“The Son of God became man so that we might become God.” —St. Athanasius, De Incarnatione, 54, 3: PG 25, 192
“Recognize, O Christian, your dignity and, enabled to share in the divine nature, do not wish to relapse into your former base condition with unworthy conduct.” —St. Leo the Great, Sermon #1 on Christmas
“May the offering of today’s feast be acceptable to you, Lord, so that by the bounty of your grace and through this holy exchange of gifts we may be found in the likeness of him in whom our human substance has been made one with you. Who with you lives and reigns in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, world without end. Amen.”—From the liturgy of Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve
“If we are still anticipating at the Vigil Mass, in the Christmas Mass during the Night (or Midnight Mass) the Church now is exultant in the realization of the mystery of God’s presence among us in the birth of the Christ child. Now, as the prayer over the gifts proclaims, our human nature is united to the divine, in the holy exchange (commercium divinum) through which we may be found in the likeness of Christ. At the Mass of Midnight, we can bask, as it were, in the splendor of the true light of Christ. The Church, bathed in the radiance of the Christ child, steps back and, like the angels and shepherds of the Gospel for that Mass, gazes in wonder and admiration. The ancient promise has been fulfilled, and we who celebrate this liturgy, as the opening prayer says, are granted the privilege of knowing “the mysteries of his light on earth.”—By Fr. Robert Johansen, priest of the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan. He earned an M.A. in Classics from Catholic University of America and completed studies for the Licentiate in Sacred Theology at the Liturgical Institute
“God becomes so close that it is possible to see and touch him. The Church contemplates this ineffable mystery and the liturgical texts of this Season are steeped in wonder and joy; all Christmas carols express this joy. Christmas is the point at which Heaven and earth converge…—Talk on Christmas by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, January 4, 2012, at his General Audience in Rome, link
The celebration of Christmas is returning, and once again we celebrate by hymns and songs and conversation with loved ones who have come home after long absences, and by the exchange of gifts.
The exchange of gifts… this is the heart of our celebration, and yet sometimes we forget what the true gift is, what the true exchange is.
At the heart of the meaning of Christmas is the “holy exchange” spoken of by the Church Fathers.
That “exchange” is an exchange of the divine for the human.
In this “exchange,” what is mortal and sinful and existing in time is exchanged for what is immortal and holy and existing in eternity.
And this Christmas exchange can occur on each day of the year.
One of the Cappadocian fathers of the early Church, St. Gregory of Nyssa, once wrote: “What came about in bodily form in Mary, the fullness of the godhead shining through Christ in the Blessed Virgin, takes place in a similar way in every soul that has been made pure. The Lord does not come in bodily form, for ‘we no longer know Christ according to the flesh’, but He dwells in us spiritually and the Father takes up His abode with Him, the Gospel tells us. In this way the child Jesus is born in each of us.”
In the original languages, the words in Holy Scripture which are translated into the English word “holy” mean set apart or consecrated to God’s service, given over to God and His worship.
We are called to be set apart for the living God, to be holy.
This happens through conversion, or “metanoia,” which, in Greek, means “to change.”
We are called to say “Yes” to a relationship with Him.
That call is not a one time event but a continual invitation.
Mary is a model, a pattern, of this holiness to which we are all called through our Baptism into Christ and His Body, the Church.
The Lord has invited each of us into an intimate, personal, exchange of love with Him.
Mary is a model to imitate. She walked in holiness of life and points us along the path to Her Son.
Each of us can say “Yes” to God, right now, wherever we are.
Each of us can respond with our entire being, with a “Fiat” of surrendered love as Mary did.
A Christmas Talk by Emeritus Pope Benedict in 2012
In 2012, Emeritus Pope Benedict eloquently explained the meaing of this “holy exchange.”
“Christmas is the point at which Heaven and earth converge,” Benedict said at his first General Audience that year, on Wednesday, January 4, in the Paul VI Audience Hall.
The following is a translation of the Pope’s Catechesis, which was given in Italian.
