For the Love of This Child

As we look at a Christmas crèche, a question should come to each of our minds: What will I do for the love of this Child?

Perhaps some who chance upon these lines will think the question untimely. Christmas, they might say, is long over. But they would be mistaken.

Although December, the month of the Divine Infancy, is now past, and January is dedicated to the Holy Name of Jesus, still, the Holy Infancy of Our Lord dominates the first part of January, including the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, which commemorates the bestowal of that name upon the eight-day-old Savior by Saint Joseph on the occasion of His Circumcision. Liturgically, we are yet in Christmastide, which transitions today to its second half, Epiphanytide, so thoughts on the Holy Infant are still quite seasonal.

God in His sovereign freedom could have chosen any number of ways to save mankind. Even within the economy of salvation that He chose — the Incarnation of the Eternal Logos as Man — the goal could have been achieved in a variety of ways. But, lest He give matter to the Docetists, or the Albigensians, or any number of Gnostic heretics who denied the veracity of the Incarnation, Our Lord chose to subject Himself to the full gamut of human temporal experience, beginning at the beginning — in utero, infancy, youth, adolescence, and adulthood (an old priest once speculated to me that Jesus suffered the pains of old age in His Passion). He sanctified it all, at the same time convincingly manifesting His true humanity to all around Him.

Even as an Infant, He challenges us. We must believe that this swaddled little Palestinian Jew is Emmanuel: God with us, already and fully, “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). We must take sides with Him against Herod, who sees in the helpless Infant a challenge to his usurped title as “King of the Jews.” We must accept that God chose to become poor yet a King, virgin-born yet True Man, obscure yet the First Cause of all that is.

But most of the real challenges from this Divine Babe — direct and very personal challenges even to those who believe in Him — will come later, in His preaching, in His Passion, in His death on the Cross. He is, as prophesied by Holy Simeon, “set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted” (Luke 2:34), but that will come later, in His public life, after “the child grew, and waxed strong, full of wisdom” (Luke 2:40), when, along with working wonders and “teaching them as one having power, and not as the scribes and Pharisees” (Matt. 7:29), He calls people “whited sepulchres,” “hypocrites,” “fox,” “blind guides,” “child of hell,” “full of rapine and uncleanness,” “full of dead men’s bones, and of all filthiness,” “of your father the devil,” and says things like, “go, and now sin no more” and “he that taketh not up his cross, and followeth me, is not worthy of me.”

That will come later — in spades — but for the nonce, we are invited to behold a Child, speechless, sleeping a lot, nursing at His Mother’s breast, no threat to anybody. In the universal language of humanity, the cry of an infant invokes sympathy and compassion — and love. He becomes a Baby so we might love Him. Our proper response, therefore, is to attach our affections to Him, to love Him in return, and therefore to be equipped to trust that every word He utters later in His public ministry is something that comes from the One we so love. That Herod wants Him dead arouses our just indignation, that the Holy Innocents were murdered in His stead provokes our outrage and sorrow.

In order to love Him, we must first make the assent of the intellect that we call faith. We must also hope in the divine promises, the mercy, and the power of God. Otherwise, whatever love we muster for this Child will be ephemeral, superficial, and certainly not the theological virtue of charity. But if we have the theological virtues operating at a high level, then we will welcome the challenges, the contradictions, and the corrections He will offer us.

Why? Because they come from Someone we know loves us, Someone who wills not only our good but our greatest good. The mutual charity that exists between the soul and its Savior joins the two so that there is a moral oneness, a felicitous unity of will and judgment. This is one explanation of why the saints who so loved God could accept so much by way of adversity. They took it all, no matter how hard to swallow, as willed (at least passively) by their Beloved, whose bitter pills are blended, or at least administered in alternating doses, with the rich honey of divine love.

To love Jesus Christ is to love the Man-God, His Father, and Their mutual Love, that is, the Holy Ghost. But it does not stop there. To love God is to effect a union of wills with Him, and, therefore, it is to love what He loves. (I am reminded here of Venerable Emmanuel d’Alzon’s “triple love” as he bequeathed it to the Congregation he founded, the Augustinians of the Assumption: “The spirit of our Congregation can be expressed very briefly as: love of Our Lord, of the Blessed Virgin, His Mother, and of the Church, His Bride.”) Here then, is another reason why the Logos became an infant: God loves no human person more than the Blessed Virgin Mary, and by introducing redeemed humanity to His only-begotten Son as the blessed fruit of Mary’s womb, He inducts us into His own love of that most holy Virgin. On the Epiphany, the Wise Men found Him “with Mary his mother” (Matt. 2:11), which is where we all must find Him if we will be wise and know Him as He is.

With the addition of Saint Joseph — the lowest in the order of sanctity, but the highest in the order of family hierarchy — we behold that created trinity we call the Holy Family, the perfect nexus of created and uncreated love. By coming into this world as a member of a human family, Jesus sanctified home life by “ineffable virtues,” in the words of the Oration for the Feast of the Holy Family. The highest of these virtues, of course, is the charity with which these extraordinary persons loved one another.

What is it that an infant invokes in our hearts? While love and tenderness are universal experiences among all who behold a baby, there are additional variables that depend upon factors such as our own state in life, our age, our experiences, our temperament. It is not uncommon for new fathers to be transfixed and transformed when they behold their own flesh and blood looking back at them. The experience, as I have observed it in young dads, invokes the masculine desires to protect and to provide, to shield this little one from harm. In the hearts of mothers, the desire is to nurture and to nourish — something they can do, by God’s admirable dispensation, with their own breasts.

For me, a brother happily committed to celibate chastity, an infant invokes responses similar to those of his biological father, but with a different, perhaps a more “general” focus. The impulse in me is to protect the child by helping to sanctify the society of which the little one is a part, and to provide by helping to educate him and pass on Catholic wisdom and Christian convictions to the next generation. I want to construct a true “safe space” not only in but also around this child’s home where he will assimilate Catholic faith and morals from a society of people whom he knows love him. Later in life, the child may be among the many “little brothers and sisters” it has been my privilege to teach in one context or another.

Whatever our state in life, how we deal with these little ones will impact our eternity. One day, we will hear either the words “as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40), or, God forbid, “as long as you did it not to one of these least, neither did you do it to me” (Matt. 25:45). And let us never forget what Jesus said about little ones and millstones. These words of the Word put the abortion question in stark relief, don’t they? Not only that question; so many others follow. These utterances are a condemnation of much of what passes for “education” today.

Returning now to the Christ Child, the pastor of the personal parish where we attend Holy Mass said it this way: Jesus became a little baby to make our hearts melt with love. He went on to speak of the demands that love makes of us. Just as the contemplation of an infant brings out some universal and some particular responses, it is the task of each of us to behold the Divine Infant, let Him melt our hearts, and then ask ourselves what our particular response to Him will be.

What, in short, will we do for the love of this Child?

Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi (detail), 1423, tempera on panel, 283 x 300 cm (Uffizi Gallery, Florence) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) See the full image here.