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Those who watch for Christ

First Advent cropped

First Sunday of Advent, Year C – November 29, 2015

Every now and then when the world seems to be falling apart and problems appear to be insurmountable, I recall with gratitude the heroes of the Velvet Revolution who helped to bring down the reign of Communism over twenty years ago. I cherish the words of hope of former Czech president Vaclav Havel, during his days of imprisonment. Those words captivated the imagination of many people as we witnessed the Communist regime finally come to an end:

The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts is something we get, as it were, from ‘elsewhere’.

I also turn frequently to the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s section on “The Theological Virtues” and read the paragraphs on hope (#1817-1821). I always find hope and peace of mind and heart from those paragraphs on hope. I have been particularly struck by the thoughts found in #1818 of the Catechism:

The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.

Day-to-day following of Jesus

Such thoughts are important for us as we enter the season of Advent with a bang this year- with a section from Luke’s chapter on the end times! In today’s Gospel story [21:25-28; 34-36], we can see, hear and feel Jesus’ eschatological discourse in Mark 13. The actual destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in A.D. 70 upon which Luke and his community look back [Luke 21:20-24] provides the assurance that, just as Jesus’ prediction of Jerusalem’s destruction was fulfilled, so too will be his announcement of their final redemption (21:27-28).

The evangelist Luke has made some significant alterations to Mark’s description of the end times. Luke maintains the belief in the early expectation of the end of the age but, by focusing attention throughout the Gospel on the importance of the day-to-day following of Jesus and by reinterpreting the meaning of some of the signs of the end from Mark 13, he has come to terms with what seemed to the early Christian community to be a delay of the Parousia (Second Coming). In dealing with the persecution of the disciples (21:12-19) and the destruction of Jerusalem (21:20-24) Luke is pointing to eschatological signs that have already been fulfilled.

The central message of Christianity does not consist in knowing the exact details of the end of the world. As a matter of fact, there are very few specifics about the future in Jesus’ preaching other than that God is going to accomplish his purpose and he’s going to accomplish it through Jesus. When my students would ask me about the Second Coming, I always tell them that I suspect it’s going to be as big a surprise as the first coming was. It is in God’s hands. God will bring about his Kingdom and that is what is most important.

Blameless in holiness

In the second reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians [3:12-4:2] we encounter Paul trying to strengthen his Thessalonian converts in their new faith about twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. For Paul, an essential part of the Christian message was the Parousia, or the Second Coming. Without that event, the drama of salvation was incomplete. Paul believed the Parousia was imminent, but preparation was required. Paul asked two things: (1) an increase in mutual and universal love and (2) the attainment of the Christian goal. The goal was holiness expressed in loving concern for one another. Holiness would be achieved through daily, ordinary acts of goodness, kindness, charity and hope.

The work of Advent

Advent confronts us and wakes us from our stupor. What is the work of Advent for each of us this year? We are invited to quietly prepare our hearts and our lives for the coming of the ever-greater one in the flesh. For what or for whom are we waiting in life? What virtues or gifts are we praying to receive this year? What material things do we seek? The people, qualities, things we await give us great insights into who we are. Advent, far from being a penitential time or a time of despair, is a time of rejoicing in hope and a time of patient waiting. God knows how impatient we are as a people and as individuals. Nevertheless, patience is a blessed virtue for which we should pray during Advent.

Long ago St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote that almost everything about our Lord Jesus Christ is twofold:

He has two births: one from God before the ages, the other from the Virgin at the end of all ages. He has two comings: the one is hidden and resembles the falling of the dew upon a fleece; the other – the future one – on the contrary will be manifest. At his first coming, he was wrapped in linens and laid in a manger; at the second, light shall be his robe. In the first coming he endured the Cross-, heedless of its shame; in his second coming he will be in glory surrounded by an army of angels. Let us therefore not stop at his first coming but look forward to the second. We hailed him at his first coming with the words, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And we shall hail him in the same way at his second coming. For we shall go out to meet the Lord and his angels, and, prostrating ourselves before him, we shall cry, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

As Christians, we proclaim the coming of Christ – not just a first coming but another as well that will be far more glorious than the first. The first took place under the sign of patient suffering; the second, on the contrary, will see Christ wearing the crown of God’s kingdom. Advent teaches us that there are two ways of looking at history: one is sociological and the other is religious. The first, chronos, is essentially unredeemed and cyclic. The second, xairos, is redeemed by God in Christ Jesus and becomes the possibility of providence and sacrament.

Let me leave you with some reflections on hope as we enter this most blessed season of patient longing and joyful expectation of the Lord Jesus. First, a wonderful section of the Parochial and Plain Sermons of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman:

They watch for Christ who are sensitive, eager, apprehensive in mind, who are awake, alive, quick-sighted, zealous in honoring him, who look for him in all that happens, and who would not be surprised, who would not be over-agitated or overwhelmed, if they found that he was coming at once… This then is to watch: to be detached from what is present, and to live in what is unseen; to live in the thought of Christ as he came once, and as he will come again; to desire his second coming, from our affectionate and grateful remembrance of his first.

Finally, this moving reflection on hope by the late Fr. James Keller, M.M., Founder of The Christophers:

Hope looks for the good in people instead of harping on the worst.
Hope opens doors where despair closes them.
Hope discovers what can be done instead of grumbling about what cannot.
Hope draws its power from a deep trust in God and the basic goodness of human nature.
Hope “lights a candle” instead of “cursing the darkness.”
Hope regards problems, small or large, as opportunities.
Hope cherishes no illusions, nor does it yield to cynicism.
Hope sets big goals and is not frustrated by repeated difficulties or setbacks.
Hope pushes ahead when it would be easy to quit.
Hope puts up with modest gains, realizing that “the longest journey starts with one step.”
Hope accepts misunderstandings as the price for serving the greater good of others.
Hope is a good loser because it has the divine assurance of final victory.

