St. John Vianney always loved the major feasts of our faith, but Christmas in particular filled him with extraordinary joy. In the tiny baby Jesus lying in the manger; the Curé of Ars saw enfleshed the amazing extent of God’s love and the central lines of his plan to save us. On [this] Christmas Eve, it’s fitting for us to turn to one of his Christmas homilies and let his prayerful insights catapult us, as they did his original listeners, to enter more deeply into the wonder of this mystery.
“Who can describe the joy of the feast of Christmas!,” the patron saint of priests was accustomed to exclaim. The “good news of great joy” announced by the angels on the plains of Bethlehem is fundamentally, he stressed, that “God is with us.” Isaiah’s prophecy that a virgin would conceive and bear a son and name him Emmanuel not only came true, but was fulfilled in a way far exceeding traditional Jewish hopes: Emmanuel was not just a “symbol” that God was with his people but actually was God himself, born of a virgin he had himself formed in the womb. God’s love for us was so great that he chose to become one of us to deliver us from sin, reconcile us to God and open heaven to us.
St. John Vianney’s amazement at God’s presence with us in the world, however, didn’t stop there. It grew in three successive stages, corresponding to what he viewed as three different stages of God’s humility: first, in the Lord’s sharing our human nature; second, in his coming into our world as a little baby; and third, in his being born in abject poverty.
“The first step of the mercy of God that we devoutly adore in the crib of Bethlehem,” he said, is that Jesus has “taken a human nature, a human body, and a human soul, the same as we have. He has become one of us.” This divine abasement astonished him. “Who can measure the greatness of his compassion? A prince is certainly merciful if he sends a messenger with gifts to the poor in their forsaken garret. This is what God could have done. He could have sent us a Moses to break the chains of our slavery. He could have sent us a prophet Jonah to preach penance to us. He could have let Elijah appear to us again to bring the word of God like a burning torch. That would have been great mercy, but God wanted to do more than this.” God came himself. If he had come in the brightness of his divine glory, St. John Vianney says, we would not have been capable of looking at him. So he divested himself of that glory to become one of us. Just as if “the sun sank into a drop of water in the ocean and through this drop would light up all the other drops in the ocean, so “God with us abased himself to exalt us.” This blessing, this illumination, he said, begins “already in the crib.”
St. John Vianney’s awe for God’s merciful love as seen in Bethlehem only expanded when he contemplated that God had not merely taken on human nature but had become a defenseless baby. “Without a doubt,” the Curé of Ars preached, “the Son of God might have appeared upon earth as a grown man. But he didn’t. He abased Himself and lay in the crib as a helpless infant.” The reason he did this, Vianney asserted, was to make it as easy as possible for us to approach him. We all, he said, “approach a child without fear, the high and the low, the learned and the unlearned, the rich and the poor.” God’s becoming a little baby allows us “to go to the throne of His mercy with confidence. At the crib all fear vanishes, even the greatest criminal draws near to the child with assurance and confidence. What opens more easily than the hands of a little child?”
In the baby Jesus, St. John Vianney saw personified many of the truths that the Lord and his apostles would later preach. He “chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27) and proved that “when I am weak, it is then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). We see this clearly in the infant who, “even though he is so helpless in the crib, holds the world in his arms,” the saint said. Jesus would teach that “unless you become like little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3), and shows us how to do that in Bethlehem. “The Son of God preaches to us in his infancy from the crib,” the Curé stated, and “in his childhood draws our hearts toward him, vanquishes the world and teaches us how to become as children, that we may obtain the kingdom of heaven.” For Vianney this reality gave new meaning to Isaiah’s prophecy that “a child is born for us” whose name would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace” (Is 9:6). He was all that and more as a little baby!
More than becoming man or entering our world as an infant, St. John Vianney was most stupefied at the Lord’s mercy in being born in indigence. “Stable, crib, swaddling clothes represent the greatest poverty,” he said, “the poverty of dwelling, the poverty of the way of living. The kings and emperors of this world are born in palaces” and yet the Son of God was born in one of the most impoverished manners available. That provoked the patron saint of priests to ask, “Why did he choose poverty?” The answer, he discovered in prayer, was so that Jesus could be even closer to us.
“Poverty is our very existence. How poor and helpless is even the rich man,” Vianney preached. “Therefore the Savior wanted to be nearer to the poor man; that is why he appeared upon this earth in the utmost poverty.” He used another great image to show us why. “When Cyrus had vanquished the Persians by the sword he possessed dominion over them, but when he wished to win the hearts of the Persians, he clothed himself as a Persian. That is how our Savior wished to win our hearts. He took upon Himself our weakness, our lowliness, our poverty, so as to approach us as nearly as possible as a poor child.”
The “great sermon” that Jesus preached in the poor stable and proclaimed from the poor crib was, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3). Jesus’ voluntary embracing of poverty inaugurates that new kingdom. “Through Him, the Son of God, poverty is no longer despicable, no longer shameful, no longer mean; through Him is poverty ennobled, exalted and sanctified.” The poor, coming to kneel at the crib, find the “only thing” that can bring them happiness in their poverty: Christ himself, the Savior, born poor like them. The rich, coming to that same crib, recognize that possessions and money cannot redeem them or make them free; only Christ can.
That’s why St. John Vianney encouraged all his listeners to make their hearts into a poor crib so that “we may have a dwelling that we can offer to the divine Savior. He seeks and desires a dwelling of poverty, so that he may return into our hearts.” That’s the humble path by which the divine Savior will “take possession of us” and fill our hearts with “that message of joy and peace to men of good will upon the earth.”
St. John Vianney’s heart was always a crib poor in spirit that solicited and treasured the presence of the King of Kings. This Christmas he doubtless intercedes from heaven so that the earthen vessels of our hearts might become just as enriched.
Father Roger J. Landry is a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts. This article appeared on Christmas Eve, 2009, in The Anchor, the Official Catholic Weekly Newspaper of the Fall River Diocese in Southeastern Massachusetts.
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