Many people who celebrate Christmas aren’t sure why. The Christmas season is a time for being with family, sharing good meals, sending greetings, exchanging gifts, and for decorations even on the most secular establishments, such as banks. Why? Probably, even those of us who are “religious” rarely think about the real significance of this feast.
In the Gospel for Christmas midnight Mass, the angels call the shepherds to rejoice: “Behold, I bring you news of great joy which will come to all the people, for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
What difference would the birth, even of a Savior, make for the shepherds, who the next night and every night that afterwards will be doing the same thing, “out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Lk 2:8)?
Yet, their lives would be different. The angels declared “for to you is born a savior.”
St. Thomas Aquinas states that Jesus was born to manifest God’s goodness to us: “It belongs to the essence of the highest good to communicate itself in the highest manner to the creature…” (3a. 1, 1).
Thomas continues: “It was fitting that God, by reason of His infinite goodness, should unite human flesh to Himself for man’s salvation” (3a. 1, 1, ad 1).
Even if the shepherds would spend their whole lives watching sheep, they would know that God loved humanity and that God had singled them out to manifest this love.
Thomas considers other reasons for the Incarnation and birth of Jesus, derived from St. Augustine:
• ‘What greater cause is there of the Lord’s coming than to show God’s love for us?’ And he afterwards adds: ‘If we have been slow to love, at least let us hasten to love in return.’
• ‘And therefore God was made human, that He might be seen by humans, and we might follow.”
• ‘With regard to the full participation of the Divinity, which is the true bliss of man and end of human life; and this is bestowed upon us by Christ’s humanity; for Augustine says in a sermon: ‘God was made man, that man might be made God’ (3a. 1, 2).
Thomas Aquinas states: “He was made known to men of all conditions… the shepherds were simple and lowly” (3a. 36. 3). We might equate “simple and lowly” as unimportant. Paul reminds the Christians of Corinth that their ideas about people are not God’s ideas:
“For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. God purposely chose what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise, and He chose what the world considers weak in order to shame the powerful. He chose what the world looks down on and despises and thinks is nothing, in order to destroy what the world thinks is important. This means that no one can boast in God’s presence.” (1 Cor 1:26-29).
Thomas thinks that Paul’s words should encourage preachers: “For inasmuch as God did not subject the world to His faith by employing the great ones of the world but the lowly ones, man cannot boast that the world was saved by employing worldly greatness… Furthermore, it pertains to God’s glory to draw the great of the world by means of the lowly” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, 68).
From the beginning of His ministry, Jesus worked with ordinary people, such as His apostles: “You have been called not by the great of this world but by the lowly; consequently, your conversion should not be attributed to men but to God. In other words, He is the source of your life, i.e., by God’s power are you called in Christ Jesus, i.e., joined to Him by grace: ‘We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works’ (Eph 2:10)” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, 68).
Christ is the wisdom of His ministers, despite their human limitations: “God supplies for the deficiencies of His preachers by means of Christ: first, as to their lack of wisdom: God made for us, who preach the faith, and by us unto all the faithful, Christ, our wisdom, because by adhering to Him Who is the wisdom of God and by partaking of Him through grace, we have been made wise; and this is our God, Who gave Christ to us, as it says in Jn (6:44): ‘No man can come to Me, except the Father who has sent Me draw him’ (Jn 6:44) (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, 71).
Our coming to God is not due to human power or wisdom but the grace of God: “Let him that glories, glory in this that he understands and knows e” (Jer 9:24), For he is saying: If man’s salvation does not spring from any human greatness but solely from God’s power, the glory belongs not to man but to God, as it says in Ps 115 (v. 1); “Not to us, O Lord, not to us; but to Your name give glory” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, 72).
The shepherds represent all of us, as we go about our ordinary lives. The birth of the Son of God into our world tells us that our ordinary lives are important to God and even as ordinary as we might seem to be, we are loved. God acts through us, even though we have our limitations and deficiencies.
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians may be found on the web page of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/
References to the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. If the passage is found in a response to an objection that Thomas has introduced in the first part of the article, the Latin word “ad,” meaning “to,” is added with the number of the objection.