes to keep himself warm, is hungry, naked, dying…………….! How? He does so in and through His brothers and sisters! For He said, “Truly I tell, you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family (brothers and sisters), you did it to me” (Mt 25,40).
The most fitting gift we can give to the Baby at Bethlehem is accepting Him as our Redeemer, as our own Eldest Brother sent by the Heavenly Father! What greater gift does an infant expects from its family members, from its near and dear ones? Let us first acknowledge Him to be sent by the Father as the expression of His unconditional love for us.
What kind of celebrations do the Babe expects from us? We have all prepared lots of sweets, bought new clothes, whitewashed our houses, men are planning for a late-night party with liquor. The list is unending! But have we considered the desire and wish of the Child at the manger? Is this the kind of celebration that He wants from us? He chose to be born in a manger, amidst animals, lived without a house of His own, and was buried in a grave not His own! Let us go and ask Him about the kind of celebration He wants from us? We can get the knowledge of it from the Scripture. Do our celebrations promote life, life in it fullness which He came to give (cf. Jn 10,10)? Is He happy with the kind of celebrations we have? Are we truly happy to celebrate His Birthday? What messages does He bring us? What gifts dos he bring us from Our Heavenly Father? Can there be a greater gift than the Son of God, our Eldest Brother? What else are we expecting from the Birthday Baby?
May our celebrations promote life, reflect His abiding presence with us, tell our other brothers and sisters about the Good News that the Eldest Brother of the whole of humanity brought at His arrival among us! May we become Christ-bearers! That is the meaning of being truly Christian! What greater gift can we, the younger brothers and sisters of Jesus, give Him on His Birthday, than living worthy of Him as His beloved brothers and sisters – His own Household.
May the Child at the manger bless us all with all the graces essential to live worthy of the Triune God during the whole of New Year 2013!