That sweet and tender birth two millennia ago, foreshadowed a terrible Death to come. And here is the paradox we Christians know by faith: That Death on the cross would be a new Birth for all of humanity.
As we approach the celebration of Christ’s birth, we are moved to reflect on its meaning to us both now and eternally. This birth, so long hoped for by the Chosen People, has come. And today, over 2,000 years later, we are living in the midst of salvation history. We have reason for our faith, our hope, and our call to love others as he loved us. The birth of this holy child has changed the whole course of human history.
The great 20th century Christian poet T.S. Eliot reflected on this birth in his powerful poem called “The Journey of the Magi.” The poem is “spoken” by one of the Magi who came from afar to witness the birth of this child that had been foretold through the ages. Eliot imagines this Magi in his old age now, years after his experience of journeying to Bethlehem to see the child, the promised Messiah. The poem’s speaker reflects on the dual meaning of this birth. He is also aware that many do not see it, and many do not believe it. He mourns the fact that he has returned to his kingdom and that it is now alien to him. People all around him go on with their lives unaware of that birth, still clinging to their gods:
“All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth
But had thought they were different; this Birth
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad for another death.”
In a powerful way T.S. Eliot’s poem makes the Christmas event real and tangible to us. That sweet and tender birth two millennia ago, foreshadowed a terrible Death to come. And here is the paradox we Christians know by faith: That Death on the cross would be a new Birth for all of humanity. We celebrate Christmas with the wonder and joy that attends the birth of a child. This birth of Jesus, the Savior of the world, gives us a joy that is beyond the telling of it. Still, at the back of our minds, we are aware that this birth, like all births, is also a precursor to death. But the Death this child was born to would be unlike any other. For the one who came into the world as an innocent child 2,015 years agao, is the Sovereign Lord who will “wipe away the tears from all faces.” He is the One who has “removed the people’s disgrace from all the earth.” Our Christian faith is rich enough to hold both of these thoughts simultaneously in our hearts and minds. Though, like the Magi in the poem, we often find ourselves surrounded by “an alien people clutching their gods,” our hearts soar as we once again prepare for the annual remembrance celebration of the coming of the Messiah into the world. This small child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, held in the arms of his mother, Mary, grips our hearts with a painful joy.
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