Christmas Reflections: Post I
CHRISTMASTIDE: O ADMIRABILE COMMERCIUM!
By Abbot Marmion, O.S.B.
SUMMARY.—The mystery of the Incarnation is a wonderful exchange between divinity and humanity.—I. The Eternal Word asks of us a human nature in order to unite it to Himself by a personal union: Creator… animatum corpus sumens.—II. In becoming Incarnate, the Word brings us, in return, a share in His Divinity: Largitus est nobis suam deitatem.—III. This exchange appears still more wonderful when we consider the manner in which it is wrought. The Incarnation renders God visible so that we may hear and imitate Him.—IV. It renders God passible, capable of expiating our sins by His sufferings and of healing us by His humiliations.—V. We are to take our part in this exchange by faith: those who receive the Word-made-flesh by believing in Him have “power to be made the sons of God.”
The coming of the Son of God upon earth is so great an event that God willed to prepare the way for it during centuries. He made rites and sacrifices, figures and symbols, all converge towards Christ; He foretold Him, announced Him by the mouth of the prophets who succeeded one another from generation to generation.
And now it is the very Son of God Who comes to instruct us: Multifariam multisque modis olim Deus loquens patribus… novissime locutus est nobis in Filio (Heb 1:1,2). For Christ is not only born for the Jews of Judea who lived in His time. It is for us all, for all mankind, that He came down from Heaven: Propter nos et propter nostram salutem descendit de caelis.
He wills to distribute to every soul the grace that He merited by His Nativity. This is why the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, appropriates to herself, in order to place them upon our lips and with them to fill our hearts, the longings of the patriarchs, the aspirations of the just of ancient times, and the desires of the Chosen People. She wills to prepare us for Christ’s coming, as if this Nativity was about to be renewed before our eyes.
See how when she commemorates the coming of her Divine Bridegroom upon earth, she displays the splendour of her solemnities, and makes her altars brilliant with lights to celebrate the Birth of the “Prince of Peace” (Is 9:6), the “Sun of Justice” (Mal 4:2), Who rises in the midst of our darkness to enlighten “every man that cometh into this world” (Jn 1:5, 9). She grants her priests the privilege, almost unique in the year, of thrice offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
These feasts are magnificent, they are likewise full of charm. The Church evokes the remembrance of the Angels singing in the sky the glory of the new-born Babe; of the Shepherds who come to adore at the manger; of the Magi who hasten from the East to offer Him their adorations and rich presents.
And yet, like every feast here below, this solemnity, even with the prolongation of its octave, is ephemeral: it passes by. Is it for the feast of a day, howsoever splendid it may be, that the Church requires such a long preparation from us? Certainly not! Why then? Because she knows that the contemplation of this mystery contains a special and choice grace for our souls.
I said at the beginning of these conferences that each one of Christ’s mysteries constitutes not only a historical fact which takes place in time, but contains a grace proper to itself wherewith our souls are to be nourished so as to live thereby.
Now what is the intimate grace of the mystery of the Nativity? What is the grace for the reception of which the Church takes so much care to dispose us? What is the fruit that we ought to gather from the contemplation of the Christ Child?
The Church herself indicates this at the first Mass, that of midnight. After having offered the bread and wine which, in a few moments, are to be changed, by the consecration, into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, she sums up her desires in this prayer:
“Grant, O Lord, that the oblation which in we offer today’s festival may be acceptable unto Thee, and, by Thy grace, through this most sacred and holy intercourse, may we be found like unto Him in Whom is our substance united to Thee.” (Accepta tibi sit, Domine, quaesumus, hodiernae festivitatis oblatio: ut tua gratia largiente, per haec sacrosancta commercia, in illiusi nveniamur forma, in quo tecum est nostra substantia. Secret of the Midnight Mass.) The word forma is here taken in the sense of “nature,” “condition” natura, as in the text of St Paul: Christus cum in forma Dei esset… exinanivit semetipsum formam servi accipiens et habitu inventus ut homo.)
We ask to be partakers of that divinity to which our humanity is united. It is like an exchange. God, in becoming incarnate, takes our human nature and gives us, in return, a participation in His Divine nature.
This thought, so concise in its form, is more explicitly expressed in the secret of the second Mass: “Grant, O Lord, that our offerings may be conformed to the mysteries of this day’s Nativity, that as He Who is born as man is also God made manifest, so this earthly substance (which He unites to Himself) may confer upon us that which is divine.” (Munera rostra, quaesumus, Domine, nativitatis hodiernae mysteriis apta proveniant, ut sicut homo genitus idem refulsit et Deus, sic nobis haec terrena substantia conferat quod divinum est.. (Secret of the Mass at Break of Day.)
To be made partakers of the Divinity to which our humanity was united in the Person of Christ, and to receive this Divine gift through this humanity itself,—such is the grace attached to the celebration of today’s mystery. Our offerings will be “conformed to the mysteries of this day’s Nativity,” according to the words of the above quoted secret, if—by the contemplation of the Divine work at Bethlehem and the reception of the Eucharistic Sacrament,—we participate in the eternal life that Christ wills to communicate to us by His Humanity.
“O admirable exchange,” we shall sing on the octave day, “the Creator of the human race, taking upon Himself a body and a soul, has vouchsafed to be born of a Virgin, and, appearing here below as man, has made us partakers of His Divinity”: O admirabile commercium! CREATOR generis human), ANIMATUM CORPUS SUMENS, de virgine nasci dignatus est; et procedens homo sine semine, LARGITUS EST NOBIS SUAM DEITATEM (Antiphon of the Octave of Christmas).
Let us, therefore, stay for a few moments to admire, with the Church, this exchange between the creature and the Creator between heaven and earth, an exchange upon which all the mystery of the Nativity is based. Let us consider what are the acts and the matter of it;-under what form it is wrought;—we will afterwards see what fruits are to be derived from it for us;—and to what it engages us.
To be continued…