A Christmas Reflection
Dec 22, 2021
St. Bernard's President, Stephen Loughlin, Ph.D.
I think that most of us have noted in recent years a marked increase in people’s impatience that typically forebodes a ready and all-too-easy descent into petty quarrelling, anger, and in some cases even violence. We see this play out all too commonly both on and offline among strangers – even among friends and relatives. And while we take note of this and have sadly come to expect it as a feature of our daily lives, we are nevertheless jarred by how this infects even the most intimate and sacred areas of our lives. Unsurprisingly, we begin to believe that there is little refuge from the travails of this world and the natural lot to which fallen humanity is heir.
In a sermon offered during the octave of Christmas, St. Bernard resonates most clearly with our situation, this “sad exile of our pilgrimage here on earth.” He remembers especially those who, as the Scriptures tell us, awaited the advent of God’s goodness and peace in His Son: “long lay the world in sin and error pining till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.” God’s goodness, he says, was assuredly revealed through the prophets of old. But it was only in the Incarnation of His Son that the promise was realized. In that peace which is sent to us in Christ His Son, “it is as if God the Father sent upon the earth a purse full of his mercy,” a purse that “was burst open during the Lord’s passion to pour forth its hidden contents – the price of our redemption.”
The size of this purse was indeed small – a Child – but within which dwelt the fullness of the divine nature, a fullness that only time and the redemptive act would reveal. In this gift, God is revealed in such a way that we could see and recognize both His goodness and His kindness, something manifested in taking on not Adam’s humanity as it was before the Fall, but instead what it had become after. St. Bernard asks: “How could He have shown His mercy more clearly than by taking on Himself our condition? For our sake the Word of God became as grass. What better proof could He have given of His love? The Incarnation teaches us how much God cares for us and what He thinks and feels about us.”
In light, then, of this supreme example of God’s kindness, St. Bernard states that we have here a great example of how to consider the suffering that we experience each day and how it is that we must respond:
“We should stop thinking of our own sufferings and remember what He has suffered. Let us think of all the Lord has done for us, and then we shall realize how His goodness appears through His humanity. The lesser He became through His human nature, the greater was His goodness; the more He lowered Himself for me, the dearer He is to me.”
The advice given by St. Bernard is counterintuitive to an age that would see in this approach nothing more than a pointless exercise in self-effacement and abnegation, something that it would judge as missing the mark for what needs to be done to bring true and effective peace to the peoples of our day. For the Christian, however, the Incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas offers that most powerful of opportunities to reflect upon the goodness and kindness of God. We can see that the gift of which we stood in such great need was most fittingly given in the flesh, in the Person of Christ Jesus. In this gift, God’s regard not of His own nature (and all that is due to Him by right), but rather first and foremost of those who receive the Gift of His Son, reveal and affirm for St. Bernard a goodness that is the inspiration for the donation made by every Christian in the face of the troubles of our world.
This is a sign of contradiction to those who would see peace brought about by force of will rather than by the sacrifice of lives in imitation of the Incarnation wherein we live up to and declare our status as made in the image and likeness of God, and thus His friends in His work. Such donations found throughout the Christian community in our parents, professors, and religious to name but a very few, endear us to one another, endear us powerfully to God (an endearment that only grows with each emptying Jesus effects, coming to its perfection in His death on the cross), and are the very basis of that tranquility that is the mark of true peace, the way by which we address most effectively our life here and now.