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Conscience and the Christ Child

Parenthood is central to the Nativity story. Birth and infancy cast Christ the King most of all in dependence. God so humbled himself not only to become man, but also to be dependent upon man, particularly upon two parents, Mary and Joseph. God did not only come to mankind to be sacrificed, but also to be nurtured, to be loved and cared for by woman and man, to communicate his needs and to make requests to his parents as they bring him to adulthood.

As we enter into the Christmas season, Christians would benefit from reflecting upon our own experiences of parenthood. What might we learn about the nourishment of the Christ Child and attentiveness to him? Christian teaching can never be an impersonal dictate, but is rather a wellspring of life integrating into man’s experience. Likewise, experience should always be an opening into the life of Christ and his Church. So let us consider the experiences of parents and what we might learn as we observe those experiences in light of the Christ Child.

Before discussing the voice of the child generally and that of the Christ Child in particular, however, we should explore the Catholic understanding of conscience, as conscience is a place in which God resides deeply in man and communicates most vulnerably. Gaudium et Spes identifies man’s moral conscience as a voice (§16). This voice constitutes the human person’s “most secret core and sanctuary,” a place where one is “alone with God whose voice echoes in their depths.” Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman calls conscience “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ,” a messenger speaking behind a veil, where God’s representatives teach and rule within the heart of man.[1]

We are bound to obey this mysterious voice (GS §16). Newman writes of the extent to which one is bound by conscience. In his letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Newman writes: “If I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toast . . . I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”[2] In all matters, man is obliged to follow the voice within himself prompting him to make judgments in accord with his vision of what is right. Even when in conflict with the Pope, man is still obliged to follow the aboriginal Vicar.

This voice, however, does not come to man fully-formed. Rather, the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the importance of the formation of conscience. Just as one must follow conscience, one must also nourish and teach it. From childhood, the conscience must be educated (CCC §1773-1774). Conscience can be malformed, such that it will be unable to appropriately evaluate right actions. Thus, education is essential, to ensure that man does not allow his judgments to be formed solely around his limited experiences and inclinations, but also takes into account the teachings of the Church, the Word of God, and especially the Lord’s Cross (CCC §1783-1785).

Finally, even after this formation, man must must learn to be attentive to this voice. Man must learn to set aside life’s distractions in order to be sufficiently present to himself, that he may cultivate the proper interior consciousness to hear that voice (CCC §1779). Conscience comes to us first as the voice of a child, and it can only be heard by those listening for it.

The experiences of parents teach us what listening and care for a child look like in practice. Again and again I have heard from parents, “Before my child, I didn’t know I could love like that. I didn’t know I could worry about another person so much. I didn’t know I was capable of doing so much on so little sleep.” Humane knowledge requires humane experience. As a Catholic in my mid-twenties, seeing my friends get married and have children makes me wonder at the inadequacy of my knowledge of what it means to be a human person and to be a Christian.

A few weeks ago, some friends brought their baby with us to the movies. You do not become aware of the architecture of a place until you bring a six-week old child into it. When you have a small child in a movie theater, you need to sit in an aisle and be aware of all exits. Things go well as you start the movie, but the kid starts to cry half an hour in. Before you have a child, the architecture of a space goes unnoticed, and your actions are dictated more by social conformity and past experience than by conscious choice. But when you bring a child into your life, you must become cognizant of the world around you in entirely new ways. That world affects the life of your child, and so it affects your life.

The baby started fussing. My friend was able to appease her by nursing for about thirty minutes. But after a time, though the baby’s hunger was satiated, she started to cry again. Mom had to step out with the baby. She did not return.

After the movie finished, we found her and the baby in the hallway by the bathrooms. Mom told us, “She just wanted to poop during the movie, but now that the movie’s over she’s fine.”

“Oh no,” I said. “How much of the movie did you see?”

“Maybe half,” she said.

That is the other thing about being a parent. You do not just get to go see movies with your friends anymore. Your kid could explode at any time, and she probably loves to explode when it is least convenient. As an non-parent, I do not have anything in my life that requires such complete and selfless devotion for its care. And yet I do.