[The readings for this Sunday are Jeremiah 33:14-16; Ps 25; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36]

(Photo — Advent candles: CNS photo/Bob Roller)

The Baptismal Difference

Baptism of Jesus cropped

Baptism of the Lord, Year B – Sunday, January 11, 2014

Christmas has come and gone, and the Magi are now off on the distant horizon, having returned to their native lands by another road. The feast of the Baptism of the Lord seemingly brings an end to the Christmas season, although, in reality, it is the feast of the Presentation of the Lord on Feb. 2 that marks the great conclusion of the Christmas season.

Nonetheless, it is useful to ask ourselves some hard questions today of what we have just experienced in the Nativity celebrations.

A great tragedy of Christmas is that for many, it is a religion of one night, however lovely and shining it may be. The Incarnation of Jesus is reduced to mere sentimentality, tradition or a cultural feast. But Jesus is not a meteor. It is not enough to come to the manger and get stuck there; we must turn from it. And then, accepting what the occupant of the manger means, we must begin to live out that meaning, choosing what may be new directions, challenging previous ways and assumptions, continuing the journey of our life with the knowledge that something has changed. One person has made a huge difference in our life and has literally changed history.

The theme of Christ’s epiphany — of Jesus inaugurating his divine mission on earth — reaches its fulfillment in today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The beautiful text from Evening Prayer on the feast of the Epiphany reads: “Three mysteries mark this holy day: today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ; today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast; today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.” Each event is accompanied by a theophany, by startling evidence of divine intervention: the star, the water into wine, the voice from heaven and the dove. Today we witness the baptism of the Lord, the one into whom we ourselves are baptized.

In today’s Gospel, the appearance of John the Baptist seems to send us back to Advent…to look carefully at the evidence of the Baptizer and of Jesus, and to make some decisions about our lives and our future. Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus is the earliest account we have in the Scriptures. The Baptizer’s preaching is both abrasive and attractive. His very opening statement detracts the attention from himself and places it on the one who is coming, the “one mightier than I” [v. 7]. John’s whole mission was a preparation for the Messiah’s coming. When the time had come, John led his own disciples to Jesus and indicated to them the Messiah, the True Light, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Jesus was attracted to John and he accepted to be baptized because he identified totally with the human condition. He felt our struggle and our need to be washed from the guilt of our sins. Through his own baptism by John in the waters of the Jordan, Jesus opens the possibility to us of accepting our human condition and of connecting with God the way we were intended to. We are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Heaven opens above us in the sacrament. The more we live in contact with Jesus in the reality of our baptism, the more heaven will open above us.

While I was studying in Rome, I came across a story from the early Church that is very fitting for us on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. During the third century, Cyprian of Carthage wrote to his friend Donatus: “It’s a bad world, Donatus, in which we live. But right in the middle of it I have discovered a quiet and holy group of people. They are people who have found a happiness that is a thousand times more joyful than all the pleasures of our sinful lives. These people are despised and persecuted, but it doesn’t matter to them. They are Christians, Donatus, and I am one of them.”

As we remember Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, let us echo Cyprian’s words without fear: “We too are one of them.” Our own baptism invites us to recall the past with gratitude, to accept the future with hope and the present moment with wonder and awe. Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we are invited to the banquet of the Lord, so lavishly spread out before us. Our sharing in the Eucharist bonds us together with our brothers and sisters who have been immersed into the life of Christ through the waters of baptism. Let us pray that the grace of our own baptism will help us to be light to others and to the world, and give us the strength and courage to make a difference.

[The readings for this Sunday are Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7 or Isaiah 55:1-11; Acts 10:34-38 or 1 John 5:1-9; Matthew 1:7-11]

What if Jesus hadn’t been born? Part 3


In the past week, I’ve been trying to imagine what our world would be like had Jesus never been born. (Check out part 1 and part 2) It’s easy to say that The Church would not exist or that we would have no Pope. There would be no priests, deacons, religious sisters or brothers, nor there would be church buildings. But Christianity has permeated our culture to such degree that it’s really impossible to envision a world that is not influenced by Jesus and his life.

Imagine a singer, Madonna Louise Ciccone. Had Jesus never been born, her parents would not have named her Madonna. In fact, had Jesus not been born, there would be no references to Mary in our culture. There wouldn’t be a song by the Beatles called Let It Be, nor there be other songs such as Virgin Mary by Joan Baez, or Lady Writer by Dire Straits to mention a few.

In fact, the name Mary wouldn’t be a popular name. Nor would be Joseph, or Peter, John, or James. Had Jesus never been born, you wouldn’t have any friends named Elizabeth, Madelaine or Veronica. You wouldn’t have any friends named Gloria, Christian or Christina. Imagine a Latin America without the thousands of men born on December 25th named Jesús, or anyone named José María, or Marie-Josée. I guess they would still exist but their names would be Quetzalcoatl, Yupanqui or Summer.

Had Jesus never been born, we would still have the Sacred Jewish Scriptures, but would they have any references to a Messiah, a Saviour or a “virgin birth”? I guess it would depend on whether the Jesus-event was still possible in this made-up world. I suppose had Jesus not been born, we could still be waiting for the Messiah.

I can’t proceed without stating that had Jesus not been born some historical events would have been avoided: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch hunts and even anti-Semitism (at least the post-Christian kind). However these guys would still have been around: Caligula, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Saddam Hussein, Castro, Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, Suharto, Ho Chi Minh, Chiang Kai-shek, Francisco Franco, Reza Pahlawi, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Pol Pot. Would they still have committed all the atrocities they did? Likely,  except that none of them could have persecuted, tortured, murdered or disappeared Christians.

What year would it be had Jesus not been born? 2014 CE? Would it be the Hebrew year 5775? Maybe it would be the year 6 billion.

Could you argue that, had Jesus not told his disciples to “go and spread the good news to all creation,” no religion would have spread throughout the world? Would Judaism still be the small monotheistic religion of a few hundred thousands? Would Judaism have survived the destruction of the second temple? Would Islam even exist? What would the Qur’an look like without its Christian references?

Had Jesus not been born there would be 120,000,000 less websites on the Internet. You could argue that since without Christianity the printing press would not have been invented, perhaps our reading habits would be quite different. Would there be libraries full of books? Even our language would be quite different. We wouldn’t say things such as “someone was a good Samaritan”, or “he’s the prodigal son” or the “lost sheep”. We would not have teachings that have entered our every-day speech such as “turn the other cheek”, “go the second mile,” “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” “carry your cross,” “washing your hands of something” or “love your enemies.”

