No feast in the liturgical calendar more perfectly and completely justifies, celebrates, and embodies the pro-life cause than Christmas.
Pope St. John Paul II highlighted this connection in the opening paragraphs of his great pro-life encyclical – Evangelium Vitae – where he quotes the angels’ triumphant greeting to the shepherds of Bethlehem: “I bring you good news of a 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.”
Christmas, wrote the sainted pope, “reveals the full meaning of every human birth, and the joy which accompanies the Birth of the Messiah is thus seen to be the foundation and fulfilment of joy at every child born into the world” (no. 1).
Called to Eternal Life
As pro-lifers gazing upon the nativity scene, we cannot but be struck by two things: 1) that the Christ child, lying in the manger, was so recently an unborn child, resting in the womb of His mother, Mary and 2) That this tiny human frame, so weak and helpless, is the tabernacle for God Himself, the second Person of the Most Holy Trinity.
For over 2,000 years, Christians have meditated upon and unpacked the significance of this divine revelation, the revelation of God in the flesh. And one of many world-changing insights they have hit upon is this: If God the Son could so completely and perfectly unite Himself with His human nature, then there must be something about human nature itself that is of such high dignity that this union was even possible in the first place.
At the beginning of the Old Testament, Scripture notes that God made man in his “image.” If the language of Genesis resoundingly affirms the immeasurable dignity and worth of the human person, the Son’s great act of humility, His kenosis, the emptying of Himself so as to take on the nature of His creature, confirms in an astonishing fashion just how great that dignity is.
The Omnipotent God saw it fit to take upon Himself the form of His creature, in order to restore that creature to its former dignity. “For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ,” St. Paul proclaims, “that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). God descended, so as to elevate man. If Christ, then, so united Himself with human nature, it was in part to show that every human person is called to be united with God – not, of course, in the hypostatic union, but in the contemplation of God’s essence in the Beatific vision. “For God so loved the world,” marvels John the Evangelist “that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Humans alone, of all creatures in the material world, bear within themselves this “image” of God, a likeness that renders them capable of seeing God face to face. The staggering truth is this: Every human person you see is an immortal being, called to incomprehensible heights of dignity. The theologians will even speak of “divinization” of the human person – that is, the transformation and elevation of the person through grace, God’s life acting in the person, drawing him to Himself.
“Man,” wrote St. John Paul II, “is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God. The loftiness of this supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase. Life in time, in fact, is the fundamental condition, the initial stage and an integral part of the entire unified process of human existence.” (EV. no. 2)
Life is Worth Living
Life can be hard. Suffering and pain are inevitable. And, in the end, there is death. In the beginning, Scripture says, it was not so. Suffering and death were not in God’s plan for the human race. It was sin that brought these things into the world. But even still, as Ven. Fulton Sheen so famously and so often repeated, “Life is worth living.”
Suffering and pain are inevitable. But in comparison with the great dignity of our nature, and the immeasurable happiness to which we are called, these sufferings are inconsequential. Christ Himself endured sufferings far beyond what we can imagine. He did so in part to show us how these sufferings are eclipsed by the fact of the resurrection. Death is only a precursor to life.
The fathers of the Second Vatican Council, in Gaudium et Spes, noted:
The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown. (Gaudium et Spes, no. 22)
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Man alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life … This is the fundamental reason for his dignity. Being in the image of God, the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone.” (nos. 356-357)
St. Paul exhorts his readers: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you” (1 Cor. 3:16). John echoes this same message in one of his letters: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” (1 John 3:1-2)
Since every person beams with the transcendent, our responses and actions regarding human dignity must affirm and reflect this profound reality.
Because of the Incarnation, this message of the innate dignity shared by every human being is elevated even further by a new awareness of just how great God’s personal love for every human being is, and how lofty is the human destiny.
Life is Worth Defending
If Christ, by taking upon Himself human flesh showed us that life is worth living, He simultaneously showed that it is worth defending.
“[H]uman life, as a gift of God, is sacred and inviolable,” wrote St. John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae.
Not only must human life not be taken, but it must be protected with loving concern. The meaning of life is found in giving and receiving love, and in this light human sexuality and procreation reach their true and full significance. Love also gives meaning to suffering and death; despite the mystery which surrounds them, they can become saving events. Respect for life requires that science and technology should always be at the service of man and his integral development. Society as a whole must respect, defend and promote the dignity of every human person, at every moment and in every condition of that person’s life. (no. 81)
During his apostolic journey to Germany in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI strongly expressed the need to transition from the “is” to the “ought” upon which our moral decisions and actions are – or should be – based. I’ll explain what he meant by that in a moment.
The Holy Father wrote:
At this point Europe’s cultural heritage ought to come to our assistance. The conviction that there is a Creator God is what gave rise to the idea of human rights, the idea of the equality of all people before the law, the recognition of the inviolability of human dignity in every single person and the awareness of people’s responsibility for their actions. Our cultural memory is shaped by these rational insights. To ignore it or dismiss it as a thing of the past would be to dismember our culture totally and to rob it of its completeness. The culture of Europe arose from the encounter between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome – from the encounter between Israel’s monotheism, the philosophical reason of the Greeks and Roman law. This three-way encounter has shaped the inner identity of Europe. In the awareness of man’s responsibility before God and in the acknowledgment of the inviolable dignity of every single human person, it has established criteria of law: it is these criteria that we are called to defend at this moment in our history. (September 2011, Bundestag.)
Using Pope Benedict’s reflection, the “is” that I referred to above is the truth that the human person is made in God’s image. From this “is,” it follows that we “ought” to respect and defend the incomparable worth of every human life, from the moment of conception to its natural end.
From the moment of conception, there is a human person who ought to be welcomed, loved, protected, and cherished, without exception. The “is” – the fact of man’s being made in God’s image – is the precondition of all human rights, which we have a sacred duty to defend. This “is” makes it clear that we “ought” to vigorously reject every act that disrespects human dignity, determining who has value based upon arbitrary, indiscriminate criteria.
Respect for life is the only sure foundation and guarantee of the most precious and essential goods of society. There can be no true peace without a recognition and promotion of every person’s immutable dignity and without respect for his or her inalienable rights, originating in immutable human dignity.
The West, in its embrace of modernism, has rejected these fundamental tenets, which has left us vulnerable and exposed to the culture of death.
I cannot but think of St. John Paul II’s constant rejection of consumerism, utilitarianism, pragmatism, and individualism. Each of these denies and falsifies the truth of human dignity, placing value instead upon productivity, efficiency, usefulness, pleasure, and gratification.
The image of the Christ child lying in the manger is the ultimate rebuke to these sins against human dignity. The Christ child was a human baby, physically incapable of providing for His basic physical needs. And yet, that tiny human frame contained the fullness of the Godhead.
The Magi were quite right to kneel in awe before that child, recognizing his incomparable worth. The same is also true, in a lesser degree, of every human child. Every human person, no matter how small, or helpless, is a tabernacle, impressed with God’s image. The human person does not need to do or have anything in order to justify his or her existence, or to earn his or her dignity. The mere fact that he or she exists is enough.
This Christmas, let us gaze with wonder upon the crèche, and ponder the great mystery of God’s love for each and every one of us, and let us renew our resolve to fight to protect the dignity of every human person, from conception to natural death.
A very Merry Christmas to you and all of your loved ones!