Christmas, providence and salvation. How do you fit in? As we look upon the beautiful Christ Child, this Star of burning, Trinitarian Love laid in a manger of simple poverty, there is no avoiding the shadow of the cross that is cast upon his life.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
30 December 2010
The Star has risen in the East: ineffable light shines forth from the cave nestled in Bethlehem. In radiant splendor, the Christ Child who long ago came into the world for our salvation yet again turns his eyes of mercy upon us, transforming us beyond ourselves, infusing our hearts and lives with his own sublime and consoling warmth. As we plumb the boundless depths of the Nativity, we find there exposed in brilliant majesty the incomparable love of God Incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who willed to set aside for a time his great power and magnificence in order that he may become a humble Child of human flesh, grow into a Man, and pour out his salvific blood and water from the cross in the ultimate act of selflessness. We find there, also, the supreme and inexpressible gifts of mercy, life and hope which are contained in this wondrous Child who is the origin and source of our own life—past, present, and future.
As we look upon this beautiful Child, this Star of burning, Trinitarian Love laid in a manger of simple poverty, there is no avoiding the shadow of the cross that is cast upon his life. It was this shadow of which Simeon, the righteous and devout man in the temple, spoke these mysterious words to the Virgin Mary: “and you yourself a sword will pierce” (Lk 2:35). This shadow is cast also upon all those who love the Child, for their lives are bound up in the mystery of Christ’s own life. Consequently, in a sense, Simeon’s words apply to every Christian who is wounded by the divine sword of Love.
We often forget that our own lives joined to the mystery of Christ’s life are, too, a journey in the way of the cross. It is therefore easy—though we understand that our God wills only our good—to give in to the nearly constant temptation which seeks to draw us into distrust of divine Providence. This temptation encourages us to separate those unfortunate, tense or even frightening circumstances we encounter in life from God’s plan for us, as if one cannot possibly be connected to the other. It is helpful to refer to St. Paul’s words: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).
Providence And Happiness
It was St. Augustine who observed that our hearts will not rest until they rest in God. We are “hardwired” for happiness, to live in and with God, immersed in his joy forever. Yet we often fail to understand how to access something of this joy even now, in the midst of what can be a painful existence. Consequently, we set off on an unceasing quest to distance ourselves from every anxiety and thus begin to live in such a way as to constantly seek change for “the better.” There is a self-inflicted stress in such a life; a nervous movement toward some savored goal which, once attained, turns out empty. It’s like chasing a mirage. The image presents itself in what seems such clarity and beauty. Yet it can never be reached. It is an illusion. Suddenly we are struck in the face by the emptiness in life; in distress, we may even feel abandoned.
Further, when what we perceive as a terrible circumstance in life occurs, we find it difficult to imagine how anything good could come of it. We tend to fixate on the arrival of some suffering, closing our eyes to what lies beyond. We self-limit our sight, so to speak: we have an obdurate tendency to evaluate based only on our senses: we see only what reaches the eyes; we hear only what sounds in the ears; we feel only what can be physically touched. Yet to gaze upon the Christ Child is to look far beyond the surface; it is to possess eyes of eternal sight, to hear with hearts of warm love and sense with the profound depth of the human, spiritual soul.
“Let nothing disturb thee; nothing frighten thee. All things are passing. God never changes. Patience obtains all things. Nothing is wanting to him who possesses God. God alone suffices”—St. Teresa of Avila
If we truly have faith it should not be so difficult to trust God. Understand that what things appear to be on the surface are just that: surface appearances. Beyond our short-sighted vision stands the omnipotent God who is infinitely capable, and who is limitless Love: a personal God who is Creator, who is Father of all, who is tender and compassionate and dependable without fail. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that many see little but randomness in life and chaos in Providence. Yet it is Providence which is drawing us toward our final state: the fullness of human existence in God’s eternal plan of love. It is Providence that merges the suffering of the cross, which every Christian must endure, with tears of joy, unfolding, in the end, a divine work of everlasting beauty that is simply, for the moment, beyond our sight. It is in childlike abandonment to Providence, in total trust of the Christ Child’s goodness, that we find true and lasting happiness in the midst of the human condition.
