by Msgr. Ronald Knox
Christmas is a return to our origins. We make a holiday of it, only if we have the strength of mind to creep up the nursery stairs again, and pretend that we never came down them. So I will not apologize, on Christmas evening, for taking you back to the origins of our race; to those nursery stories which form the preface to the oldest book in the world, a book whose curtain goes up on a time when the world was not. They are out of favour nowadays, those old stories from the book of Genesis; we are half-ashamed of them, and do not like to be seen taking them out and looking at them; so it was with our nursery toys, when we had outgrown them. But, make what you will of those stories, deprive them as you will of their authority by representing them as a patchwork made up from older legends still, you cannot get away, altogether, from the spell of those remembered phrases, so apt to enshrine the primitive. There shall be no controversy; we will leave out the story of creation and the story of Paradise; the door of that fairyland shall be closed and the scientists mount guard over it with their flaming swords. The phrase I want to recall to you is the first utterance of fallen humanity; it is when Eve says, “I have gotten a man from the Lord.”
In some forlorn cave, remote of access, fenced about from the wild beasts, the first human mother gave birth to the first human child. “Cain,” she called him, the “acquisition;” she felt enriched. Sentence of death might have been passed on herself and the partner of her disobedience; they had made shipwreck of their stupendous venture; within a few years, for all they knew, human life would become extinct on the planet, and it would be given back to the jungle and to the white ants. But no, here was something saved from the wreck; here was a fresh representative to whom the torch of humanity could be handed on. “Unto us a child is born, unto us a man is given;” the raw material of that Christmas anthem rang through the primeval forest, with a presage of our immortal hope.
Trace the line of Eve’s posterity down, down through the uncharted centuries, till the index finger of your observation quivers and stands still at a point roughly nineteen hundred and fifty years ago. The same picture of Mother and Child is repeated; even the setting is unaltered, we are still in a cave. This time, the picture is a familiar one; thousands of artists have tried to make it their masterpiece; in a million churches, all over Christendom, the same pattern of Mother and Child is repeated, backed by a crude decor of brown paper and ivy-leaves. And our first thought is – perhaps the very sameness of this constant repetition has put it into our heads – our first thought is that this is just like any other human birth. If the Mother gazes down with rapt adoration at the Child, holds him forward, as if to attract our adoration too, is not that exactly what you see when you visit an ordinary human nursery? And of course we are right. The young mother who can say, with her first ancestress, “I have gotten a man from the Lord,” does look upon it as a kind of theophany; this is a miracle; this particular thing has never happened before. And of course she is right. All that is visible here, that tiny body, has come from her; has come through her from the common stock-pot of matter that we can measure and analyse. Even the life that beats there – how can we be certain that it does not simply derive from that mysterious reservoir of life which so extends and reproduces itself? Was not Eve called the mother of all living? And yet we know that because this tiny thing is a human being, it is linked to an immortal soul, to whose cravings, as yet, it is powerless to give expression. This is indeed an acquisition, not to the mother or the father only, but the common treasure-house of the human race; a new thing has come into existence. Unto us a child is born, a body that came from us. Unto us a son is given, a soul that derives neither from father or mother, but comes direct from God.
No, the first thing we have got to realize about Christmas, if we are to understand its message at all, is that this birth is just like any other human birth. We keep our birthdays, we visit the birth-places of great men, but birth, after all, is only a stage in a process. And the child who was born at Bethlehem had, for nine months, been carried in the womb at Nazareth, just like any other child; this is our guarantee that, although God, he was yet truly man. God did not deceive us by taking on mere appearance of humanity, after the fashion of the old heathen fairy-stories, be became man; that was the leverage, if we may put it in very crude terms, through which the work of our redemption was effected. And, very curiously, this is one of the lessons which the Church found it particularly hard to teach. The early heretics were not people who denied our Lord’s Godhead; almost without exception, they were people who denied his manhood. They could believe that God came to earth; they could not believe that he was human enough to be born, or to die. That primitive heresy re-awoke in the Middle Ages, lasted up to the time of the Reformation and beyond it. Perhaps that is why the Middle Ages gave us the Christmas crib. As we kneel before the crib, the first thing we have got to get into our heads is just that, the human reality of it all; God is actually here, among his creatures. The ox and the ass are represented in the stable, not merely to emphasize the humility in which Jesus Christ came to earth, the poverty of his surroundings. No, they are meant to give us a comfortable sense of earthliness, almost of earthiness; on this first Christmas Day even the poor relations of the human family must be asked in, or the party would not be complete. Unto us a Child is born; it is not simply that God will come close to us, that he will stand at our side, to help us fight against the limitations which hamper us, Eve’s children; he will become one of ourselves, become part of us.
