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Christmas in the sermons of St Augustine: "He became man who made man"

This year, as in years past, in the lead-up to Christmas our streets are decorated with lights and garlands, our tables laden with delicious treats, and our cupboards with gifts. Meals with loved ones linger into late evening, while conversations at the table and the sound of cutlery on the crockery give way to carols and guitars, in a kind of hymn to the joy of life and, above all, of being together. And once more, Christmas presents itself as something unique, something always old yet always new; it offers an opportunity to value the external while, ultimately, transcending it and going to the essence and the source of everything. For without this, without the essence and the source, everything - the lights and garlands, the delicacies and gifts, and even the carols around the table - is no more than empty and superficial rites lacking any true cause and reason for being. It would be, perhaps, like laughing without remembering why we do it. 

Augustine wrote his sermons back when Christmas was celebrated more for what it truly commemorated rather than receiving the latest gadgets and toys. Now, more than ever Augustine’s flashes of light can help us realign our gaze towards the heart of this important feast and so celebrate it with a new and complete joy, and also, therefore, broaden the enjoyment of those with us. 

One constantly recurring theme in the sermons of the Bishop of Hippo on the birth of Christ is evident from the following passages, as Augustine takes us from the immanent to the transcendent, from the temporal to the eternal, from the visible to the invisible. 

"He lies in a manger, but contains the world; he takes the breast, but feeds the angels; he is wrapped in swaddling clothes, but clothes us with immortality; he is suckled, but adored; he finds no  room in the stable, but a temple is built in the hearts of believers." (Sermon 190, 4)

"Let us celebrate, then, O Christians, not the day of his divine birth, but the day of his human birth, that is, the day on which he was fashioned to us, so that, through the mediation of the invisible made visible, we may pass from things visible to things invisible." (Sermon 190, 2)

Augustine constantly makes explicit the mystery of the Incarnation, of God-made-man, as a contrast with the things of the world with which the creator of the world is clothed or, rather, to which he submits, thus underlining the greatness of a God-with-us. This continuous tension, in fact, leads to the Love of God for humanity, by one who set his dwelling place in our midst.

"That unique Word of God, that life, that light of men is, at once, the eternal Day; but at the same time, this day, when in uniting himself to human flesh he became like a bridegroom leaving his bridal bed, is now today, but tomorrow will be yesterday. Yet today exalts the eternal Day, because the eternal Day, in being born of the Virgin, made today sacred. How many praises, then, must we give to the love of God! How much thanks we must give him! So much did he love us that for us he was made in time by whom the ages were made, and in this world he was younger in age than many of his servants, that he was older than the world by his eternity." (Sermon 188:2)

"Where are you for me? In a narrow stable, wrapped in swaddling clothes, in a manger." (Sermon 196, 3)

The exultation of a humble heart 

In the face of such wonders, the necessary consequence of this mystery of salvation by which God became man in order to save man, is exultation and joy. Certainly, before the greatness of God and before the overflow of graces for us, the only possible response of the Christian is that of the Magnificat, to proclaim the greatness of the Lord, because he makes himself present in our weakness and in our lowliness. 

"Let us celebrate, then, the birth of the Lord with the manner and mood of celebration that it deserves (...) Rejoice, you righteous: the one who justifies you has been born. Rejoice, you weak and sick: he who heals you has been born. Rejoice, you captives: the one who redeems you has been born. Rejoice, you servants: the Lord is born. Rejoice, you who are free: he who sets you free is born. Let all Christians rejoice: Christ is born." (Sermon 184, 2)

For Augustine, therefore, Christmas can only be understood if there is joy. And this joy can only be welcomed and celebrated if one possesses a humble heart, capable of recognizing one's own weakness and the greatness of the event of God-made-man. Otherwise, there is nothing worth rejoicing. 

"Another year has shone forth for us - and we are to celebrate it today - the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, thanks to whom Truth has sprung from the earth and the Day of Days has come into our day. Let us rejoice and be glad in him. The Christian faith treasures that which the humility of so exalted a person has brought us, of which the hearts of unbelievers are empty, since God has hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to the little ones. Let the humble, therefore, possess the humility of God, so that they may, with such great help as a mount for their weakness, come to recognise the excellence of God. On the other hand, those wise and prudent ones who seek the sublimity of God without believing in his humility and dispensing with it, do not achieve the former either. Because of their shallowness and vacuity, their arrogance and haughtiness, they are left as if hanging between heaven and earth, in the space between where there is nothing but the wind. They are wise and intelligent - but only according to this world, not according to the creator of the world." (Sermon 184, 1) 

Only in this way can Christmas be a joyful celebration in its fullest sense, for without the awareness of this Love and the humility to recognize it, we will continue to lack the wine (cf. Jn 2:3) and our feast will not be a feast. Let us hurry, then, with St Augustine, to adore him who willed to become man for us, to become a child, so that we might grow up with him. (Sermon 196, 3)



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