It’s really not that easy to imagine a world without Jesus – whether people acknowledge Him as the Christ. Sure John Lennon would’ve never said, “we’re more famous than Jesus Christ” and Mel Gibson wouldn’t have made $300 million after only two weeks in the theatres, but also, there would be no great books like The Lord of Rings trilogy or The Chronicles of Narnia and Dan Brown would not have sold 40 million copies of “The DaVinci Code.”

More than that, our world would be very lacking. You could argue that there would be no charitable organizations, no public education, no universities* or even the concept of a liberal arts education. You could argue that there would be no hospitals (definitely no publicly-funded ones) and perhaps not even (ironically) no civil rights league. In fact, without Christianity, human beings would probably have no concept of civil rights. Without Christianity we would have no concept of social justice and we wouldn’t have women’s rights. We would also not have a Just War Theory and our concept of Law would be very different. In fact, our idea of equality and human dignity would be quite different. (I’ve even heard it argued that without Christianity there would be no United States of America.)

Without Christianity, cannibalism, slavery and infanticide would still exist (I guess infanticide still exists). Had Christianity not spread around the world people would still be offering human sacrifice to the gods.

Without Christianity the lives of many people would have been quite different. Consider Francis Bacon; Charles Darwin; Cecil B. DeMille; T.S. Elliot; Judy Garland; Thomas Jefferson; C.S. Lewis; John Locke; Van Morrison; Georgia O’Keefe; F.D. Roosevelt; Eleonor Roosevelt; Teddy Roosevelt; Alfred Lord Tennyson; George Washington; Oscar Wilde; Tennessee Williams; W.B. Yeats; Charles Dickens; Duke Ellington; Florence Nightingale; John Milton; John Newton; Laurence Olivier; Lewis Carroll; Madeleine L’Engle; Madeline Albright; Natalie Cole; W.H. Auden William Shakespeare; Abraham Lincoln; Jimmy Carter; Alexander I; Nelson Rockefeller; Roy Orbison; Kris Kristofferson; Louis Armstrong; Chuck Berry; Gladys Knight; John Grisham; Gene Roddenberry; Ava Gardner; Kevin Costner; Anne Bancroft; Stephen Baldwin; G.K. Chesterton; Bernardo Bertolucci; Bono; Jim Caviezel; Frank Capra; Nicolas Copernicus; Galileo; Bing Crosby; Marie Curie; Salvador Dali; Leonardo DaVinci; Edgar Degas; Francisco De Goya; Rene Descartes; Albrecht Duher; Federico Fellini; Mel Gibson; Galileo Galilei; Graham Greene; Alec Guiness; Bob Hope; Gene Kelly; Grace Kelly; John F. Kennedy; Guglielmo Marconi; Henri Matisse; Michelangelo; Napoleon; Pablo Picasso; Arnold Schwartzenegger; Martin Sheen; Oscar Wilde; Andy Warhol; Voltaire; Johannes Keppler; Blaise Pascal; Louis Pasteur; Isaac Newton; George Frideric Handel; Antonio Vivaldi; J.S. Bach; Lech Walesa and Georges Lemaitre, all Christian. Even if none of them practiced their faith (and we know many did), it’s impossible to assume that Christianity did not influence their thoughts, their writings, their work and their actions.

What do you think? Can you think of another way that our world would be different had Jesus never been born?

I think that had Jesus never been born, we’d be missing a lot more than trees decorated with lights at this time of the year. Truly, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “without Christ, this world would be always winter, but never Christmas!”

Go now and proclaim the Good News to all creation.

*All but one of the first 123 colleges in colonial USA were Christian institutions. While these universities have lost their Christian identities, it is interesting to read the founding statements of these schools. Harvard, for example, was founded with the intention of training Christian ministers. Their motto was “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae” which means “Truth for Christ and the Church.” Harvard’s first point from their “Rules and Precepts”, stated: “Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisedome, Let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seeke it of him (Prov. 2:3).

What if Jesus Hadn’t Been Born? Part 2


Last time, I was imagining a world without Christmas. That would mean no Christmas music and no Christmas movies.  But a world without Jesus would mean much more to our popular culture. After watching the screen adaptation of Les Miserables two years ago,  I couldn’t help but thinking that this novel would be very different had Jesus not been born. Perhaps Victor Hugo never would have written it. If so, there wouldn’t be a musical called Les Mis, and this movie would not have been made. And all those wonderful songs would not exist.  But had Jesus not been born, there would be many other songs missing from your playlist:

  • Personal Jesus by Depeche Mode;
  • Hey Jesus by the Indigo Girls;
  • God is Love by Lenny Kravitz;
  • Forgiven  by Alanis Morisette;
  • Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones;
  • One of Us by Joan Osbourne;
  • God or Imagine by John Lennon;
  • I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For by U2;
  • Jesus by Queen.

That’s just off the top of my head.

Had Jesus never been born, we would also be missing a lot of great (and not so great) films from our video libraries. There would be no:

  • Jesus Christ Super Star,
  • Godspell,
  • Jesus of Nazareth,
  • The Passion of the Christ,
  • The Last Temptation of Jesus Christ,
  • The Nativity Story,
  • Mary of Nazareth,
  • The Life of Brian,
  • Ben Hur,
  • The King of Kings,
  • Salome,
  • The Robe,
  • Barabbas,
  • The Greatest Story Ever Told,
  • The Gospel According to St. Matthew,
  • Jesus of Montreal,
  • Mary, the Mother of Jesus,
  • Jesus (the mini-series)
  • The Bible Mini-series (would be missing the whole second part which was turned into the film Son of God) or
  • The Miracle Maker

 We’d also be missing: The Sound of Music, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, The Hiding Place (the Corrie Ten-Boom Story), Lilies of the Field, The Miracle of the Bells, The Mission, Dead Man Walking, The Singing Nun, Sister Act, Bless the Child, Bonhoeffer – Agent of Grace, The Nun’s Story, The Shoes of the Fisherman, The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, Romero, Chocolat and Agnes of God.  It’s also doubtful that all the angel movies would exist. Think of Angels in the Outfield (1994), Michael (1996), The Preacher’s Wife (1996) and City of Angels (1998), to mention a few.