The Wondrous Exchange Between Divinity and Humanity
By Pope Benedict XVI
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I am glad to welcome you at this first General Audience of the New Year and I cordially offer all of you and your families my affectionate greetings. May God, who with the birth of Christ his Son imbued the whole world with joy, provide for deeds and days in his peace.
We are in the liturgical Time of Christmas, which begins on the evening of 24 December with the Vigil Mass and ends with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.
The span of days is short but full of celebrations and mysteries and it all takes place around the two great Solemnities of the Lord: Christmas and Epiphany.
The very names of these two feasts indicate their respective traits.
Christmas celebrates the historical event of Jesus’ Birth in Bethlehem.
Epiphany, which came into being as a feast in the East, indicates an event but above all one aspect of the Mystery: God reveals himself in the human nature of Christ and this is the meaning of the Greek verb epiphaino, to make oneself visible. In this perspective, Epiphany calls to mind a whole series of events focused on the manifestation of the Lord: in a special way the adoration of the Magi, who recognize Jesus as the Messiah awaited, but also the Baptism in the River Jordan with its theophany — the voice of God from on high — and the miracle of the Wedding at Cana, as the first “sign” worked by Christ.
A very beautiful Antiphon of the Liturgy of the Hours unifies these three events around the theme of the wedding of Christ with his Church: “Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan’s waters; the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding; and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine (Antiphon of Lauds).
We can say, as it were, that on the Feast of Christmas God’s hiddenness is emphasized in the humility of the human condition, in the Child of Bethlehem, whereas in the Epiphany his manifestation is highlighted, the appearance of God through this same humanity.
In this Catechesis I would like to recall briefly several themes proper to the celebration if the Nativity of the Lord so that each one of us may quench our thirst at the inexhaustible source of this Mystery and bear fruits of life.
First of all, let us ask ourselves: what is the first reaction to this extraordinary action of God who makes himself a child, who makes himself man?
I think that the first reaction can only be one of joy.
“Let us all rejoice in the Lord, for our Saviour is born to the world.”
The Mass on Christmas Eve begins with these words and we have just heard what the Angel said to the Shepherds: “Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy” (Lk 2:10).
This is the theme with which the Gospel begins and also with which it concludes, since the Risen Jesus was to reprimand the Apostles precisely for being sad (cf. Lk 24:17) — incompatible with the fact that he remains Man for eternity. However, let us take another step; what gives rise to this joy?
I would say that it is born from the heart’s wonder at seeing that God is close to us, that God thinks of us, that God acts in history; it is therefore a joy born from contemplating the face of that humble Child because we know that he is the Face of God present for ever in humanity, for us and with us. Christmas is joy because at last we see and are certain that God is the goodness, life, and truth of human beings and that he stoops down to them to lift them up to him.
God becomes so close that it is possible to see and touch him. The Church contemplates this ineffable mystery and the liturgical texts of this Season are steeped in wonder and joy; all Christmas carols express this joy.
Christmas is the point at which Heaven and earth converge and the various expressions we hear in these days stress the greatness of what has came about: the remote — God who seems very remote — has become close, “The inaccessible wanted to be accessible, he who exists before time began to be in time, the Lord of the universe, veiling the greatness of his majesty, took the nature of a servant” St Leo the Great exclaimed (Sermon 2 on the Nativity of the Lord, 2.1).
In that Child who needed everything as all children do, what God is — eternity, strength, holiness, life and joy — is united with what we are: weakness, sin, suffering and death.
The theology and spirituality of Christmas use a phrase to describe this event, they speak of an admirabile commercium, that is, a wondrous exchange between divinity and humanity. St Athanasius of Alexandria says: “The Son of God became man so that we might become God” (De Incarnatione, 54, 3: PG 25, 192), but it is above all with St Leo the Great and his famous sermons on Christmas that this reality became the object of profound meditation.
Indeed, the Holy Pontiff says: “so that we may have recourse to that unutterable condescension of the Divine Mercy, whereby the Creator of men deigned to become man, and be found ourselves in his nature whom we worship in ours” (Sermon 8 on the Nativity: CCL 138, 139).
The first act of this wondrous exchange is brought about in Christ’s humanity itself.
