St. Josemaría Escrivá, in an Advent sermon, said that the Christmas season is all about mercy. St. John Henry Newman, in his sermon “The Mystery of Godliness,” complements this meditation on mercy at the core of Christmas with a focus on grace, and its growth into glory. His sermon, likely preached sometime in the 1830s or 1840s on Christmas day, offers a hope-filled glimpse into the glorious mystery of grace that Christmas brings: by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, we can share in Christ’s divine nature by his human nature, becoming living members of his Holy Family, the New Paradise, the New Creation.
Newman calls us to read the biblical account of Christ’s birth as a sort of script, or blueprint, for how the Holy Spirit operates in our hearts and souls in a personal, unique way. He writes, “ … Our savior’s birth in the flesh is an earnest, and, as it were, beginning of our birth in the Spirit … a figure, promise, or pledge of our new birth.” The birth of our Lord is oriented to our own sanctification. To show this, Newman reminds us of two important truths of the faith: Christ is God, the eternal Son of the Father, and Christ came in the flesh, taking on a created human nature from the Virgin Mary, in humility and free of all sin.
This is the Mystery that all men can share in: Christ’s all-holy nature “has taken our nature,” and in that we are made one with him, drawn into his holy life. This rich theme is established in the text of Hebrews 2:11, which Newman draws from: “ … Both He that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause He is not ashamed to call them bretheren …” By Christ’s incarnate act, there is a profound unity between mankind and God, summed up in one word: holiness. This holiness, by God’s grace, is something that God and men share in common.
This “economy of grace,” or “mystery of godliness,” begins with our Lord’s holiness which He shares as God with the Father “from eternity.” And this same Lord who “created the worlds,” also “ … condescended to come down on earth from his heavenly throne, and to be born into His own world.” This new birth of God into our world is the beginning of a New Family, a New Paradise, a New Creation, marked by holiness. The Nativity scene which we set up and ponder in our homes and on our lawns throughout this season is a literal glimpse of heaven, of a new garden of Eden, of the new heavens and new earth. And it was only the beginning: it has grown into the Church wherein sinners are born to new life. Allowing that life to fully penetrate their persons, those who are regenerated also become saintly adopted sons and daughters who share in God’s glorious holiness. As St. Bernard of Clairvoux describes in his sermon “The Three Comings of Christ,” this coming of Christ is invisible, inward, and hidden, and will only be fully revealed when Christ comes again.
Further, the manner of Christ’s coming provides a model for his coming into our hearts. It was fitting to “the All-Holy” that He take on our nature while remaining free from sin. In other words, Christ came in a way that was truly humble, not drawing at all from the vanity and selfishness, the pomp and pride, of the sinful world. He, the “ … immaculate Lamb of God, and the all-prevailing priest… and the heir of an everlasting kingdom … ” did not accept the empty praise of the world, but came in quietness and purity to draw truly repentant sinners to himself. He sought those who wished to be “partakers of His holiness,” not takers of his glory for worldly ends. Christ’s birth presents a pattern of our own life in the Spirit: “ … He who is the first principle and pattern of all things, came to be the beginning and pattern of human kind, the firstborn of the whole creation… He, who is the Life from eternity, became the Life of a race dead in sin … ” He came to give us sanctified unity with God, since “ … he came as a benefactor, not as a guest.”
Christ came to share with us his holiness, to become what Fr. Thomas Dubay, in The Evidential Power of Beauty, calls a “moral miracle,” a “living icon of the beauty of sanctity,” being transformed in union with Christ into “the very divine image that we reflect.” Fr. Dubay says that saints “ … are the divinized glory of the Lord’s Church; and each of them is a splendid advertisement of the fact that he is still with her.” Newman calls us to look at the Nativity for our model of Spirit-filled sanctification, to come to the Sanctifier to be sanctified, humbly embracing the eternal life that the Giver of Life is offering us.
Each of us, in our own unique way, may thus become saints, become living members of the New and Holy Family, keepers of the New and Holy Paradise, and creatures in the New and Holy Creation. We become so by looking inward, by allowing Christ to make his Nativity in our hearts. As the hubub of the holidays increases, it is in the same measure essential for us to intentionally foster time for silence and prayer, reflecting on this reality.