Why Is the Cross in a Christmas Book?
We would not celebrate Christmas if it weren’t for Easter. We would not celebrate Easter if it weren’t for Christmas.
“I believe in Jesus Christ ... who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried … on the third day he rose again from the dead …”
When I reflect on this passage of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, which we recite for every Mass, Rosary and chaplet, I am continually surprised at its brevity and how quickly it moves from the crib to the cross — it wastes no time in getting to the heart of what we believe, and rightly so. These are the great and essential truths of our faith, and while we declare that we believe them, it is vitally important that we cultivate a love for them. Nothing could be more important than igniting and continually inflaming a deep love for him in whom we say we believe.
Since this task is so important, it demands our attention from the earliest moments of our children’s lives. The way to teach children, of course, is in a manner suitable to children: through pictures and stories and songs. (The same methods are necessary for adults, as well.) We need to show our children (and ourselves) beautiful representations of these beautiful truths so that we can learn to love them. That is the whole point of education, anyway, as Socrates tells us: to learn to love what is beautiful.
The inspiration for these thoughts is a children’s book to which I was recently introduced: The Shepherd at the Crib and the Cross by Patrick O’Hearn, with illustrations by Michael Corsini. On first inspection, it looks like a Christmas book, a story about a young Jewish shepherd’s presence at the birth of the long-expected Messiah. The first reading, though, reveals a story that artfully weaves together those essential historical truths of the Creed. The narrative and the artwork invite the reader (and the listeners; I recommend reading as a family) to more than mere information. Nissim, the shepherd who finds himself both at the crib and cross of Jesus, recognizes and loves Jesus as Lord from beginning to end, as Mary instructs him. We are inspired to love Jesus and listen to Mary along with Nissim.
When I first read it to my children, I had a hard time making it through because I got choked up at more than one moment. The words and the illustrations had a powerful effect on me as I accompanied Nissim from hearing his father’s instructions about the coming Messiah to the Nativity, to the way of the cross, to the burial, to the Resurrection and finally to the hope of Christ’s return.
When I finished reading, I asked my children if this was a Christmas book.
“Yes,” they replied.
“Then why is the cross in a Christmas book?”
“Because Jesus was there,” was their simple reply.
The cross is not separate from the crib. Christmas is about Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, too. The wood of the manger and the wood of the cross are the same. The cave where Jesus was born was an early manifestation of the cave from which he rose again. We would not celebrate Christmas if it weren’t for Easter. We would not celebrate Easter if it weren’t for Christmas. Jesus was there at both. Both were about Jesus. God was there at both. Both were about God.
Pope Francis wrote, “I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: ‘Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction’” (Evangelii Gaudium, 7).
Through words and pictures, O’Hearn and Corsini provide an opportunity for such an encounter for our children and ourselves. It is the kind of book I want my children to revisit and dwell upon. I want them to look at the pictures and think about the story and the people for a long time. I want to do the same myself.
Books like this one don’t put us to sleep to dream pleasant unrealities, but wake us up to the true nature of things and of a God who is Love.