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December 11, 2006VOL. 44, NO. 22Oakland, CA
Bishop's Column

The mystery of Christmas –
God’s awesome exchange

Dear Friends in Christ,
For a great many of us, our happiest memories are of Christmas. At this time of year, in the days of Advent preparation leading up to the feast, the mere whiff of balsam or the glimpse of a favorite ornament can unlock a whole trove of reminiscences.

Of course, the melodies and words of the songs that belong to the Christmas time have their own particular power. Hearing the first few bars of “Silent Night” can make present in a moment the whole treasure of Christmas memories accumulated over a lifetime.

My thoughts this year as we move toward Christmas Day center, not on a popular carol or even one of the prominent texts from the Lectionary, such as “… and the Word became flesh…,” but rather on a phrase that is less well-known: “O marvelous exchange! Man’s Creator has become man, born of a virgin. We have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

This antiphon, from Vespers for January 1, has been part of my Christmases since I began to pray the Divine Office in my seminary years; however, it has taken on a much richer meaning this year – so much so that this deepened insight is giving a whole new color to my celebration of the season.
I want to share this insight with you in order to communicate more fully my prayerful Christmas good wishes for you and your loved ones.

The antiphon is exuberant. It begins with a ringing cry: “O marvelous exchange!” Then in two swift strokes it explains this wonder by specifying just what sort of “exchange” it has in view: in Jesus Christ the Creator was born as a creature; God took on our nature so we could take on his.

It is the marvel of it all that so particularly rings true to me this year. That’s because of my accident, the surgeries, the hospitalizations and the weeks of recovery I went through this past autumn. It is on account of what they call my vivid “lived experience” of the weakness and frailty of our flesh that the antiphon so resonates with me.

Now, I don’t want to be melodramatic here. I know that my troubles with my broken arms were of no great account in comparison with the crosses so many of you bear. Nevertheless, this was my own personal walk with infirmity, and it left me with its own deep impression of our fragility.

It is in the light of that experience that I am newly struck with awe at the exchange that has occurred in the Divine Word taking on human flesh. Who would not be awestruck, perhaps even dumfounded, in the face of the mystery of the Incarnation: that God the Son should lay aside his invulnerability to take on himself our flesh that can hurt so badly and our bones that are so easily shattered?

Yes, this is indeed an exchange at which I can only marvel.

And yet, besides marveling, we are also provoked to ask about the basis, the logic, the reason for such an exchange. Or, to phrase the question in much more colloquial terms, Why would God even consider such a “swap”?

The answer is love. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn. 3:16).

It was because of his love for us that Christ did not think that he had been “swindled” in taking on our nature so that we could share in his.” (See The Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 456-463.)
In fact, his love is so ardent, so strong, that on the night before his agony of flesh and bone, he praised and thanked his Father for this call to love.

So, now we’re within sight of just what it is I wish for you for Christmas: May you be awestruck at the exchange that has taken place in the Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus, and may this awe give way to recognizing anew the depth of God's love for us.

When the Holy Spirit gives you these gifts, as I know he will to all who sincerely desire them, you will be on your way to taking hold of what I wish for you: That you come to Christmas Mass and your Christmas Communion ablaze with love for him who has loved us so much; that you come to Christmas Day exulting with a song in your heart that God is with us and will never leave us.

I wish you and yours boundless joy in the great good news that Christ our God has saved us.


Previous "In His Light" Columns by Bishop Allen H. Vigneron


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