How about: The Age of Innocence (1993) by Martin Scorsese; Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) by Michael Curtiz; The Assisi Underground (1984) by Alexander Ramati; Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987) by Louis Malle; Babette’s Feast (1987) by Gabriel Axel; Bachelor Mother (1939) by Garson Kanin; The Bicycle Thief (1947) by Vittorio De Sica; Blue (1992) by Don McKellar; Casablanca (1942) by Michael Curtiz; The Champ (1931)by King Vidor; Chariots of Fire (1981) by Hugh Hudson; El Cid (1961) by Anthony Mann; City Lights (1931) by Charlie Chaplin; A Man Escaped (1956) by Robert Bresson; Diary of a Country Priest (1950) by Robert Bresson; Going My Way (1944) by Leo McCarey; La Grande illusion (1937) by Jean Renoir; The Grapes of Wrath (1940) by John Ford; Groundhog Day (1993) by Harold Ramis; It Happened One Night (1934) by Frank Capra; A Man for All Seasons (1966) by Fred Zinnemann; North by Northwest (1959) by Alfred Hitchcock; On the Waterfront (1954) by Elia Kazan; The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) by Carl Theodor Dreyer; Pickpocket (1959) by Robert Bresson; The Quiet Man (1952) by John Ford; Quiz Show (1994) by Robert Redford; Rome, Open City (1945) by Roberto Rossellini; The Sign of the Cross (1932) by Cecil B. DeMille; The Song of Bernadette (1943) by Henry King; Therese (1986) by Alain Cavalier; 3 Godfathers (1948) by John Ford; You Can’t Take It With You (1938) by Frank Capra; Vertigo (1958) by Alfred Hitchcock. All these have either references to Christ, Christianity or exist in a Christian world view.

You could even argue that films (and novels) such as Star Wars and Harry Potter would also not exist (or be very different) since, had Jesus not been born, the concepts of salvation-through-love and self-sacrifice are very specific to the Christian world-view.

How about TV shows like Stairway to Heaven, Touched By An Angel, 7th Heaven and Joan of Arcadia? How about any TV shows that deal with concepts of redemption, salvation, forgiveness or self-sacrifice? They may still exist, but I would argue they’d be considerably different.

Had Jesus never been born, we’d also be missing a lot of books. Other than the fact that the number-one top selling book of all times, The Bible would be missing some books, we’d also be short on many great works of spiritual nourishment and fiction. I’ll let you figure out which books would not exist. Personally, I have a whole bookshelf by my bed, which would be empty.

Had Jesus not been born there would be no sacred music; there would be no Handel’s Messiah or Bach Chorales. There would also not be any sacred art; there would be no Sistine Chapel, no Pieta and DaVinci would not have painted the Last Supper. I could probably fill a whole book by just listing all the works of art, music and literature that would be missing had Jesus never been born.

It’s clear that, had Jesus never been born, our world would be much poorer. Can you think of what other songs, films, novels or TV shows would not exist?

Next time, I will conclude my imaginary picture of what our cultural world would be like had Jesus not been born.

The Angels of Christmas


The drama of Jesus’ birth at Christmas introduces us to a very diverse cast of characters who bring us one of the most beloved stories of all time.

The stage is vast — covering quite a bit of territory in biblical Israel. It encompasses the power and might of Jerusalem’s temple and the sleepy hilltop town of Nazareth where a young woman, home alone, welcomes a heavenly visitor who sets the whole story in motion. The plot moves from Nazareth in Galilee to the little town of Bethlehem in the land of Judah where the dreams of prophets and message of angels are realized.

But the drama of Christmas not only involves those on Earth, but also quite an impressive heavenly troupe as well. Today let’s consider the angels of Christmas.

One need only view the wide variety of angels on greeting cards, or consider the care in choosing the appropriate angel to crown Christmas trees, or the precision in placing angels in our manger or creche scenes at home or in church to discover that Christmas without angels just isn’t Christmas.

The stories of Jesus’ infancy and childhood contain evidence of the activity of angels. In the opening moments of the gospel according to Luke, an angel informs Zechariah about the birth of his son John the Baptist, and the same angel foretells the birth of Mary’s son, Jesus. Later Luke has angels announcing the good news to the shepherds in the fields.

In Matthew’s account, an angel advises Joseph to accept Mary’s pregnancy. An angel warns Joseph of the danger he’s in from Herod, and later returns to give Joseph the “all clear,”to leave the temporary exile in Egypt and to return to Israel.

For Christians, the stories of the angels in the life of Jesus have a power which no sermon, university lecture, television or radio broadcast could ever have. When we read the story of his birth of a virgin mother, it speaks to us of the utter kindness and generosity of God, and of his creative power that draws new life out of empty wombs and barren tombs.

When we read the story of the turmoil the child Jesus brought into the lives of Mary, Joseph, the Magi, Herod, the whole of Jerusalem, and all the babes of Bethlehem — we are forced to ask ourselves whether the risen Christ challenges and moves our lives in the same way.

When we read the story of the shepherds and their vision of angelic choirs, we discover anew how God can break into our life as well. When we read the story of that incredible good news from heaven — of those words of “glory in the highest and peace on earth,” we hear an echo of the risen Christ who would say those very things to his adult disciples and continues to say to the whole church: “My peace I give to you.”

When we remember and relive the angelic roles in Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the veil that separates us from the world of the spirit is drawn back. These angelic beings stir awesome responses within us. The powerful drama of Christmas may well give us one of our deepest glimpses into the heart of God and the mind of his son Jesus Christ, who comes to pitch his tent among us at Christmas.

Nations Will Come to Your Light

Magi cropped

Epiphany of our Lord – Sunday, January 4, 2014

What “stirring” readings we hear in the Epiphany liturgy! Consider the scene from Isaiah’s prophecy (60:1-6). Gentiles come from distant places, attracted by the splendor of Jerusalem, bringing gifts and tenderly carrying the sons and daughters of the Holy City! Though darkness may have surrounded the people, the glory of the Lord allows the light to burst forth and shine like a bright new dawn. What a fitting way to describe what we have just celebrated at Christmas!