Sr. Ann Astell suggests that all Christians must learn to be parents. In her book Eating Beauty she draws on St. Francis of Assisi’s Admonitions. Francis teaches: “Everyday [Christ] humbles himself just as he did when he came from his heavenly throne (Wisdom 18:15) into the Virgin’s womb; everyday he comes to us . . . when he descends from the bosom of the Father into the hands of the priest at the altar.”[3] In the Eucharist, each priest is made into a womb. Just as Christ descended from heaven into Mary’s womb, he comes to the priest in the Eucharist, and the priest becomes another Mary bringing Christ into the world. Utilizing imagery common in medieval literature, Francis teaches that the priest is not only an image of God the Father. The priest is also a Marian image, fertile like the Virgin Mother. His hands become as a womb for the Church.

Astell shortly after quotes from Francis’s “Letter to All the Faithful.” Francis writes: “We are mothers to [Jesus] when we enthrone him in our hearts and souls by love with a pure conscience, and give him birth by doing good.”[4] What the Admonitions teach us about the priesthood, the Letter extends to all Christians. Each Christian is called to be mother, to bear the life of Christ and to give birth to him in the world. We receive Christ in Scripture and the Eucharist, and give birth to him through our lives. Just as the hands of the priest, our hearts and souls become wombs bearing Christ, who longs to be borne of ourselves into the world as we receive him.

Paradoxically, in this reception, we become both Christ and Mary. Astell writes:

Receiving Christ in Communion, Christians become Marian Christ-bearers and bringers. The Christ Child is almost always depicted in art with His mother’s physical features, in witness to the Virgin-Birth, but like Christ, Mary has many faces, assumes many forms, appears in manifold visions. As mother she gives “matter” to Christ, even as each Christian offers the bread to be consecrated through the priest’s hands. But she receives her form through her conformity to Christ. The Marian, Christian communicant is what she eats, a mirror image of the Christ she consumes, He who turns her into Himself.[5]

Christ comes into us, making us into new Eves, and He is borne uniquely to each Christian, bearing the distinct image of each of our Christian lives. But we also come into him whose image we bear.

Let us consider the former image, the image of each Christian as a Mother. Reflecting on Francis and Astell’s words, one can find in the Eucharist a new life for oneself. In the Eucharist, we become like Mary, receiving the Incarnate Christ into ourselves, so that we may bear him in us. We become Christ-bearers. Our lives become wombs and mangers bearing him. It is not sufficient, however, to simply bear the Word. We must nurture him.

Thus, Astell also reflects on the Eucharist as a seed:

Because the Eucharist is a kind of food, it allows for and effects, moreover, constant changes in the recipient’s capacity to receive Christ, as they grow in the life of grace . . . The seed of Christ, consumed in the Eucharist, “germinates,” St. Albert says; it sprouts, grows, and gradually matures in the garden of the soul. This organic growth in virtue alters and increases, in turn, the proportionate relationship between the communicant’s receptivity and Christ’s gift of Himself. The more Christlike people become, the worthier their disposition to receive the Host, the more Christ incorporates them into Himself as they eat the sacrament.[6]

This passage describes how we do not simply receive Christ into ourselves in a terminal way, but rather, as a seed. We receive Christ in the Eucharist, who then germinates within us. Christ grows as we bear him within us and continue to receive him.

Observing my friends who are parents, I realize the extent to which each Christian must care for Christ within himself or herself. Parents do not simply go to the movies as atomized observers. They go to the movies as parents, always mindful of their children. In their love, they accept the inconveniences that arise so that they can change, feed, and rock their child. From the moment of conception, parents realize that their lives have changed. They have changed. Now everything in life must be structured around their care for this child.

Though this care is experienced often as inconvenience, it is not mere inconvenience. Rather, this care comes as a loving sacrifice. The bitterness that might accompany the struggles of parenthood is mediated by the tender love of the child. Thus, while the struggle of parenthood does not lose any of its intensity, the capacity of the parent to respond to this struggle in loving and tender ways grows as the parent attends to the beauty of the child again and again.

This, too, is the calling for Christians. The Christian life necessitates realizing the responsibility for the life within us. Christians receive Christ in Baptism, in the Eucharist, and in Scripture as a child who desires our love so that he may mature within us and come to a fuller life. Our lives as Christians center around the maturation of a child, a child borne in us through the Eucharist. Care for this child necessitates struggle, but the struggle must always be borne out of love, lest it descend into bitterness and resentment. Christian charity must always ascend by means of tenderness and mindfulness of beauty.

