By: Fr. Elias Mallon, SA
Christmas has so taken over the hearts, memories and imaginations of Christians that it is easy to forget that it is not just a day, but a season. One of the most ancient principles of theology in the Church is lex orandi lex credendi, “the law of praying is the law of believing.” What that means is that our prayer impacts our belief and our belief impacts our prayer.
In point of fact, the liturgical celebration of the Christmas Season not only celebrates the birth of Jesus, but also commemorates and recalls a series of revelations or epiphanies. On December 25th, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. Matthew and Luke have very different accounts of the birth of Jesus but each account involves a different revelation. For Matthew, Jesus, Mary and Joseph are in a house (οἰκία Mt. 2:11) when they are visited by the Wise Men from the East. It had been revealed to the Magi that the star heralded the birth of one who was to be King of the Jews. For Luke, Jesus is placed in a manger (φάτνη Luke 2:7, 12) which is itself given as a sign to the shepherds to whom an angel reveals that a child is born who is “Christ the Lord”. The very day on which the Church celebrates the birth of the child Jesus, it recalls that this was not a private event. In different and significant ways the readings proclaim that this is more than a birth; it is a revelation. To the Gentile Magi, the child is revered as the King of the Jews and to the Jewish shepherds he is revealed as Christ the Lord.
Nonetheless, the birth of the child is the central focal point for the celebration on December 25th. Unfortunately, this is where many people stop and one must admit the predominant culture stresses that. On December 26th, Christmas is “over,” and in many places decorations come down and “normal time” begins. But for the Church, December 25th is the beginning of the Christmas Season. If on Christmas the primary emphasis is on the birth of the child with side emphases on the Magi and shepherds, the Epiphany—traditionally January 6th—while keeping the child at the center of the scene, emphasizes that he is a “light of revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32 connecting with Matthew 2) who are represented by the exotic visitors from the East.
The day after the Church celebrates the Epiphany, it celebrates the Baptism of Jesus. This is the last of the epiphanies and with it the Christmas Season is ended. The Gospels of Matthew (3:13-17), Mark (1:9-11) and Luke (3:21-22) all speak of the Spirit descending upon Jesus at his baptism and a voice proclaiming that he is “the beloved Son” of God.
Thus, the entire Christmas Season commemorates a series of epiphanies or revelations. Each of them reveals that the child born in Bethlehem was born not for one group of people but for all peoples. He, King of the Jews, Christ the Lord, the Beloved Son of God and the Light of Revelation to the Gentiles. The reach of child is to the whole world, the oikumene, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor. In a very real sense one can say that Ecumenism itself was born that day 20 centuries ago in Bethlehem.