Matthew’s Gospel story of the magi [2:1-12] reveals to us the inevitable struggle that God’s manifestation in Christ implies for the world. If we read the story carefully, we realize that far from being a children’s tale, it is a tragic adult story. The battle lines are drawn and the forces are being marshaled. A child is born at the same time as a death-dealing power rules. Jesus was a threat to Herod and to them: to the throne of one, to the religious empire of the others.

At home in their distant, foreign lands, the magi had all the comfort of princely living, but something was missing — they were restless and unsatisfied. They were willing to risk everything to find the reality their vision promised. Unlike the poor shepherds, the magi had to travel a long road; they had to face adversity to reach their goal. The shepherds also knew adversity, and it had prepared them to accept the angels’ message. But once they overcame their fright, they simply “crossed over to Bethlehem” to meet the Christ Child.

The magi, on the other hand, had a much more difficult journey to Bethlehem. It was anything but a romantic, sentimental pilgrimage that we often see in our manger scenes! The magi were not just holy visionaries or whimsical religious figures; they were willing to wager their money, their time and their energy, and perhaps even their lives to seek out someone who would bring true peace.

The magi were not completely lost upon their arrival in Jerusalem — the city did not stop their pilgrimage. In fact, in Jerusalem, they were redirected to Bethlehem. These men of the East, foreigners in every sense of the word, were guided not only by their own wisdom and knowledge of the stars, but were aided by the Hebrew Scriptures that now form the Old Testament. The meaning of this is important — Christ calls all peoples of all nations, Gentiles as well as Jews, to follow him. We could say that Jerusalem and the Old Testament serve as a new starting point for these Gentile pilgrims on their road to faith in Jesus. The people of the big city, indeed even Herod himself, were instrumental in leading the magi to Christ.

What could this mean for our own pilgrimages to the truth today? More than the obvious fact that the Old Testament must be a central part of our path to Christ, might it not also mean that our own cities, with all of their confusion and ambiguity, might also serve as a starting point for our journey of faith?

At the center of this whole Gospel story of striking contrasts lies a Baby, Jesus of Bethlehem, who is joy. Herod is afraid of this “great joy for all the people.” From Matthew’s Gospel, we do not know what happened to the magi when they returned to their native lands, but we can be sure that they were changed men. They discovered in Jerusalem and in Bethlehem that there is no longer a God of this or that country, nor an oracle uttered in some distant place, but a God and Savior who has become flesh and blood for of all humanity. And the Savior is joy.

In the end, the magi went their own way, and because they refused to be seduced by cynicism, because they allowed themselves to be surprised by this great joy, the star to which they had committed themselves appeared again. This is not only the description of the times into which Jesus was born, but also our times. When we have found our lasting joy in the midst of the encircling gloom, cynicism, despair, indifference and meaninglessness, the only thing to do is to kneel and adore.

Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar, bless our hearts and our homes with your peace and humility! When we hear the voices of old kings of death and fear and cynicism, may we have the courage to go our own way … rejoicing, because we, too, have seen and experienced the glory of the coming of the Lord.

I conclude with the words of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), that great Carmelite mystic and lover of the cross, who wrote so beautifully about the Christmas mysteries:

“Those kneeling around the crib are figures of light: the tender innocent children, the trustful shepherds, the humble kings, Stephen, the enthusiastic disciple, and John the apostle of love, all those who have followed the call of the Lord. They are opposed by the night of incomprehensible obstinacy and blindness: the scribes, who know indeed when and where the Savior of the world is to be born, but who will not draw the conclusion: “Let us go to Bethlehem.” King Herod, who would kill the Lord of Life. Ways part before the Child in the manger … “

Some will choose the path of life, others will choose the path of death. Today as we move away from the manger of our newborn King and Lord, let us recommit ourselves to the cause of life that is the heart and the joy of Christmas.

[The readings for this Sunday are Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12.]

(Image: “Adoration of the Magi” by Corrado Giaquinto)

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2008 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store.

What if Jesus Hadn’t Been Born?

Baby Jesus1

While I dislike having to listen to Christmas music as early as November 25th, I do like that once a year radio stations all over don’t seem to have a problem playing music that mentions the name of Jesus or that glorifies God.

This year, listening to Christmas music early in December I found myself thinking what it would be like if there was no Christmas. I have a Cuban friend who grew up in Cuba with no Christmas. She had never seen or heard of a Christmas tree. But had Christ never been born, the implications would be much worse than not having Christmas trees. Just think of the music we’d be missing!

 Other than all the obvious religious Christmas songs that would not exist: O Come Emmanuel; Coventry Carol; Oh Little Town of Bethlehem; What Child is This?; Silent Night; Away In A Manger ; The First Noel; It Came Upon a Midnight Clear; O Holy Night; Twelve Days Of Christmas; Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; Angels We Have Heard on High; Joy to the World; Here We Come A-Wassailing; Mary, Did You Know; the Carol of the Bells or We Three Kings, we also would not have these timeless Christmas recordings:

  • The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole
  • Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy by Bing Crosby and David Bowie
  • White Christmas by Bing Crosby
  • A Holly Jolly Christmas by Burl Ives
  • My Little Drum by Vince Guaraldi (from A Charlie Brown Christmas)
  • Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town by Bruce Springsteen
  • Christmas Shoes by Newsong
  • Last Christmas by Wham! (as much as you may hate that song)
  • Blue Christmas by Elvis Presley
  • Winter Wonderland by the Eurythmics
  • Happy X mas (War Is Over) by John Lennon
  • Most Wonderful Time of the Year by Johnny Mathis or Andy Williams
  • Santa Baby by Eartha Kitt
  • Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms
  • Wonderful Christmastime by Paul McCartney
  • Home For The Holidays by Perry Como
  • Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) by U2
  • Baby It’s Cold Outside by Ray Charles and Betty Carter
  • Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas by the Pretenders
  • Feliz Navidad by Jose Feliciano
  • Merry Christmas Baby by Bruce Springsteen
  • Silver Bells by Johnny Mathis
  • Angels Among Us by Alabama

