Christmas is about grace. Jesus came to earth and was born in Bethlehem to give us better
access to grace. He made God accessible to us; He WAS God. The baby in the manger was God. As St. John tells us in his Gospel, “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. . . . The law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:14, 16-17)
Some think God looks down at us on earth as if we were a science experiment, or like an ant farm. They think that He is disinterested in us. The good news of the Catholic religion is that God is indeed interested in us, so interested that He came down to live among us. For thirty-three years, He walked among us on earth. He desired not only to live next to us, but also to live within us. He wants to influence our lives now on earth and after death into eternity. We are made by Him, and for Him, out of love.
What is grace, then? Grace is the presence of the Holy Spirit of God in our souls. God exists outside of us. He is the Creator, and we are the creatures. But He desires to connect with us, to enter into our soul. His spirit (the Holy Spirit) desires to enter our soul and live within us. St Paul writes, “God’s Love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5)
When the Holy Spirit is in our soul, we say that we are in a state of grace. God is living in us; we participate in His life. His goodness and wisdom rub off on us. Our soul and His spirit are united and mingle together. He changes our desires, our thoughts, our attitudes, and our priorities. We become like Him. We bear Him in our souls. God became man so that man could become like God.
When the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to ask if she would be the mother of God, he said, “Hail, full of grace.” At the moment Mary said yes, she was full of grace; she was full of God. She had conceived Jesus in her womb, God who took on a human nature in her. God was in her body as well as in her soul. God desires to live in our soul, too.
How do we get grace? How do we receive the Holy Spirit? We receive grace whenever we pray. The main goal of prayer is to commune with God, to invite His Spirit within us. A special form of prayer that conveys grace is the Sacraments. The Sacraments are seven ways of praying that Jesus taught us. Each gives us grace, the Holy Spirit in our soul, though each affects us differently.
Some grace is referred to as habitual. It is like a habit; it becomes an enduring part of us. It is as if it were seared into our soul. Grace from the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation and Matrimony has a lasting effect; our soul remembers the encounter with God and so is inclined to goodness. Even if the person later turns away from God in serious sin, they are more likely to eventually turn back than if they did not have those sacramental graces.
There is another type of grace referred to as actual grace. Each time we receive the Sacraments of Communion and Confession we receive a new experience of God, a fresh dose of grace. Each time we pray we receive grace, the Holy Spirit in our soul. These are moments of actual grace. Experience shows that the effect of grace seems to wear off. As humans, we have short memories. We can be inspired by a good experience today but forget it tomorrow. We are fickle and easily distracted. So we must seek grace over and over again.
Jesus taught us to ask for our “daily bread”, not our weekly or monthly or annual bread. In fact, just as we give strength to our bodies by eating three meals a day, it is recommended that we pray three times a day to strengthen our souls. Three times a day, invite the Holy Spirit into your soul. Three times a day, ask God for grace.
This brings us back to Christmas. Jesus came to be consumed by us, to enter into us. On His first day visible on earth, Christmas day, He was born in a stable and laid in a manger. A manger is where animals come to eat. The word “manger” comes from the Italian word mangiare, meaning to eat. He was born in Bethlehem, a Hebrew name meaning “house of bread.” On His last day on earth, Holy Thursday, the night before He died, He changed bread into His body, the Holy Eucharist, and told us to eat It. He called Himself the “bread of life.” He said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” (John 6:56) He desires to live inside us. Christmas day prefigures Holy Thursday.
At least one day a week, on Sundays, flood your soul with grace by consuming Jesus in Holy Communion. Receive His power and wisdom and goodness within you. It seems that some people are “greedy” for grace. They attend Mass every day, seeking an intimate encounter with Jesus daily. Perhaps they have learned something others haven’t? If Holy Communion is Jesus, don’t be content with once a week. Get “greedy” for God yourself!
Those who have addictions and who participate in 12-step programs are told that they have to rely on the “higher power” of God. They need God’s strength to break their addiction, since their own strength is insufficient. Well, Catholics eat the higher power. We eat God in Holy Communion, bringing His power within us. There is no more direct access to grace and God’s power. God continually offers grace to us, but we have to choose to receive it. God created us without us, but He did not will to save us without us. We must cooperate with grace, seek it, accept it, and respond to it. Ask for it humbly. Scripture teaches us that “to the humble, God gives grace.” (James 4:6)
The day of Jesus’ birth is called Christmas. This is not a coincidence. It is an old English word comprised of two words, Christ and Mass. It is Christ’s Mass. Mass is the prayer in which Jesus becomes visible in the Holy Eucharist. At the first Christmas, He became visible when He was born and laid in the manger. At every Christmas since then, He becomes visible in the consecrated host at Mass. And we receive Him and receive grace. At Christmas Mass, we don’t just remember Bethlehem; in a very real sense we are there too, adoring Jesus with Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and magi. In the words of the Christmas carol, “O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.” We come to adore Jesus in the Holy Eucharist and relish the opportunity to receive His grace at Christmas.
Fr. Michael DeAscanis serves as pastor of St. Philip Neri and St. Clement Parishes. He is also the chaplain of the Catholic Medical Association in Baltimore. He studied at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, specializing in bioethics. Previously he worked as a Civil Engineer.