Christmas and us: the cave of interiority in which the unexpected becomes real

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14).

This Christmas Gospel invites us to reflect on the profound significance of the event of Jesus’ birth by offering John’s famous prologue. It is, as is well known, a text of not immediate access that, also for this reason, never ceases to summon us to speak to the heart of every believer, willing to grasp the mystery of that birth which is, at once, human and divine.

Indubitably there is an inherent risk in the theatricalization of Christ’s birth. Without realizing it, caught up in the spectacularization or imbued in the logics of consumerism, we transform ourselves from possible participants into spectators. The difference is subtle. In the former case, we speak of implication and involvement; in the latter, of remote enjoyment.
That is why it is not redundant to ask what Christmas still has to tell us.
One of the most surprising answers in this regard comes from Meister Eckhart. In one of his sermons, in fact, he argues, “He begets me as his Son. […].. I and God are one” [1]. Such a coincidence boggles the mind: how is it possible that I can be one with God?

Eckhart by Andrea di Bonaiuto, detail from Via Veritas, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, ca 1365

According to the German theologian, it is when the soul completes a path of liberation from its own selfhood, that is, when it empties itself of the claim to be the measure of all things, that that similarity is realized that allows – each time and always again – the event of birth to be fulfilled within the believer’s consciousness, in the hollow created by the emptying of self. Interiority thus becomes a new grotto capable of hosting the incarnate mystery. Christmas, then, is advent fulfilled in us; living presence, Word made flesh, our own.
From that moment, every man’s life is invited to listen to that inner strangeness that inhabits us as a possibility most proper to the human. Here, then, that Christmas depends on me, provided that such dependence is not understood in the way of a subordination to the claims of subjectivity, but rather as the initiation of the dethronement of the self.
It is precisely for this reason that among the many images that accompany Christmas I would choose one that, at the immediate level, does not conceal its impertinence.

I refer to the Exaltation of the Cross, an episode from Piero della Francesca’s “Stories of the True Cross” cycle at the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo. In it a scene is shown that is imagined to have occurred following the finding of the cross of Christ, brought back by Heraclius to Jerusalem.

Legend of the True Cross – Exaltation of the Cross (c. 1452-66, Fresco, San Francesco, Arezzo, Italy)

In the line of the faithful watching, rapt, the scene, the last of them, before falling to his knees, with a gesture of his hands removes his headdress. He abandons all defenses, uncovers himself, remains helpless before the mystery. Being the last in line, there is no possibility that his gesture is made for the benefit of the view of the others, each of whom looks forward to the rediscovered Cross.

Detail from the fresco cycle of the “Legend of the Holy Cross” in the choir of the Basilica of St. Francis in Arezzo.

No one, therefore, can see him. However, it is at that very moment that he, freed from all superstructures, begins to see his true self.
It is in that inner space, finally rediscovered, that Christmas can take place. That is why, as José Tolentino Mendonça has significantly written, “Every man is the crib in which God is born.”[2]

[1] Meister Eckhart, I Sermoni, edited by Marco Vannini, Paoline, Milan 2002, pp. 133 and135
[2] José Tolentino Mendonça, “The true nativity is within us,” Avvenire, Dec. 23, 2022


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