Perhaps the greatest as well as the most joyful revelation to come from our Lord is the Nativity of our Saviour, the birth of the baby Jesus. The birth of our Lord Jesus has the virtue of being visible to the naked eye, which cannot be said for the Incarnation as such. Both the mystery of the Incarnation and the more patent Nativity share another virtue: that of the Lord’s predilection for lowliness.
By its very invisibility to the eye, the Incarnation — the mystery of the Word made flesh — shows how much the Lord values lowliness. The first coming of the Lord Jesus heralds the salvation of mankind, that most wonderful declaration of love — and it begins out of sight, out of mind, practically, of all concerned.
The Nativity too is an exercise in humble beginnings. There might be a host of angels in the sky singing Glory to God in the highest, there are none but a few nameless shepherds to hear that heavenly shout of joy. In contrast, all that Mary and Joseph experience are the comforts reserved for animals and rejection from their countrymen because of overcrowded housing.
Jesus humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even to death on a cross (Ph 2:8). Saint Paul was thinking of Christ’s death in writing those lines, but he none the less realised that the same virtue applies to the Incarnation and to the night when Jesus was born: Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness (Ph 2:6).
Contrast our own lives and actions. How much time and energy does humanity expend in the pursuit not of lowliness, but of the exact opposite: the denigration of lowliness. Humble beginnings are at best tolerated. What matters more is how quickly one can get away from lowliness, gaining admittance into a level of existence defined by the absence of anything deemed lowly. Are we not constantly badgered with the notion that failing to “rise” up into those coveted spheres of greatness — financial, educational, social, material, political, religious — is to fail at life in general?
Only God himself could ever dream that seeing the eternally begotten Son laid down in a place used for feeding cattle would be cause to sing Glory to God in the highest! Surely there is something valuable revealed to us in the lowliness of Jesus’s birth.
Lowliness for its own sake cannot be the Lord’s desire. His desire is that all nations should know salvation and have eternal life. That is greatness indeed! That is the mission which the Lord Jesus bequeathed to his Church: go, make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19).
Surely there can be no greatness more desirable and pursuit-worthy than our own salvation. One could wonder then whether one is not wasting one’s time in pursuing greatness. Not so much because greatness is worthless, but because the Lord is doing that job already. Instead, one might considering rehabilitating lowliness in our daily life, just as the Lord made lowliness a mark of his own divine plan. Lowliness is where our potential to everlasting greatness lies. By imitating the lowliness of our Lord Jesus, we might in fact be adopting a plan of participating in the greatest project of all time: the grace of life with God.
Paul-Dominique Masiclat OP, Lund.