A few years ago, a fellow Jesuit introduced to me a beautiful Christmas story. It was written by Jérôme and Jean Tharaud, called La Dernière Visiteuse (The Last Visitor), and published in their work The Tales of the Virgin in 1940. Both the French original and the English translation can be found elsewhere on the interweb, but I take the liberty to include the short story here:
It was Bethlehem, the end of a long night. The star had just disappeared, and the last pilgrim had left the stable. The Virgin arranged the straw: at last the Child could sleep. But who can sleep the night of Christmas?
Gently the door opens, so gently that it seems more like the wind was pushing it than a hand. A woman appears on the threshold, covered with rags. She was so old and wrinkled that you would have thought her mouth was one more deep wrinkle in a face the colour of dirt. A fearful chill came over Mary when she saw her, as if a malicious fairy had come into the room. Fortunately Jesus was asleep. The ass and ox placidly continued munching their hay, as if there was nothing unusual, as if they had known her forever.
The Virgin didn't take her eyes off her. The woman walked slowly, each step seeming to take centuries. She continued, the old woman, and approached the manger. Thank God, Jesus was still sleeping. How can one sleep on Christmas night?
Suddenly he opened his eyelids. His mother was completely astonished to see that the eyes of the old woman and his eyes were exactly the same, they both shone with the same hope. The old woman sank down on the straw. One hand disappeared into her rags, looking for something.
Finally, after a long time, slowly, tiredly, the old woman pulls out of her clothes a little object hidden in her hand, and she gives it to the child. All the treasures of the Wise Men and the offerings of the Shepherds, what could this be?
She turned from the crib, smiled at Mary, and went out through the door into the dawning day. Finally Mary could see the mysterious present.
An apple, a little apple, having within it all the sin of the world, given to the baby Jesus by Eve, for it was her, the old woman, who had come to worship the Child born of her blood.
Though highly imaginative, the meaning behind the story is not to be dismissed: Jesus is the decisive turning point of humanity. It happened within the context of our human history, but it is both easy and dangerous to relegate its significance to a purely linear and historical one. Let us unpack this with some extra help. In his book You Crown the Year with Your Goodness, Hans Urs von Balthasar quotes the German theologian Johann Scheffler: “Christ may be born in Bethlehem a thousand times, but if he is not born in you, you will be lost for all eternity just the same...if only your heart could become a crib, God would become a child again on this earth”.
Jesus Christ is not just the same yesterday, but also today and forever. Surely, we are not “pregnant with Christ” in the same way as the Virgin Mary, but the theological significance is clear. If we do not allow Christ to dwell in us, to transform us so that he may transform others through us, then this Jesus-born-in-Bethlehem is but a historical anecdote. Jesus would be muted as an intellectual curiosity, a neutral fact, and a mere phenomenon to us. Christmas would then be just the commemoration of the birth of an extraordinary person who had a great historical impact in time. The personal, ever ancient, ever new life-transforming power of Christ would be lost.
Let us not slip into this trap as we celebrate this Christmas season. Let this special time be a reminder to us, that we must live by faith like our Mother in order that Christ be born in and through us everyday. Let us adore that apple-holding Holy Child with our lives, the One who renews us in him and transforms us into his likeliness.