And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we saw his glory, the glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
The mystery of the Incarnation was effected by the Annunciation, nine months before Our Savior’s Nativity. The Word was made flesh with our Lady’s fiat, and at that moment humanity was joined to divinity in a personal union. The Child conceived is already a perfect man, meriting the salvation of the whole world, praying in our behalf and offering to God perfect worship. Further, Blessed Mary was already the “Mother of God” at the Annunciation, for women are mothers from conception even before giving birth.
Why, then, does the Church celebrate the Birth of our Savior with greater solemnity than the Incarnation itself (at the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25th)?
Christ was conceived a perfect man, lacking in nothing
We have already discussed [in an article last week, here] that the Christ Child was conceived as a perfect man – thus were fulfilled the words of Jeremiah: A WOMAN SHALL COMPASS A MAN (Jeremiah 31:22). The Incarnation was already perfected and fully accomplished at the moment of Jesus’ conception of the Virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit.
There was nothing lacking to the Annunciation, there was no delay or gradual assumption of nature – but, all at once, in an instant, the second Person of the Most Holy Trinity assumed a human nature to himself. Certainly, the body of the Child needed to grow and be formed in the womb of his Mother (we presume, according to the natural process of gestation), but the human nature itself did not gradually grow, but was wholly complete at the moment it was assumed.
The point here is that, as in all men, Christ did not slowly become human over the weeks of gestation in the womb, nor did he become man only after his birth, but rather he was fully human from the moment of his conception. [and it is worth noting that even St. Thomas and St. Augustine, who thought (due to faulty science) that ordinarily a baby is not truly human until several days after conception, held that Christ was fully and wholly man in the first instant of Mary’s fiat at the Annunciation]
Our point here in stressing this is to say that the Incarnation was already complete even before the Nativity of our Lord. Christmas is not truly the feast of the Incarnation; rather, the Word became flesh at the Annunciation. Why, then, does the Church celebrate Christmas with greater solemnity than the Annunciation?
Christmas is not a response to pagan holidays
Some may claim that Christmas is celebrated so solemnly as an historical response to certain pagan holidays. Whether the pagan feast of “Saturnalia” or that of “The Birthday of the Unconquered Son”, it has become stylish to say that the December 25th Christmas celebration was simply adopted as a practical means of Christianizing Rome.
Dr. Taylor Marshall has recently posted an excellent article which utterly destroys these pop-theories [read it, here] and has shown also that the Church Father’s had adopted a December 25th Christmas even before the pagan holidays existed! [read the second article, here]
The main point is that the pagan feast of Saturnalia was celebrated at the Winter Solstice which cannot even fall on December 25th (the latest is December 23rd) – hence, if Christmas was to replace the Solstice feast, it would have been celebrated at least a few days earlier.
Regarding the “Feast of the Unconquered Sun” – this pagan feast was not created or popularized until after Rome had been Christianized. It is quite ironic, this pagan feast was created under the anti-Christian Emperor Julian the Apostate as a means to Paganize the Christian feast in a last effort to return the now Christian Rome to its pagan roots. Thus, the history is the exact opposite of what the pop-theory claims!
Therefore, as we can see, Christmas has not come to its high degree of prominence in the Church calendar as a mere response to pagan feasts. There must be a theological reason why Christmas is celebrated so solemnly, and with even greater honor than the Annunciation.
The Nativity is the manifestation of the Incarnation
Here I will give a speculative answer to this question – I do not claim this as a dogmatic certainty, but I offer at least two reasons why the Nativity is celebrated with greater solemnity than the Annunciation.
When St. Thomas Aquinas discusses infant baptism, he asks whether the Church should make a practice of regularly baptizing children while in the womb before birth [cf. ST III, q.68, a.11 - here]. Obviously, in cases of emergency, St. Thomas says that (if possible) the child should be baptized – though there certainly technical difficulties, since the child would be contained in the womb and could scarcely be reached to be baptized [cf. ST III, q.68, a.11, ad 4].
St. Thomas says that, ordinarily, children in the womb ought not to be baptized not only because of the objective difficulty (indeed, the near impossibility) of applying water to a child in the womb of his mother, but because “children while in the mother’s womb have not yet come forth into the world to live among other men.” [ad 1] The point here is that there is a real sense in which a child in the womb is not yet “in the world” in the way that other men are “in the world” – of course, children are fully human from the moment of conception, but St. Thomas holds to this idea that the union of child and mother in pregnancy makes a real difference in the way the child relates to the world.
Indeed, while a child is in the womb, he relates to the world through the medium of his mother. Unborn children are not “among men” in the way that others are. Certainly, they are in the world, but only insofar as their mother is in the world. Thus, an unborn child is not manifested to the world in himself, but through his mother.
Now, from this, we turn to the mystery of Christ’s Nativity. Jesus, while in the womb, certainly was praying for us and was meriting our salvation. Still, there is a real sense in which Christ came into the world to live among other men only in his birth. While in the womb, Christ’s manifest relation to others was only through his Virgin Mother – thus, St. John the Baptist was sanctified through Mary’s words. When Jesus was born, he was manifest to others and lived among men in his own right – though, certainly, he still maintained this close union with his Mother and she remained united to him in his work of redemption.
If we maintain that children only manifestly come into the world to live among other men at their birth, then we say the same also for the Christ Child. Thus, while it is true that the Word was made flesh at the Annunciation, there is a real sense in which he dwelt among us after his Nativity. Certainly, we saw his glory only after his birth into the world.
And this is one reason why the Church celebrates Christmas with greater solemnity than the Annunciation – though Christ was fully man at the Incarnation effected at the Annunciation – for there is a real sense in which Christ dwelt among us manifestly only after his miraculous Birth.
The Birth from Mary, the Birth from the Father
Briefly, we point out another reason why the Nativity is so solemn a feast. The mystery of the Nativity does not point simply to the temporal birth of Christ from his Mother Mary, but also gives us to consider the mystery of his eternal birth from the Father. As Jesus was born of Mary in time (without any harm to her virginal integrity), so too is he born of the Father in eternity (without any harm to or division of the divine Essence).
Thus again, we look to the words of the Evangelist: And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we saw his glory, the glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
At the Annunciation, with Mary’s fiat and the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, the Word was made flesh – for the Eternal Word, at that moment, became man and assumed a human nature to himself.
At the Nativity, when Christ was born of Mary and came forth into the world to live among other men, he dwelt among us, and we saw his glory.
Finally, when meditating on Jesus’ birth of Mary, we come to understand something of the mystery of his eternal birth from the Father – we saw his glory, the glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father.
And for many reasons besides, the Church celebrates the Nativity of our Lord with the highest solemnity.