O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
We are rarely at home for Christmas. Out of the 16 Christmases since we moved to Rockford, we've spent only three or four here. Other than years in which we have a child due in January or early February, we spend Christmas, and a few days before and after, in Michigan, with Amy's family and mine.
So Christmas 2011 has been a rare treat, kicked off by Midnight Mass at our church, Saint Mary's Oratory. I missed the Eastern European koledy (Christmas carols) that precede Divine Liturgy at Saint Michael's Byzantine Catholic Church in Flushing, Michigan (where we usually spend our Christmas Eves), but the loss was made up for by the unexpected (by me, at least) inclusion of one of those carols (arranged by Saint Mary's music director, John Grune) in the choral program before Midnight Mass.
And in that program we also sang one of my favorite Western Christmas hymns, "O Little Town of Bethlehem." The quiet, unassuming melody allows us to concentrate on the words we are singing—words that are deceptively unassuming as well. And yet they carry a powerful message, a message not just of a God Who became Man, but of a God Who became Man in a particular place, at a particular time, as the Son of a particular woman.
For Christ is born of Mary . . . How often do we, slightly embarrassed by the Church's Marian devotion because we're unable properly to explain it, shrug off the insistent questions of our Protestant friends by saying that it's not really about Mary; it's about her fiat—her saying "Yes" to God, when the Angel Gabriel announces that she has been chosen to be the mother of His Son. She could have said "No," we may even say, and so God would have chosen someone else, and the honor that we accord to Mary would belong to this other woman.
On one level, that's all quite true; but on a deeper level, it could not be more false. God chose Mary because He knew what her answer would be. As Pope Saint Leo the Great writes in his First Homily on Christmas, Christ's "Mother was chosen a Virgin of the kingly lineage of David, and when she was to grow heavy with the sacred Child, her soul had already conceived Him before her body."
Read those words again: "her soul had already conceived Him before her body." Mary wasn't just one among many who could have been the Mother of God; she was the one woman throughout all of human history whom God chose to bear His Son, and He chose her because she had chosen Him.
No aspect of Christ's birth is a mere accident of history. Christ was born when He was because "the fulness of the time was come" (Galatians 4:4). Mary was espoused to Joseph, so that Christ is of the lineage of David. The couple had to travel to be enrolled in the census so that Christ would be born in Bethlehem, David's town. The news of His birth was first announced to the shepherds, "guarding their flocks by night," just as the news of His Resurrection was entrusted to the apostles, the men who would become the shepherds of the flock of the Church, guiding the faithful through the long night until the Second Coming of Christ.
In some abstract sense, it is perfectly true to say that, because God is all powerful, Christ could have become incarnate as something other than a Jew, as the son of some woman other than Mary, in someplace other than Bethlehem, at some time other than a little over 2,000 years ago. But the history of our salvation is anything but abstract. God is with us, in the Person of Christ, but Christ is Who He is because of Who and What and When He was: He was born at the perfect time in the perfect place, of the perfect woman of the perfect race.
Recognizing all that is just the first step toward coming to a proper understanding of what we celebrate this Christmas Day. But for today, that first step is enough.
To all the faithful readers of the About.com GuideSite to Catholicism, my family and I would like to extend our best wishes for a very Merry Christmas (all 12 days of it!), and a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year.