PLUS: DrivingHome for Christmas by Chris Rea; Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee; Santa Baby by Macy Gray; Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song) by Amy Grant; Joseph’s Song by Michael Card; Do They Know It’s Christmas Time by Band Aid; Little Saint Nick by the Beach Boys; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by Mannheim Steamroller; Rockin Around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee; Nuttin’ For Christmas by Barry Gordon; You’re a Mean One Mr Grinch from How the Grinch Stole Christmas soundtrack; Grandma Got Runover By A Reindeer by Elmo and Patsy; Mary’s Boy Child by Boney M; Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24) by Trans Siberian Orchestra; Please Come Home For Christmas by the Eagles; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan; Mele Kalikimaka by Bing Crosby; Oh Come All ye Faithful by Luthor Vandross; I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas by Gayla Peevey; Christmas Time Is Here by the Peanuts Cast/Vince Guaraldi; It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas – by Amy Grant; The Chipmunk Song by the Chipmunks; All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth by Spike Jones; I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus by John Mellencamp or Aselin Debison’s The Gift (the Very First Nightingale’s Song)… phew!

However, The Chanukah Song by Adam Sandler would still exist.

Think of it: Had Jesus not been born there would be no Christmas movies either. There wouldn’t be movies called A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer nor the classics It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street.


  • All I Want for Christmas (1991)
  • An American Christmas Carol (TV) (1979)
  • Babes in Toyland (1934)
  • Bad Santa (2003)
  • Bells of St. Mary’s, The (1945)
  • Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1983) (TV)
  • Bishop’s Wife, The (1947)
  • Black Christmas (1975)
  • Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988) (TV)
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
  • Christmas Eve (1947)
  • Christmas Gift, The (1986) (TV)
  • Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
  • Christmas in July (1940)
  • Christmas Mountain (1980)
  • Christmas Romance, A (1994) (TV)
  • Christmas Stallion, The (1992) (TV)
  • Christmas Star, The (1986) (TV)
  • Christmas That Almost Wasn’t, The (1966)
  • Christmas to Remember, A (1978) (TV)
  • The Christmas Toy (1990) (TV)
  • The Christmas Tree (1969)
  • Christmas Vacation ’91 (1992)

PLUS: The Christmas Visitor (1987) (TV); The Christmas Wife (1988) (TV); A Christmas Without Snow (1980) (TV); Christmas With the Kranks (2004); Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966); Elf (2003); Ernest Saves Christmas (1988); Frosty the Snowman (1969) (TV); The Fourth Wise Man (1985) (TV); The Gift of Love: A Christmas Story (1983) (TV); Guess Who’s Coming for Christmas? (1990) (TV); A Hobo’s Christmas (1987) (TV); Holiday Affair (1949); Holiday Inn (1942); The Holly and the Ivy (1952); Home Alone (1990); Home for the Holidays (1972) (TV); The Homecoming – A Christmas Story (1971) (TV); The House Without a Christmas (1972) (TV); I’ll Be Home for Christmas (1988) (TV); It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (1984) (TV); It Happened One Christmas (1977) (TV); Jingle All the Way (1996); The Kid Who Loved Christmas (1990) (TV); The Lemon Drop Kid (1934) ; Love Actually (2003); The Little Drummer Boy (1968) (TV); The Man in the Santa Claus Suit (1978) (TV); The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941); Meet Me in St. Louis (1944); Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1984); A Midnight Clear, (1991); Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962); Muppet Christmas Carol, The (1992); National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989); The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey Nestor (1977) (TV); The Night Before Christmas (1906 and 1993) The Nutcracker (1982 and 1993); One Christmas (1994) (TV); One Magic Christmas (1985); Pinocchio’s Christmas (1980) (TV); Pluto’s Christmas Tree (1952); The Polar Express (2004); Prancer (1989); Prancer Returns (1998); Santa Claus (1959); Santa Claus, The Movie (1985); Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970) (TV); Scrooge (1935); Scrooge (1951 and 1970); Scrooged (1988); Silent Night, Bloody Night (1973); Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984); Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (1990); Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1992); Silent Night, Deadly Night III – Better Watch Out! (1989); Silent Night, Deadly Night Part II (1987); Silent Night, Lonely Night (1969) (TV); Smoky Mountain Christmas, A (1986) (TV); ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1914); U.F.O. Blue Christmas (1979); A Very Brady Christmas (1988) (TV); White Christmas (1954); The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) (TV); Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus (1991) (TV). Did I miss any?

Not to mention all those Osmond Family and Anne Murray Christmas specials!

Truly, our world would be quite different if there was no Christmas.

Next time, I’ll continue to look at what kind of cultural world we’d live in, had Jesus never been born.

Photo Credit: (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

A Feast Rich in Names, Meaning and Mission

Madonna and Child cropped

Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God – Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Jewish New Year

The Jewish Feast of Rosh Hashanah, meaning literally the “beginning of the year,” occurs on the first of the Hebrew month Tishre and inaugurates the solemn Jewish season which concludes with Yom Kippur. In the Bible, the Jewish New Year Festival is called the Day of the Sounding of the Shofar and the Memorial of the blowing of the Shofar (ram’s horn). This instrument is designed to sound the alarm of the forthcoming solemn season, to awaken Jewry to prayer and repentance. It serves as a call to remember the historical events which made Israel a people, whether at Mount Sinai or on its entrance into Israel, or on the occasion of the proclamation of the Jubilee year. In Jewish liturgy, this feast also has two other names: Day of Memorial and Day of Judgment. Each of the different names of the Festival conveys one of its special characteristics.

Rosh Hashanah is not an opportunity for excess and mirth. If Jews rejoice in the festival, it is only in the knowledge that life still holds out the promise of better things. It is the occasion of self-examination, a time when, in the words of their prayers, all creatures are remembered before God. It is a Day of Judgment, not only in the Divine sense, but in the sense that on this day all Jews should judge their own actions. It is also a day of remembrance, not only of great events of the dim past, but also of the incidents of the human journey over the past year. Rosh Hashanah invites all Jews to recall with gratitude the many times they have been delivered from mishap and pain by the unseen hand of the Almighty One.

