THE DAWN FROM ON HIGH SHALL BREAK UPON US.  Not long after Zechariah pronounced these words in his canticle of praise, Saint Paul wrote to Titus, one of his close collaborators in spreading the Gospel, that THE GRACE OF GOD HAS APPEARED THAT SAVES ALL. (Titus 2:11) As we prepare to celebrate the Birth of Jesus we become very much aware that his appearance in the flesh is an altogether unique happening. In his person, eternity enters the world of time, for, born in the flesh he becomes subject to the laws of time, yet remains the eternal Word of the Father. His birth is the beginning of salvation made visible, being manifested in our world where time rules and influences each of us, hour by hour.

In the person of Jesus the favor of God toward our human race takes on human form and was seen by human eyes. Even so that grace made visible was recognized only by a few whose hearts and senses had been purified by their faith and hope in God's mercy and his fidelity to his promises. The appearance of grace in the person of the Word of God made flesh is the cause of the joy that continues to be felt and celebrated throughout the world at this Christmas Celebration. Grace had already been imparted by God prior to the birth of our Lord. But the favor of God shown to the Patriarchs and prophets, and to all of the just and holy people who had sought to please the Lord as they understood his will was given only in a more limited measure, and even that was bestowed in view of the future redemptive life and death of the divine Savior. The Mother of our Savior, Mary, had been prepared for her role of giving birth to the Redeemer in virtue of the grace he was to win for her by his willing sacrifice on the cross.

The precise meaning of "grace" in this text and in the New Testament in general is not spelled out in so many words. In general it refers to the entire gift of salvation bestowed freely on those who accept it in faith. The word for "grace" in Greek, charis, implies not only the benevolent disposition of the giver but also the grateful response of the recipient. In addition it suggests a state of beauty of an attractiveness appealing to our best aspiration; The person endowed with charis radiates a winsome spiritual beauty that attaches the human heart to its possessor in proportion as it is recognized and acknowledged.

Christ Jesus was the manifestation of that moral beauty that made him so appealing to those who themselves were touched by God's favor. Through the centuries, appearing to the eye of faith as a new-born infant the Lord has manifested this charm, so attaching in its effect on the soul. Thus the fullness of God's plan begins to unfold before our eyes in an inviting display of God's tender love. The vulnerability of the infant is an appeal to us to approach him with trust. God, who had established the Old Covenant in the fearful storm cloud at Mount Sinai, initiates the New Covenant in the figure of a child in need of loving care. His manner of appearance in the flesh is already a revelation that the way to return to him is to trust in his benevolence and to draw near to him with a gentle heart. He is for us; this child not only appears to us, he is given to us. This is the source of the true Christmas rejoicing and gratitude that we prepare for and in a measure already experience in this Vigil mass.

The two most popular Christian feasts, Easter and Christmas, are joyous celebrations even though both stand in relation to the cross of Jesus and his experience of defeat, pain, humiliation and death. This is in keeping with Jesus' prediction in his Last Discourse when he told his apostles that "you will be sad but your sorrow will be turned into joy... your heart will be glad and no one can will take your joy from you (John 16:20, 22)." Although it is by his cross that Jesus redeems the world, yet the victory he has already won and in which we are offered a share changes the meaning of suffering and even of death itself. The joy of Christmas is the reflection of that victorious resurrection of the Lord that gives us assurance of arriving at the goal of all our strivings. This goal consists precisely in attaining to an intimate and eternal union with the Son of God made man who now comes into this world to bring us eternal life. In the new born infant we behold with the eyes of faith the one who is, in his person, the fulfillment of our most profound aspirations for a love that is at once ardent and pure, selfless and without end. Only such a love is fully gratifying to the human spirit. This kind of divine love is the grace that is manifested in the birth of our Savior.

In this Eucharist we recall the entry of the Son of God into this world through Mary. We also re-enact the mysteries of his death and resurrection. The very same person who came into the world on the first Christmas night now comes here among us. He once again gives himself to us and offers himself for us, not in the beguiling form of a new-born infant but in the words of Scripture and under the sacramental forms of bread and wine. The message he imparts to us is the same in each: the saving grace of God is given to us because He loves us. He asks us now to give ourselves to him in return, with loving confidence that the Father who, with His transcendently generous love gives us His beloved son will bring us together with the risen Christ his presence when he appears at the end of time in all his glory.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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