The Word took on our humanity and in exchange human nature was raised to the divine dignity.
The second act of the exchange consists in our real and intimate participation in the divine nature of the Word.
St Paul says: “When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5).
Christmas, therefore, is the feast on which God made himself so close to man as to share in his own act of being born, to reveal to him his deepest dignity: that of being a son of God.
Thus the dream of humanity beginning in Paradise — we would like to be like God — is brought about in an unexpected manner not because of the greatness of man who cannot make himself God but because of the humility of God who comes down and thus enters us in his humility and raises us to the true greatness of his being.
The Second Vatican Council said in this regard: “In reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 22); otherwise it remains an enigma: what does this creature man mean?
It is only by seeing that God is with us that we can see light for our being, that we can be content to be human beings and live with trust and joy.
And where does this wondrous exchange become truly present, so that it may work in our life and make it an existence of true children of God?
It becomes tangible in the Eucharist.
When we participate in Holy Mass we present what is ours to God: the bread and the wine, fruit of the earth, so that he will accept them and transform them, giving us himself and making himself our food, in order that in receiving his Body and his Blood we may participate in his divine life.
I would like to reflect, lastly, on another aspect of Christmas. When the Angel of the Lord appeared to the Shepherds on the night of Jesus’ Birth, Luke the Evangelist notes that “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Lk 2:9); and the Prologue of John’s Gospel speaks of the Word made flesh as of the true light coming into the world, the light that can enlighten every man (cf. Jn 1:9). The Christmas liturgy is bathed in light.
Christ’s coming dispels the shadows of the world, fills the Holy Night with a heavenly brightness and reflects the splendour of God the Father on human faces.
Enveloped in Christ’s light, we are insistently invited by the Christmas Liturgy to let our minds and hearts be illuminated by God who has shown the radiance of his Face.
The First Preface of Christmas proclaims: “In the wonder of the incarnation your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith a new and radiant vision of your glory. In him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.”
In the Mystery of the Incarnation God, having spoken and intervened in history through messengers and with signs, “appeared”, emerged from his inaccessible light to illuminate the world.
On the Solemnity of the Epiphany, 6 January, which we shall be celebrating in a few days, the Church presents a very important passage from the Prophet Isaiah: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Is 60:1-3)
It is an invitation addressed to the Church, the community of Christ, but also to each one of us, to acquire an ever livelier awareness of the mission and of the responsibility to the world in witnessing to and bringing the new light of the Gospel.
At the beginning of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, we find the following words: “Christ is the light of humanity; and it is, accordingly, the heartfelt desire of this sacred Council, being gathered together in the Holy Spirit, that, by proclaiming his Gospel to every creature, it may bring to all men that light of Christ which shines out visibly from the Church” (n. 1).
The Gospel is not a light to hide but to set upon a stand.
The Church is not light but receives the light of Christ, receives it to be illuminated by it and to radiate it in its full splendour.
And this must also happen in our personal life.
Once again, I cite St Leo the Great who said on Holy Night: “Recognize, O Christian, your dignity and, enabled to share in the divine nature, do not wish to relapse into your former base condition with unworthy conduct. Remember who is your Head and to which Body you belong. Remember that you were snatched from the power of darkness and transferred into the light and into the Kingdom of God” (Sermon 1 on the Nativity, 3, 2: CCL 138, 88).
Dear brothers and sisters,
Christmas means pausing to contemplate that Child, the Mystery of God who became man in humility and poverty, but above all it means welcoming within us once again that Child who is Christ the Lord, to live of his own life, to ensure that his sentiments, his thoughts and his actions are our sentiments, our thoughts and our actions.
Celebrating Christmas is therefore showing the joy, the newness and the light that this Birth brought to the whole of our life, so that we too may be heralds of joy, of true newness, of the light of God to others.
Once again I wish you all a Christmas Season blessed by God’s presence!
(Taken from: L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English, 11 January 2012, page 14)
What is the glory of God?
“The glory of God is man alive; but the life of man is the vision of God.” —St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in the territory of France, in his great work Against All Heresies, written c. 180 A.D.