January 1: The Christian New Year

The Christian New Year is celebrated on January 1, one week after the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Like the Jewish feast of Rosh Hashanah, January 1 has also been given several different names that reveal something of the nature of the feast. We could say that this feast is rich in names, meaning, and mission. First of all, the Christian New Year is within the Octave of Christmas (i.e. eight days after the birth of Jesus). Before the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) the Christian New Year was called the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus or the Naming of Jesus (the Holy Name of Jesus). After the Second Vatican Council, January 1 was established as the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of the Lord, and it has also been designated as the World Day of Prayer for Peace.

At first glance, we may ask ourselves if the New Year’s Feast has accumulated so many different meanings that people no longer pay attention to it. Furthermore, is it also not true that the atmosphere of revelry attached to New Year’s Eve hardly leaves anyone with the energy, desire, or willingness to consider New Year’s Day as a religious feast? Or, is it possible to consider the Christian New Year in light of the Jewish New Year, and try to find unity and meaning in the various traditions now associated with this feast?

Feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus

Let us consider some of the biblical foundations for the various meanings attached to the Christian New Year. In antiquity and in the Scriptures, it is a common belief that the name given to a person is not just a label but part of the personality of the one who bears it. The name carries will and power. Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem to Jewish parents (Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2). At his conception, it was proclaimed by an angel that his name would be “Jesus.” The Hebrew and Aramaic name “Yeshua” (Jesus) is a late form of the Hebrew “Yehoshua” or Joshua.

Eight days after his birth, Jesus underwent circumcision, the enduring sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people (Luke 2:21-24). The Greek christos translates the Hebrew mashiah, “anointed one”; by this name Christians confessed their belief that Jesus was the Messiah. In the New Testament, the name, person, and work of God are inseparably linked to those of Jesus Christ. True disciples of Jesus are to pray in his name (John 14:13-14). In John 2:23, believing in the name of Jesus is believing in him as the Christ, the Son of God (3:18). The name of Jesus has power only where there is faith and obedience (Mark 9:38-39). Believing in the holy name of Jesus leads to confession of the name (Hebrews 13:15). Calling on this name is salvation.

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of the Lord

“Mary” comes from the Hebrew “Miriam” whose etymology is probably from the Egyptian word meaning “beloved.” She is the disciple par excellence who introduces us to the goodness and humanity of God. Mary received and welcomed God’s word in the fullest sense, not knowing how the story would finally end. She did not always understand that word throughout Jesus’ life but she trusted and constantly recaptured the initial response she had given the angel and literally “kept it alive,” “tossed it around,” “pondered it” in her heart (Luke 2:19). It was only on a Friday afternoon at Calvary, some 33 years later, that she would experience the full responsibility of her “yes.”

Daughter of Zion

Vatican II gave Mary a new title and role in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium #52. For the first time, the Church officially referred to her as the “Daughter of Zion,” a title with a rich Scriptural foundation. The title evokes the great biblical symbolism of the Messianic Zion. Mary is mother both of the Messiah and of the new people of God: the individual person and the whole people being very closely united, in line with the cultural structures of Israel. For the prophets, the Daughter of Zion was the spouse of the Lord when she observed the covenant. As “Mother Zion,” she not only welcomes and represents Israel, but the Church, the People of God of the New Covenant. Mary is the first Daughter of Zion, leading all of God’s people on the journey towards the Kingdom.

Mary’s womanhood is not in itself a sign of salvation but it is significant for the manner and way in which salvation happens. There is salvation in no other name but that of the man Jesus, but through this woman, Mary, we have humanity’s assent to salvation. The Holy Names of Jesus and Mary are joined together in a very special way.

World Day of Prayer for Peace

The most recent “theme” attached to the Christian New Year has been the “World Day of Prayer for Peace.” Christians are invited to begin a New Year by praying for peace. But this action is not limited only to those who celebrate New Year’s on January 1! The Jewish people, in particular, are deeply united with Christians in praying for peace and making peace. Our God is peace. Even though we Christians consider God’s intervention in Jesus Christ to be decisive, this intervention did not represent the coming of the Messianic kingdom for our Jewish brothers and sisters.

In contemporary Christian theology, we have placed a strong emphasis on the “not yet” dimension of the Christ-event. As we wait together and work together as Christians and Jews for this Messianic kingdom, we must work together especially in the areas of justice and peace. The Jewish people are privileged partners with Christians in bringing about this kingdom of justice, love and peace. The Messianic kingdom for both Christians and Jews still lies ahead. It is not enough for us simply to pray for peace. We must work for peace, together. That is the work of those who long for the Messiah’s kingdom to fully take hold of our lives and our world.

A time to remember and give thanks

New Year’s is a time to reminisce about the past and to share hopes for the future. Authentic religion teaches us a reverence for life and gives us a sense of the holiness of God’s name. When we consider the various meanings attached to Rosh Hashanah and to the Christian New Year, we see some clear parallels. The God that Jews and Christians worship does not seek the death of sinners, but that they may return to Him and live. Both Judaism and Christianity teach that to destroy a single life is to destroy an entire world and to sustain a single life is to sustain an entire world.

The Jewish-Christian God speaks this word to all peoples: ‘Seek me and live,’ and ‘Choose life.’ Jews and Christians exist to reveal the holiness of God’s name and God’s sovereignty over all creation. In a world filled with so many voices and things demanding first place, Judaism and Christianity recognize God as sovereign over all creation. Finally, Jews and Christians yearn for the day when swords will be turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

Rosh Hashanah and the Christian New Year are excellent opportunities for the celebration of life, a commitment to uphold its dignity and sacredness, and a plea for its continuance. They are feasts when we beg to be joined with women and men of good will everywhere, especially with those who know God as the God of the Exodus, and those who know God as the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

At the beginning of this New Year of grace, may the Lord give us an ever deeper sense of the holiness of the names of Jesus and Mary. May God send us out on mission, to be instruments and agents of life and peace.

[The readings for the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God are: Numbers 6:22-27; Galatians 4:4-7; and Luke 2:16-21.]

(Image: “Nativita” by Carlo Marratta)

So Where Did the Nativity Scene Originate?


