The festivities of the Christmas holiday and the solemnities of Holy Week might at first glance seem to have nothing in common. Christmas is all wreaths and lights and sleigh bells and presents and fruit cake.
Holy Week is palm and Stations of the Cross and fasting and vigils and lengthy Gospels. Yet, in the mind of St. Luke, Christmas and Holy Week must have found some accord because he places nearly the same song on the lips of disciples who line the streets of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as he put in the mouths of the angels on Christmas eve night. "Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth," sang the chorus of angels to the stunned shepherds in Bethlehem's fields. This Sunday the disciples will spread their cloaks, wave their palm branches, and intone, "Peace in heaven and glory in the highest."
Peace and glory, two promising qualities of the heavenly kingdom that Jesus came to earth to establish, are to be revealed both in the Christmas story and in the Passion accounts.
Believers have been conditioned over the centuries to find peace and glory easily in the Nativity narrative. The innocence of Mary, the kindness of Joseph, the couple's obedience to an Imperial decree, the warmth of the stabled animals, the sudden burst of angels, the reverence of the shepherds, the adoration of the Magi - all these elements contribute to the greeting card gladness associated with Christmas. Yet, modern man looks at Bethlehem from the perspective of 2,000 years of faith. Modern man knows how the story is going to turn out. Jesus' first worshippers must have been severely challenged to discover the divine in the all too human. Ancient gods and even the ancient God himself were not to be found in stables or in quiet villages or in swaddling clothes. Ancient gods and goddesses dwelt on Mount Olympus, surrounded by antique beauty. They lived in the temples along the Nile protected by larger-than-life architecture. Even YHWH was to be found in the inner sanctum of the Jerusalem temple, honored by drapery and pillars and vigil lamps. Finding God in the ordinary was never the expectation of the ancient world. The newborn in the Judean hay trough was a real test of faith.
Clearly, if the birth of Christ was a test of faith, then the passion and death of Christ would be an ordeal even for the most dedicated disciple. The very idea of a god is someone who is beyond the warp and woof of every day life - beyond stables and beyond public disgrace. God by definition is expected to be transcendent, awe-inspiring, majestic. Moses had to remove his shoes to approach God in the burning bush. Ussah was struck dead when he reached out to steady even the Ark of the Covenant. Even the high priest was allowed within the Holy of Holies only once during the year. During Holy Week all these notions of the grandeur of the God are dashed against the scourging pillar, the wooden cross and the stone-cold tomb. In the popular mind, God simply does not lower himself, empty himself, demean himself to accept disgrace, to endure suffering, to hang with thieves, to die abandoned. God should be above all that. Yet, this is precisely what the Son of God did for mankind.
The second person of the Blessed Trinity, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, accepted first of all a human nature in the womb of Mary. He became a man like us in all things but sin. Furthermore, he emptied himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to death on a cross. By doing this, Jesus did not actually lower himself; rather he took human nature and human suffering and raised them up to a higher level. His Good News was that an ordinary human life like the one he lived out in Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem could be salvific. His Good News was that suffering and even death, which scandalized many through the centuries, could be turned into a saving grace. Christ did not lower himself; Christ rather exalted mankind, raising the sum and substance of human life - the birthing, the living, the dying - to new levels of excellence. No longer does man have to turn to burning bushes or to Olympian heights to discover God. Since Christ, the manner is ordinary and God may be found in time as well as in eternity, in life as well as after death, in suffering and humiliation, as well as in achievement and celebration. In Christ, peace and glory are brought close and made available to all.
(This column originally appeared in The Providence Journal)