Catholic Time Travel: Visit Bethlehem 2,000 Years Ago
Jesus won’t be laid in a manger this December 25. No heralding angels will appear in the sky. No shepherds will leave their flocks at their invitation. All of that happened more than 2,000 years ago, never to be repeated.
Yet, churches will announce that “Today true peace has come down to us from heaven.” Priests will solemnly declare that the long wait is over and at long last the blessed birth has taken place.
It will seem as if we are playacting, pretending that Jesus hasn’t been born, and then suddenly pretending that he has finally joined us. But it isn’t pretend. It is real. Here are three reasons why.
First, because God is outside of time, every day is “today” to him.
At Christmas, God enters our world, choosing one time and one place.
“There is this difference between Christ and other men; that, whereas they are born subject to the restrictions of time, Christ as Lord and Maker of all time, chose a time in which to be born, just as He chose a mother and a birthplace,” said St. Thomas Aquinas.
But God is never confined to one place and one time. He is omnipresent — everywhere, at all times, all at once. From his perspective in eternity, Bethlehem in the year 0 and Mexico in the year 1596 B.C. and Rome in the year 2023 A.D are all equally now. He is as aware of everyone at each of those times as he is aware of each of us as we read this.
Therefore, Christmas isn’t merely an anniversary, the remembrance of something that happened in the past and is over. It’s the celebration of God’s entrance into our history, at exactly the right time, but never leaving his eternal now.
“When the fullness of time was come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,” said St. Paul. We can enter into the fullness of time with him right now.
But we do it on December 25 because we have to set aside a day for Christmas.
By the logic that God is outside of time, we can celebrate Christmas any time. But the Church wisely sets aside a particular day for the Nativity of the Lord —because we need that.
We are made for eternity, but we aren’t there yet. For now, we have to meet God in the only frame of reference we have: time and space. We can’t plumb the depths of all of who God is, all at once. Not yet. Like everything else, we have to take his mysteries one at a time.
We have to hear the prophecies, meet John the Baptist, process the crazy news with St. Joseph, light candles, feel his absence and wait.
This is how a God who is outside of time suits his message to the needs of his time-bound people.
The third reason Christmas isn’t pretend is that, in the Church, Jesus really will come on December 25.
The Church is the place where eternity meets time, and the two comingle. At Mass, and in every sacrament, Jesus really is present. Fr. Robert Spitzer uses the helpful image of “collapsing” time: “God transcends time and can take any event in the future or the past and collapse it into an event in the present.”
This Christmas we will hear how the shepherds are summoned to adore Jesus Christ by the angels who sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.” When the magi come later we will hear how “they fell down and worshiped him.”
But at Mass we will hear exactly those words and then meet exactly the same Jesus Christ and should have exactly the same reaction. “Because Christ himself is present in the sacrament of the altar, he is to be honored with the worship of adoration,” says the Catechism. The Eucharist receives “the worship of latria, that is, the adoration given to God alone,” says the Compendium of the Catechism.
So, light the lights and sing the carols and celebrate Jesus Christ coming into the world.
Put all these truths together and you realize that when we sing “O come let us adore him,” we don’t mean we adore him in a Nativity set or remember some former state he was in — we are adoring the real baby Jesus, really present in Bethlehem, in heaven, and in the sacrament right now.
This appeared at Aleteia.