In swaddling clothes
An Easter Orthodox prayer during the Octave of Christmas puts the paradox of God become man: “You who hold all things in the hollow of Your hand were wrapped in swaddling clothes.” Would you say that it is this shared feeling of helplessness with the Child of Bethlehem which can give meaning to our daily life’s circumstances in front of sickness, injustices, death, and so forth?
The phrase “swaddling clothes” is rarely used. Here in this context it seems to be one of several touches meant to establish a parallelism between Christ’s birth and his death when Joseph of Arimathaea wrapped the body of Jesus in a shroud, just as the stable in a cave, as the stables of the Holy Land commonly were, reminds us of the tomb hewn out of the rock in which the body was placed.
Christmas should rather serve to remove the feeling of helplessness since it means that a divine force now inhabits the frailty of human flesh. Still, it is not by force that evil can be overcome but rather by non-violence.
It is still very painful to think of what the conditions of life in Bethlehem are like now. These conditions, which have resulted not only in a large number of Christians previously resident in the town abandoning David’s city, as we still sing of it in many Christmas carols, but also in the reduction of the number of pilgrims visiting it at this time of the year.
The symbolic power has been enhanced by what Bethlehem has suffered in these last years, but since it is real people of flesh and blood who have had to endure the suffering, it is a high price that has had to be paid for the added symbolic value.
If there is no reference in the New Testament to the ox and the donkey in the Nativity scene, how come then that animals have featured in the Christian iconographic representation since the mid-fourth century? What did these two animals symbolise or represent?
The Biblical justification is not in the narrative of the birth of Christ but in Isaiah, Chapter 1, verse 3: “The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib; Israel does not know, my people do not understand”.
It may be that since the donkey is associated with carrying Mary, whose pregnancy surely restricted her capacity for multi-kilometre walks on foot, the donkey may symbolise all those who have long distances, spatial or otherwise, to travel in order to reach their meeting place with the Lord.
The ox, on the contrary, evokes motion to and fro concentrated in just one small patch of land. Hence it can easily represent those who may not need to cover many kilometres of road to meet the Lord, but who might have considerable spiritual distances to cover.
Putting together two creatures that are taken to signify two extremes or opposites is a usual Semitic way of indicating a totality.
What does the birth of Jesus mean to you both as a priest and as a philosopher?
Both the greatest classic philosophers Plato and Aristotle agreed, as they rarely did, that the highest form of love implied exchange between equals. If they are right, then the highest form of love was not possible between God and man until God became man through the Incarnation.
The great philosophical import of the Nativity is that it became possible for all human beings to have the highest form of love for God through Jesus Christ.
The highest service that a Christian priest renders to mankind is his role in the celebration of the Eucharist. The Mass, however, is a sign not only of the union of God and man in a single person, but also of the whole of humanity in order to make up the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ.
It is the maximum expression of the solidarity of the entire human race. The consolidation of this communion between all human beings is the ideal to which the priestly life is dedicated.
Hence, the Incarnation of God first and then the transformation of one individual human body through death and Resurrection into a spiritual body of which all the members of the human species can become part, is what gives full meaning to the vocation of the Christian priest.
Fr Peter Serracino Inglott was talking to Miriam Vincenti.