Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
We're now in that quasi-Christmas season. The twelve days are past. Epiphany's over. The Baptism of the Lord is past, but in some places Christmas still lingers on to the Feast of the Presentation on February 2. It's like the Church is still sorting out what the heck happened at Christmas.
That's not surprising. Christmas is weird when you think about it. God becomes a human being after giving centuries of mysterious hints that this is what he plans to do, yet when the moment comes, hardly anybody realizes it. He lives for thirty-odd years among his people, repeatedly telling them "I am going to be killed and rise from the dead." Yet when the moment comes, those closest to him are astonished anyway when it all happens. Then, after he rises from the dead, those who had heard his prophecies of this event are as astonished as those who never heard a word he said. After this, his disciples spend several decades figuring out that he wasn't kidding when he told them, for instance, that Gentiles would be welcome in his kingdom too. And once the apostles leave the scene, the Church embarks on a lifelong game of catch up, slowly coming to understand more deeply the things she was told 2,000 years ago and pausing periodically to say, "Oh! I get it!" (about questions ranging from the Trinity, to the nature of the Eucharist to, most recently, Jesus' teaching about the dignity of the human person).
This puzzles a lot of people, particularly those who, whenever the Church makes some new refinement in doctrine, mistakenly think the Church is perpetually changing her tune and scrapping "outmoded dogmas." But the reality is very different. It's not that the Church ever scraps her dogmas. It's that she comes to more clearly understand what they mean and builds on them. It's more like being in love than it is like science or law.
For what, after all, happens when we fall in love? Do we get up in the morning planning to have our world fall away from us at the sight of that face? Do we map out wire-drawn Ten Year Plans with goals and objectives about how we will meet that person who will transform our life and show us mysteries of love that we could never have anticipated? Only a fool and a cold fish "plans" to fall in love-like the cad who marries for money. For the rest of us, falling in love-indeed, even friendship-is something we can never plan or achieve. It hits us on the head, that smile, that walk, that tone of voice, that mystery of self-revelation whom we would never have foreseen in a million years. And yet, when we encounter it for the first time there is the amazing sense that we were made for this person and they for us, as though it had been planned out long ago. So we fall in love first. Then we figure out what happened.
This is why marriage is a sacrament. It reflects that weird "unexpected yet planned long ago" quality of a Bridegroom who exists before all worlds and who marries the astonished and blushing Bride who is the Church. Nobody foresaw this surprising mystical marriage except the prophets-and they didn't clearly know what they were seeing. Nor did the apostles, to whom the revelation came in a bewildering whirl of miracles, blood and the fire of the Spirit, and who, like lovers, then spent the rest of their lives asking "What happened?" and writing the New Testament to sort it all out.
That's why Christmas is so weird. God did not send us theologians to map out a theology of justification, ecclesiology, and transubstantiation in preparation for the coming of Christ. He dropped an eight pound spiritual bomb in Bethlehem and let the explosion surprise the world. And we have not yet recovered from the surprise. For in that spiritual blast of love that took us all by surprise, the Lover came for his Beloved and stunned her with what, till that hour, she did not know she wanted yet which fed her soul more than the security of all the neat philosophies and clever stratagems in the world. He gave her himself.