Accepting the identity of Christ is to accept the true meaning of Christmas
By Tim Irwin
Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God / Jan. 1
Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 67:2-3,5,6,8; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21
Mysteries constitute the holy faith as anyone who prays the rosary can readily attest. The Church singles out for special devotion two mysteries that express our Catholic understanding of the identity and mission of Jesus Christ. Easter celebrates the Paschal Mystery — the mystery of Jesus’s mission to redeem us. Christmas celebrates the incarnation and birth of Jesus — the mystery of Jesus’ identity that makes it possible for him to redeem us.
As many as 18 feast days were once graced with an octave, but over the centuries the number has dropped to just Easter and Christmas. An octave or eight seems to be both mystical and practical. Eight symbolizes resurrection and new beginnings and it falls on the same day of the week as the initial celebration.
The idea of an octave could be described as just in case you missed the point last Sunday, we’re going to run it by you one more time this Sunday. In the past, that meant simply repeating the readings on the following Sunday or the eighth day. These days the readings for the octave introduce some new passages, but the idea remains the same.
TRUE GOD, TRUE MAN
The first reading from the Book of Numbers recounts the Lord revealing to Moses instructions in the appropriate manner of invocation for Aaron and his sons, who served as the priests of the Children of Israel and guardians of the Ark of the Covenant. The passage concludes with the Lord saying, “So shall they invoke my name upon the Israelites, and I will bless them.” The responsorial psalm continues the theme of blessing: “May God bless us in his mercy.”
The second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians explains just exactly how God has chosen to bless us with his mercy: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman. . . .” Statements such as this triggered centuries-long debate within early Christianity. What does it mean to say that Jesus is the Son of God born of woman?
Some thought it meant he was a special person, but not divine. Others argued that he was divine, but only appeared to be human. Time and time again the Church reaffirmed the true identity of Jesus. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “He became truly man while remaining truly God. Jesus Christ is true God and true man.”
The Gospel for the Octave of Christmas from Luke starts one verse later and extends one verse further than Luke’s Gospel for the Mass at Dawn on Christmas morning. The shepherds visit the newborn Savior and have amazing things to say about it. The added verse says, “When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” Another example of the number eight signaling a new beginning.
Celebrating the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God makes perfect sense on the Octave of Christmas because if Jesus is who the Church has proclaimed him to be for the last 2,000 years, then Mary is truly the Mother of God. The true identity of Jesus is not just a matter for the kind of fussing and feuding that occupied early Christians for half a millennium. The Church stands dogmatically firm because it makes all the difference in our redemption.
So, just in case we missed it last Sunday, here again is the true meaning of Christmas. Because of his divinity, Jesus saves us; because of his humanity, Jesus saves us. The identity of Jesus, true God and true man, is what makes it possible for him to redeem us and that is the true meaning of Christmas.
Tim Irwin teaches at Peoria Notre Dame High School, where he chairs the Theology Department. He is a member of St. Mark Parish in Peoria.