Providence And Human Suffering
There is hardly a more terrifying example of suffering than Auschwitz. In exchange of his life for another, St. Maximilian Kolbe was there subjected to a torturous death. Yet we can be certain that he is now thrilled over what some might see as only a tragic end to his life. With wisdom from heaven, St. Maximilian illuminates the relationship between happiness and the misunderstood circumstances of life: “We are sometimes depressed because we do not see the relationship that exists between our happiness and these circumstances which sadden us; on the contrary, because of our minds’ limitation, we are unable to grasp everything. By having faith in God, even without understanding things directly, we can give him great glory, because we acknowledge his wisdom, his goodness, and his power.”
While the suffering at Auschwitz was horrifically evil, the sadness St. Maximilian encountered there was temporary. Further, by embracing the cross which was presented to him, he transformed suffering into a reality of joy. Is that not what Christ did? By all outward appearances, our Lord’s suffering on the cross was nothing but agony and defeat. Yet in its true dimension, it was a success of infinite greatness.
As the frightening realities of the Holocaust raged around St. Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein), she wrote of the cross which had been placed upon the Jewish people: “Most of them will not understand it. But those who do understand must accept it willingly in the name of all. I wanted to do that. . . . But in what the bearing of the cross was to consist I did not yet know” (Edith Stein, The Science of the Cross, vol. VI [ICS Publications: Washington, DC] xvii) One week after arriving at Auschwitz, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and her sister Rosa were sent to the gas chambers.
As yet another example, let us consider St. Maria Gorretti: This dear, pure twelve-year-old child was brutally and repeatedly stabbed due to her refusal to let a young man have his way with her. She was hospitalized, but died the next day after publicly forgiving Alessandro. One can only imagine the profound, heart-rending sorrow her mother felt over Maria’s violently inflicted injuries and tragic death. The story does not end there, however.
About eight years into his thirty-year prison term, Alessandro experienced a disturbing dream in which he saw Maria picking flowers for him. However, the moment he touched them they burned away. As a result, Alessandro soon converted to Christianity, became a model prisoner, and had his sentence reduced. After twenty-seven years of incarceration, his first act of freedom was to visit Maria’s mother and beg her forgiveness. On Christmas, 1937, surrounded by one quarter-million brothers and sisters, Alessandro and Maria’s mother received the body, blood, soul and divinity of the Risen Lord together in St. Peter’s Square.
Pope Pius XII observed that St. Maria is a “martyr for purity.” Could her life have turned out any more perfect? Is she the least bit sad over the evil that befell her during her earthly life? Imagine St. Maria in heaven picking those flowers for her former attacker—a man she truly loves in the fullness and completeness of her Christian life with God. Those flowers may have been many different colors, but each one’s fragrance was Trust.
Just days ago we celebrated the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Furious that he had been deceived by the Magi, Herod “ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under . . . Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more’” (see Mt. 2:16-18).
St. Quodvultdeus tells us in a sermon:
The [Holy Innocents] die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The [Christ] child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself. See the kind of kingdom that is his, coming as he did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the Savior already working salvation. . . . How great a gift of grace is here! To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory. (excerpt from Sermo 2 de Symbolo: PL 40, 655)
The mothers of the Holy Innocents now understand the beautiful goodness the Christ Child brought forth from the evils of their children’s death. Their tragic cries have now turned to joy; what once seemed endless unhappiness was actually a pivotal point in the lives of the Innocents. Christ wiped every tear from their eyes.
As the supreme model of Christian trust, we turn to the Sweet Virgin who carried the Child in her womb and nursed him at her breast. We can only speculate as to how much she did or did not understand the mysterious and wondrous life she was to lead as the Mother of God. Of this we are certain: Mary understood suffering, trust, and Providence. From that moment the angel Gabriel announced: “Hail, full of grace” (Lk. 1:28), to that eve in the cave at Bethlehem, to that heart-piercing sword of agony she experienced at the foot of the cross, the Virgin Mary was and is the exemplar of trust. Rather than attempt to remove herself from what God presented to her, she uttered profound words of pure and complete union with Providence: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38).
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.