This new life should push us to reconsider sin. A loving parent must always be mindful of her child. A failure to keep the child properly present in their minds might result in neglect or a failure of nurturing. Parents cannot allow distractions to keep them from listening to the voice of their child. And just as parents are called to be proper listeners to a child who might call upon them, Christians are called to do likewise with the Christ Child and the voice of conscience. This coheres more readily with a classical understand of sin as hamarteia, a failure to hit the mark, rather than simply an affirmative act of malice. We are not simply called to avoid overt acts of evil, but are called to hit the mark in constant attentiveness. The life of the child must not be simply not harmed; it must be nurtured.

Sin, hamarteia, does not simply cut the Christian off from God outside of us. It also hinders Christ within us. Sin is a failure to be mindful of the Christ Child which we bear. If we took the Christ Child within us seriously, we would live the all-encompassing devotion of a good parent, recognizing that sin harms the life within us. Conscience, then, becomes the voice of the crying child, reminding us of our need to care for that life.

Far from being a voice which would put us at odds with Christianity or Church teaching, conscience is the voice that, when heard properly, calls us to attend to the life of the Church. Conscience is that voice which calls us to be ever mindful of the life within us. The more we grow in that mindfulness, the more that voice will develop and the better we will understand the ways in which we must cultivate our lives such that Christ can be born and grow in them. For this reason, the Catechism speaks of the importance of “interiority” and a constant return to conscience in the midst of life’s distractions (CCC §1779).

Sin is a failure of mindfulness, of attentiveness, a turning of our gaze away, even if only for a moment, from he who should be our beloved child. Continued forgetfulness of the child hinders both the growth of the child and our ability to hear his cries. One sign of child neglect is a child’s silence in need. Neglected children do not cry, because they have learned that no one will come for them. This, too, can happen with conscience. If we do not attend to it, the voice of conscience will dull, until we fail to hear its cry altogether. Gaudium et Spes warns that conscience can be “gradually almost blinded through the habit of committing sin” (§16). It wanes in our forgetfulness.

But if we are mindful to each cry of the Christ Child within us, if we return our attention to him again and again, then we become like those good mothers and fathers who do not simply parent at discrete chosen times, but who are parents, for whom parenting becomes an ontological reality, for whom the habitus of parenthood has taken root so deeply that it constitutes their entire existence. I am not just someone who parents and who goes to the movies; I am a parent who goes to the movies, as a parent. We are the bearers of the Christ Child, and because we are those who are attentive to him, He comes to full maturity in our lives. He is borne in us, just as we are borne in him.

This, ultimately, is the other half of the dual calling of the Christian. Each Christian is not only called to imitate Christ and to become Him in our reception of Scripture and the Eucharist. We are also called to become Mary, to each become a new Eve, bearing Christ within us, giving birth to him, and nourishing him in our lives. We, too, are called to love the Christ Child as our own. And as we love him ever more, we will be more prepared to receive him into our lives. Thus, we will live out one of the many paradoxes of the Christian life: we must both be other Christs and also Christ-bearers. This Christmas season, let us not only be attentive to the newborn Christ, but let us also look for guidance from the Mother and father who love him.

SEE ALSO:

Fear the Innocence of Children

Featured Image: La Sagrada Família – Centre of Nativity Façade: Ox, Father Joseph, Child Jesus, Mother Mary, Donkey, Taken on: 7 October 2009, Taken by: Txllxt TxllxT; Source: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.

[1] John Henry Newman, “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” V, in Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching II (London: Longmans Green, 1885), 248.

[2] Ibid., 250.

[3] Ann W. Astell, Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 2016), 60.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 57.

Christopher Damian

Christopher Damian, J.D., C.S.M.A., is an attorney and business professional living in St. Paul, Minnesota. He writes on faith, sexuality, education, and other subjects for journals such as Ethika Politika, The Intercollegiate Review, Crisis Magazine, Spiritual Friendship, and Millennial Journal. His personal blog can be found here.