But when we have said that, when we have said that it was just like any other human birth, we have to add, “Of course, it wasn’t actually like any other birth that ever happened.” Nor are we ashamed of the paradox; when we are tracing the history of God made man, our very terms of reference are paradoxical. This was like no other human birth, because the Mother in the cave, this time, was and remains a pure virgin. Of that truth, Christian thought never lost sight even for a moment, be the temptation what it might. Obviously, in the first ages the temptation must have been very strong. As we are reminding ourselves just now, the first heretics denied that Jesus Christ was truly man; it was only a phantom that was born – appeared to be born – of the Virgin Mary; that suffered – appeared to suffer – under Pontius Pilate. It would have been understandable enough, if orthodox Christian thought had recoiled to the other extreme; had soft-pedalled, if not actually abandoned, the doctrine of the miraculous birth, in its anxiety to insist that this was the human Son of a human Mother. But always Christian people had the instinct that your theology was safe when your opponents accused you of holding two doctrines that flatly contradicted one another. You were most likely to be right. They say the Mother in the cave, but never did their steady view lose sight of the Virgin.
And so you take your second look at the Christmas crib, and realize that your first view was wrong; or rather, was wholly incomplete. When you first looked at it, it seemed such a beautiful picture of motherhood – that and nothing more. “I have gotten a man from the Lord” – it was the old cry of Eve, repeated, as if by race-memory, down the centuries. And now it had reached its crucial expression; this particular cave at Bethlehem would be remembered as the birthplace of the greatest man who ever lived. And then…do you know what it is to go into a room, and gradually, not all at once, but gradually, get the feeling that there is a secret about, and everybody in the room is in the secret except you? It is a joke, perhaps, which is being played on you; and you look about uneasily, trying to find the clue to what is wrong, and yet not liking to seem as if you suspected anything. There is something of that impression, don’t you think, about our second look at the Christmas crib. Everybody is keeping so quiet; the shepherds seem to come in on tip-toe, the ass and the ox are just lying there, not feeding, the angels seem to be standing at attention, waiting for something to happen. And then you take another look at the centre of the group, and you notice at once what you ought to have noticed before. A mother? But this is only a girl! It’s not just a question of age, it’s a question of atmosphere; they are playing a trick on you, it’s a girl dressed up, in childish make-believe, as a young mother… And then you remember that there is no room, here, for make-believe. It is the mystery of the virgin birth.
Do not imagine that the Christian reverence for virginity is just a prudish running away from the facts of sex. If we pass over the facts of sex in silence, it is not because we think them disgusting, but because we think them too holy to be mentioned in common talk. If the Fathers of the Church, from the earliest times, insisted on the virginity of God’s Mother, it was not because they wanted to pay her a compliment, by ascribing to her a well-known Christian virtue; rather it was the other way about. They learned to reverence virginity because they had seen it in the Mother of God; because they had seen it in the stable of Bethlehem, and could not forget the experience. What they had seen there was an innocence which spoke to them of renewal. This other woman in the cave had brought them back to Paradise.
Christmas Day is a birthday just like any other; it is a birthday quite unlike any other; and no wonder, for it is the birthday of all of us. Go back for a moment to that first woman in the cave; when she cried out, “I have gotten a man from the Lord,” it was our birthday in a sense. The long history of woman’s child-bearing had begun; the process had been set in motion which was to give existence, all those centuries afterwards, to you and me. Eve, the mother of life; and yet, what thing was it she had given birth to, when she boasted that she had gotten a man? What was the acquisition she had won for us? She had borne the first man, and in doing so she had borne the first murderer. He came into the world to bring death, death to his own brother. And that natural life which our first mother bequeathed to us is, after all, only a life in death; sons of Eve, we are brothers to Cain and Abel, the villain and the victim of the first human tragedy.
Now turn back to that other cave, that other woman; what acquisition is hers? “I have come,” he tells us, “that they may have life.” The first-born among many brethren, St. Paul calls him; our elder brother, who has brought us supernatural life. Under the old law, the first-born son belonged by right (like all first-fruits) to God; in theory, his life was forfeit; in theory, he died that the rest might live. To St. John, that is the lesson of the virgin birth. Jesus Christ came to us, not in the order of nature; it was not the men of his own race who benefited principally by his birth, “Those who were his own gave him no welcome; but all those who did welcome him, he empowered to become the children of God, all those who believe in his name; their birth came, not from human stock, not from nature’s will or man’s, but from God.” On Christmas Day a whole supernatural family came to birth; virgin-born, because regeneration has brought back to them their lost innocence.
I repeat, we make a holiday of Christmas only if we have the strength of mind to creep up the nursery stairs again, and pretend that we never came down them. And that is what we are doing when we pay our visit to the Christmas crib. We are going back to the nursery where life, supernatural life, first dawned for us; trying to recapture some breath of our own first innocence, as we look at the girl Mother, and the divine Infant, and the manger which was all the cradle he had. It is difficult, at first, to get acclimatized to its atmosphere; everything is so quiet, so secret; the world is so remote; you feel as if there were a conspiracy afoot to keep you out of it. But this where you belong; you, too, have been born into the family of grace, and this is the cradle of it. Unto us a Child is born, to restore something of childhood, year by year, even to the most jaded, even to the most sophisticated, even to the most disillusioned of us.
Originally printed in “Pastoral and Occasional Sermons” pp. 411-416.