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Verbum Abbreviatum

Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Below the sanctuary of the ancient Roman Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, or St Mary Major, in Rome is the Crypt of the Nativity. Here several pieces of wooden board are preserved which traditionally are held to be relics of the Nativity Crib. Each year on Christmas Eve they are placed on the High Altar of the Church to be publically venerated. For most of the year, however, these rather ordinary pieces of wood, slightly hidden in their elaborate reliquary, can so easily go unnoticed by the many visitors who come to this Church to observe the splendour of its magnificent interior. And yet these simple relics conceal something of great depth, for they point to that momentous event which we celebrate each Christmas when God, by taking our humanity, came into the world to dwell among us.

When thinking about the nativity of Jesus in Bethlehem Christian thinkers of the past have often been struck at the way in which something seemingly so commonplace and everyday as a new-born baby in its crib could, at the same time, conceal such a profound meaning and significance for the world. Commenting on this paradox, a medieval Cistercian Abbot named Guerric, a student of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, wrote: ‘is it not astonishing that the Word of God should have abbreviated all his words to us when it willed to be abbreviated itself and made insignificant, so to speak, that it somehow contracted its immeasurable greatness and entered the confines of a mother’s womb, and that he who holds the world in his hands allowed himself to be laid in a crib?’

This medieval writer draws our attention to the way in which all those many words that God had spoken in various ways and at different times to his people in the past (Hebrews 1:1) are now summarised in this one incarnate Word of God, this Verbum Abbreviatum or Abridged Word, who lies as a new-born child in the crib at Bethlehem. For Christians Jesus is not the first word spoken to the world by God, but he is God’s word to the world expressed definitively and in all its fullness, the culminating point of the salvation history of Israel. For in the person of Jesus Christ, God has now made it possible for us to experience him as he really is. Jesus is God’s self-expression to the world, his presence among us.

The joy of this discovery by the first Christians, and their eagerness to share their encounter with God in the person of Jesus Christ, is recorded for us in the New Testament: ‘that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete’ (1 John 1:3-4). The biblical writer clearly perceives that our relationship with God has a clear ecclesial dimension - it is only in the fellowship of the Church that our spiritual growth towards God can properly take place.

One of the reasons for Christian joy comes from the knowledge that Christ is able to provide the answer to the deepest questions about the meaning and direction of our lives and can thus satisfy that yearning for happiness and fulfilment deep within each of us. The journey of the Magi to Bethlehem in search of the infant king of the Jews has been seen as emblematic of the persistent human search for the answer to the deepest longings of the heart. The Magi found their answer in the fragile form of an ordinary human child, seemingly so ordinary and humble, lying in the manger at Bethlehem. Saint Peter Chrysologus, one of the Church Fathers, wrote about this event: ‘The Magi are filled with awe by what they see; heaven on earth and earth in heaven; man in God and God in man; they see enclosed in a tiny body the One whom the entire world cannot contain’.

This reflection is by Brother Thomas Skeats OP, a student of the English Province who is currently studying at the Angelicum University in Rome


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