Deacon James Toner: What if Christmas had never happened?
As the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier put it: "For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been!'" But Whittier is wrong. The fact is that, of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest and scariest are these: "It might not have been!" Suppose Christmas had never happened. Suppose the Lord Jesus had never been born. Suppose all we had today was the commercial hype of "happy holidays" and "sparkle season" and "winter solstice."
Suppose Almighty God decided, after Adam and Eve disobeyed Him, to allow them and their descendants (that is, you and me) forever to suffer the results of original sin. Remember, original sin was the decision of the first human beings to follow their own will rather than God's will. They "preferred (themselves) to God and by that very act scorned Him," and they lost "the grace of original holiness. (CCC 398-399) God might have said, "If that is the way you want it, so be it." Christmas would never have happened.
When the angel Gabriel went to Nazareth to see the Blessed Virgin Mary, asking whether she would consent to bear the Son of God, it was said that "all heaven held its breath" (the Orcadian poet Edwin Muir). Suppose Mary had said no. Suppose the very idea of carrying the Messiah was too much for this young girl and, overwhelmed and frightened, she refused. Christmas would never have happened.
Suppose Joseph, who was married to Mary, had been unwilling to listen to the angel in the dream who explained that Mary was with child, not because of infidelity, but through the Holy Spirit. Suppose Joseph had insisted, as was his right, upon a trial for Mary. Had she been convicted, she and her unborn baby – Jesus – would have been stoned to death. Christmas would never have happened.
Suppose when Joseph and Mary were required to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem so that Joseph could register there, as was required by the authorities, the trip was too much for her. This was a journey of about 75 miles, taking perhaps four to five days of travel – not an easy journey even for physically fit people. The unborn baby Jesus was divine, but was also subject to the trials, temptations and tragedies of life – even though He was under the protection of His mother and foster father. Suppose on their way to Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary had been attacked by thieves, or Mary had taken a bad fall, or lack of rest or inadequate food had taken their toll upon the exhausted young mother. Mary could have lost her baby. Christmas would never have happened.
Of all sad words of tongue or pen, these would be the saddest and scariest: "Christmas never happened." Because God could have left us in the sin our first parents had chosen. Or because the Blessed Virgin could have said no. Or because Joseph could have abandoned his wife to the death penalty. Or because Mary might have lost her child on their arduous journey.
In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes: "If Christ has not been raised (from the dead), your faith is in vain; you are still in your sins. ... (And) we are the most pitiable people of all" (Cor. 15:17,19). But Jesus could not suffer, and die, and be raised gloriously from the dead if He had never been born. We would still be in our sins, with no hope of salvation, living meaningless, dark and empty lives.
But the Incarnation – Christmas, the birth of the Savior – did happen.
Almighty God planned to forgive us our sins and to restore all things in Christ. (Eph. 1:3-10)
Mary said yes to God – becoming the Mother of God, the new Eve (CCC 410-411), and the help of Christians.
Joseph, the righteous man, humbly accepted angelic assurance about Mary, and he became the legal father and guardian of Jesus, and a model for all fathers.
Mary and Joseph protected, nurtured and raised Jesus, who was obedient to them (Luke 2:51, CCC 532); they are the Holy Family, whose feast day we will celebrate this year on Friday, Dec. 30.
In the Gospel according to St. John, we read: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth." In Jesus and through His sacraments (CCC 1133, 774), our sins can be forgiven. We can have hope of salvation, and we can have lives full of meaning, light, grace and truth.
Thank God that Christmas did happen! Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis: "Glory to God in the highest: and on earth peace to men of good will"! (Luke 2:14)
Deacon James H. Toner serves at Our Lady of Grace Church in Greensboro.
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