If Christ did not come to me...
Milena Kindziuk talks to Fr Prof. Jozef Naumowicz, specialist in early Christianity, lecturer at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw.
Milena Kindziuk: - How can we understand the great mystery, which we celebrate on 25th December?
Fr Jozef Naumowicz: - We do not want to understand it with our minds but first of all we want to stand before it and adore it, contemplate it, reflect on it, admire it, we simply want to be delighted with the mystery and love it more.
- Does one need faith to experience Christmas?
- Certainly. Although what we often lack is not faith but admiration and love. It is not without reason that we hear in the liturgy for these days: 'Come, let us adore him'. Admiration helps us to get to know something better, leads to a meeting, changes into dedication and praise. This is knowing by love.
- Is it similar to the situation when we admire beauty?
- Undoubtedly, beauty has always fascinated us. But this beauty is not only artistic works in music, painting, literature, architecture, etc. We take delight in the beauty of holy people, in the charm of the truth, peace and clear conscience. Christmas means that man can hear, see and touch the real incarnation of God's beauty.
- And surely this beauty is Christ himself...
- Yes. Augustine wrote that Christ was beautiful in his eternal existence and also when he was in his Mother's womb for nine months, and then later as a child in the embrace of Mary and Joseph. But he was also beautiful when he was scourged, when he suffered, hung on the cross and was laid in the tomb.
- Does not the Bible, however, use the words, 'He had no beauty, no majesty to catch our eyes'?
- When Augustine spoke about the beauty he did not mean the external, physical part, that is the appearance, but first of all, he meant inner beauty. And beauty means harmony, fulfilment of plans and announcements. So when Christ was born as a man and when he suffered, the great plan of salvation was fulfilled, the plan prophesied by the prophets, the words about Emmanuel - King of peace, as well as the words in Isaiah's songs of the suffering Servant of Yahweh. Therefore, the words 'the most beautiful of the sons of man' refer to Christ. Divine and human beauty is in him. The whole history of the world finds sense and harmony in him.
- In the known [Polish] carol 'In the silence of the night' people sang once: 'We have awaited him for four thousand years'. Why this number?
- When the carol was written, namely in the 18th century, people were convinced that the world was created about four thousand years before Christ. That were the calculations in those times and people were truly fascinated with them. Moreover, the approximate number of years is shown by the so-called Jewish era from the creation of the world, which actually has been used until now and which we count from the date 3761 BC. Therefore, the Saviour was awaited from the creation, always, for all ages.
- At last, the long awaited holy night came. Why was it so extraordinary?
- Because that night, as the Gospel says, glory appeared, which meant radiant beauty. It was shining on the shepherds who were keeping their sheep. And it always lights the way for those 'who are walking in the dark'.
- And how did the early Christian writers describe the night?
- One of the most moving descriptions is found in the writing entitled 'The Infancy Gospel of James' (Protevangelium), ca. 2nd AD. It contains the following picture: When Jesus was born 'the pole of the heaven stood still, and the fowls of the heaven without motion. And behold there were sheep being driven, and they went not forward but stood still; and the shepherd lifted his hand to smite them with his staff, and his hand remained up. And I looked upon the stream of the river and saw the mouths of the kids upon the water and they drank not. And of a sudden all things moved onward in their course'. This motif of standing still is known in ancient and biblical literature as the forecast of God's presence. According to the Midrashim nature stood still only when Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai. Now nature stood still amazed when Jesus was born. And so we are to stop as if stand still, not to move before that great mystery and we are to feel God's presence.
- Where from do we get the nativity scene in the grotto or a manger since the Gospel did not mention it at all?
- In fact, there is no mention of the poor manger or grotto in the Gospels. But there are some reasons to present Jesus' coming to the world in that particular scenery. We can conclude from the Gospel that the newborn Christ was laid in a manger, so in the place where feedstuff for animals was put. Therefore, it could have been some shed, grotto in the rock or shelter cut in the face of some hill near Bethlehem.
- And hence the tradition that Jesus' birth has been placed in a grotto?
- Yes, since caves and grottos were often used as shelters. In the vicinity of Bethlehem we can still see living places that are partly cut in the limestone where animals and people take shelter, being only separated by a wall. There could have been a manger in such a grotto, which is depicted in the Gospel scene. But all of this has much deeper meaning.
- The dark grotto is a picture of the chasm that God comes to, bringing light. Thus it is already in his birth that Christ descends into the abyss of this world where mankind living in 'the shadow of death' is found and where people wait for the Saviour. This is especially emphasized in the icons of the Nativity, which depict Jesus' crib placed in a cleft where the light suddenly flares up. In their commentaries the Church Fathers also drew a picture of a dark cave, which was lit up with strange brightness. They reminded people that God came to seek mankind, that 'lost sheep' of the Gospel parable, and he reached 'the depths of the earth'. Therefore, the grotto has not only a literal meaning but also a symbolical one.
- At the same time the picture of the Bethlehem crib is warm, close, simply moving...
- However, when we speak about the birth of Jesus in a poor grotto, among animals and shepherds, we do not only mean sentimentalism or mawkish experience although this mood is to touch our emotions, too. However, first of all it is to remind us of how much God loved man and how much he humbled himself to come to people. It makes us aware that our Saviour came to the world in silence and humility, almost unnoticed, without extraordinary signs and external expressions of greatness. And in addition, he did not appear in the capital of the big Roman Empire but in the remote part of Palestine, in the town that very few people heard of. He was born in the periphery of the great world. God's love and humility are expressed in this: love that acts in a discreet, subtle and unimposing way and which is fragile like the Child; one can receive or reject it.
- What should we do to accept this love at Christmas?
- Origen repeated, 'What would be the meaning that Christ came to the world if he did not come to your soul?' What would be the sense of his birth if he were not born in me, if he did not come to me, did not move me, did not make me admire him? If he did not inspire love, good and peace in me. Angelus Silesius, Silesian Angel, repeated the same in a well-known couplet, which Adam Mickiewicz translated, 'You believe that God was born in the Bethlehem crib/But alas, if he was not born in you'.
- So the essence of this holiday is in the personal encounter with Christ?
- The Church Fathers spoke that in Bethlehem Christ came into the world in humility whereas at the end of times or at the moment of our death he will come in glory. Between this first and the second coming there is what St Bernard of Clairvaux called 'middle coming' (medius adventus). It is being done now, in the contemporary world, in our lives, between the Incarnation and the final Parousia. It is the spiritual coming of Christ, different than the one in Bethlehem, different than the one at the end of times. It is expressed in our experience of God when he comes to live through grace in our souls, which are prepared by cleansing. Thus we are to seek and discover God continuously. As St Jan Klimak said we were to seek him in our hearts through faith, in the Church through sacraments and in our close relatives through love.
- Thank you for the conversation.