Several Advents ago, a priest gave me a somewhat unusual penance during confession. Rather than assigning me prayers to recite or Scripture verses to read, he advised me to reflect on a line from what happened to be my favorite Christmas carol: “O Holy Night (Cantique de Noël),” written by French composer Adolphe Adam (with lyrics by Placide Cappeau and, in English, by John Sullivan Dwight, who softened the original French text’s stern tone).
“It captures what Christ’s birth truly means,” said the priest, and then quoted, “‘He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.’”
The simple directive was actually a difficult one for me at the time. My self-esteem was fragile at best; years of childhood sexual abuse followed by a troubled start in adult life had left me deeply wounded. So often my value seemed almost completely dependent on whether I could excel at school, lose enough weight or find the right boyfriend.
And when I failed at those things, as I quite often did, my strategy shifted to rebellion: I flouted the standards I couldn’t attain, too confused to realize that no worldly goal, gained or lost, could ever satisfy the soul’s thirst for love.
In our divisive age, we have come to define ourselves by strange and partial norms. Along with the ancient benchmarks of power, material wealth, physical beauty and popular approval, we’ve increasingly added to our canon voting preferences, sexual inclinations, vaccination concerns, and even reception of holy Communion on the hand or tongue. Although deeply held convictions may inform them, such markers are not suitable weights for the eternal scale.
Indeed, while our fractured culture speaks of “self-identification,” the only One capable of revealing who we really are is the Lord himself. “My very self you know. … Your eyes saw me unformed,” declares the psalmist. “You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb” (Ps 139:14,16,13).
Christ consented to take on flesh, stitch by stitch, in the depths of Mary’s body — all to grasp and rescue the sons and daughters of the Father, who through sin had pawned their pricelessness in the worst of transactions. Surely the One who redeemed us at the cost of his blood can tell us our names, and show us our true selves.
“Christian, remember your dignity,” exhorted St. Leo the Great in a sermon on the Nativity. In heeding the saint’s words, we instinctively bend the knee. Before the manger, then, let us bring all of our being — sins and scars, fears and follies, dreams and disappointments — to the babe through whom we were created. We need no words; silence and adoration are more fitting for a sleeping infant.
In that hush, unbroken by the world’s roar, our souls can indeed feel their worth — and, with the angels, give glory to God.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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