To be fully Human: by Addition or by Subtraction?
As I meditated on the mystery of our Lord’s birth, my mind went straight to the entrance door to the Church of Nativity or Basilica of Nativity, which is in Bethlehem, in the West Bank of Palestine. This door is about 4ft tall. The Nativity was built by Constantine around 330 to 333 A.D. after his mother, Helena visited Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The grotto was constructed where it was traditionally believed that Jesus Christ was born. It is said that the door was made so short to prevent people from entering inside with their horses and camels. Whatever the practical reasons for the construction, the truth is that whoever entered (and enters) the grotto must bow down and very low: kings, princes, the rich and the poor, men, and women, fortunate and less fortunate, name them! You must leave behind whatever relevance or importance you have in order to enter this unassuming place where the King of Kings was born. This is exactly what our Lord did: he shed off the glory of his divinity as God and took our human flesh (Philippians 2: 5-11); he became like us in all things, tempted as we are, but without sin (Hebrews 4:15). He is fully God but also fully human through this process of shedding which marked his entire life from conception, birth, ministry, and death! In doing so, he not only saved us from our sins but also showed us how we can each be fully human: by subtraction and not by addition; by emptying and not by filling up; by letting go and not by grasping! It is only in dying that we become fully human!
For this reason, Christmas is a giving time, associated with the legend of Santa Claus who comes with many gifts. But the gift of material things to each other and especially those in need is only a symbolic realization of what our entire life should be: total giving of ourselves for others so that we can be fully human, channels of divinity in the world. The happiest people on earth are not those who give to their hearts all they crave. Rather, it is those who give of themselves for the good of others without expecting anything in return.
The whole of nature is founded on this principle of subtraction. A candle burns away its wax and so gives light so that we can see in the dark. A mother sheds off the beauty of her youth to give birth to a new life. She may gain weight after birth. In our world so obsessed with youthfulness and slimness, we tend to forget that the change in her body is part of dying for the new life that grows in her. Crops die in the ground to yield a harvest in abundance.
Within this framework, you can see why forgiveness is central to the Christian life. In every act of forgiveness, something dies in the person who forgives, and in this death, that person becomes more human because, through the forgiveness, he or she has healed the division the hurt has created between or among human beings.
As we enter into this enchanted moment of Christmas, let us not forget the fundamental message that God sent to us in Jesus Christ: that in shedding off his glory to become human like us, He invites us to embrace the challenge of being fully human by giving of ourselves away for the sake of God and others. He who is God became human so that we may become human and instruments of God’s love and peace to the world. May his peace rest with you as you do so.
Merry Christmas to all of you.
~Fr. Cornelius Okeke