In 2007 I was a fresh-faced reporter at a diocesan newspaper. My editor assigned me to write a piece on the history of the nativity scene. I tracked down a priest and professor of church history and set off interview him about the history of the nativity scene.

I did not do a Google search before the interview because my interviewee was a more reliable source of information. Imagine my surprise when I asked “So where did the nativity scene originate?” and he answered “Actually, St. Francis created the nativity scene in 1223 in a small town called Greccio.”

Had I not been seated, I might have fallen over. How had I lived three years in Italy, travelled up and down the boot, (including Umbria and Tuscany) and not heard about St. Francis inventing the nativity scene?

I press “record” on my voice recorder and sat mesmerized as the story was laid out before me. Picture this: Greccio, 1223.

As he goes about his work, shepherding the faithful of Greccio and the surrounding area, Francis notices a disturbing trend: his flock are more caught up in the material preparations for Christmas than the spiritual preparation.

Disconcerted, wanting to help his parishioners remember the true significance of Christmas, he thinks hard about what he can do. Then it comes to him…but the idea is new and different; so new and different that before he does anything he asks the pope for permission.

The pope agreed with his idea, and so Francis set the ball rolling on his plan. With the help of one of the townspeople he borrows and ox and a mule. The ox and mule are taken to a cave on the outskirts of the town where Francis sets up a temporary altar. In the cave he arranges a manger, and has townspeople stand in for Mary and Joseph.

That night he leads the townspeople, by torchlight, to the cave. There he celebrates Mass and preaches about the birth of Jesus in a stable…a scene that the townspeople can now see with their own eyes thanks to Francis’ idea. Legend has it Francis was so moved with love for our Lord that during his homily he couldn’t bring himself to say the name “Jesus.” Instead he use the phrase “the babe of Bethlehem.”

Within 100 years every church in Italy was setting up a manger scene at Christmas. The Vatican is no exception: every year in mid-november scaffolding goes up in the middle of St. Peter’s square and a manger scene is built. The scene, like the Christmas tree alongside, is donated by a different region in Italy. The 2015 manger scene come from Verona and the “Verona per L’Arena” foundation, which promotes the cultural activities at Verona’s historic outdoor arena.

Emmanuel: God With Us, a reflection by Fr. Thomas Rosica


Let us consider the Scripture stories that speak of the birth of Christ in history, about the Word becoming flesh. How do Matthew, Luke and John explain this great mystery in their Gospel accounts? What should be our response to this mystery that is prolonged in our midst through the Eucharist? What does it mean to adore the mystery of the Word made flesh?

Matthew’s Story

Matthew’s Gospel is about the scriptures being fulfilled in Jesus. In the genealogy, Jesus is the culmination point toward which Israel’s long covenant history has been leading, particularly its puzzling and tragic latter phase. Matthew agrees with his Jewish contemporaries that the exile was the last significant event before Jesus; when the angel says that Jesus will “save his people from their sins” (1:21), liberation from exile is in view.

Matthew tells us that Jesus’ birth in human history fulfills at least three biblical themes. He brings Israel into the Promised Land; “Jesus” is the Greek for “Joshua.” As Emmanuel, “God with us”, Jesus embodies God’s presence with his people (Isaiah 7:14, quoted in 1:23). As the new David, Jesus is the Messiah born at Bethlehem (2:5, fulfilling Micah 5:1-3).

In the name “Emmanuel,” we find the answer to humanity’s deepest longings for God throughout the ages. Emmanuel is both a prayer and plea (on our behalf) and a promise and declaration on God’s part. When we pronounce the word, we are really praying and pleading: “God, be with us!” And when God speaks it, the Almighty, Eternal, Omnipresent Creator of the world is telling us: “I am with you” in this Child.

The name Emmanuel is also alluded to at the end of Matthew’s Gospel where the risen Jesus assures his disciples of his continued presence: “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (28:20). God did indeed keep his promise in Jesus. Jesus truly fulfills the plan of God in word and deed, in desire and presence, in flesh and blood.

His rejection by his own people and his passion are foreshadowed by the troubled reaction of “all Jerusalem” to the question of the magi who are seeking the “newborn king of the Jews” (2:2-3), and by Herod’s attempt to have him killed. Jesus’ mission during his public life is limited “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24), and he assigns the same limits to the mission of the Twelve (10:5-6). More than the other evangelists, Matthew takes great care to note that events in Jesus’ life happened “so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled” (2:23).

Luke’s Story

The Infancy Narrative of Luke’s Gospel contains some of the most touching, well-known biblical stories in the New Testament. On Christmas night we listen with awe and wonder to Luke’s beautiful Christmas story. In Luke’s story, we watch the shepherds as they tell one another the reason why they are setting off to Bethlehem: “Let us see this thing that has happened.” Literally the Greek text says: “Let us see this Word that has occurred there.” Luke presents us with the radical newness of Christmas night: the Word can be seen, touched, experienced and felt for it has become flesh.

We must raise several questions about Luke’s story…. about Mary and about the shepherds. Did the shepherds – religious outcasts from the hillside – ever anticipate the depths of the joy they suddenly found released in their hearts that when they heard the news they hurried off to Bethlehem? Perhaps the joy really did hit their feet and they surprised themselves by singing and dancing!

After four weeks of waiting for the coming of Christ, we too should be prepared to be overtaken by joy at his arrival. If we have domesticated the announcement of his birth so that we are no longer stirred by the news, something is wrong with this picture! If we are not dancing for joy, we might have missed an important part of the whole story.

Through the mystery of the Incarnation – the Word made flesh – we are not given one new, mighty and glorious throne from which our God will rule over us, but two ways by which God will reign among us: from a crib in Bethlehem and from a cross in Jerusalem. We cannot have one throne without the other. They go together. Jesus’ coming among us at Christmas reminds us that the touch of gentleness and mercy is victorious over hatred, violence, occupying forces, weapons, and monologue.

The Word Made Flesh in the Fourth Gospel

The prologue of John’s Gospel climaxes with the announcement: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14) (in Greek literally: pitched his tent among us.) It’s a form of divine camping in our midst. This presence came about though the free love of God: “In this way the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world that we might live through him” (I John 4:9).

On Christmas Day, John’s Gospel Prologue is proclaimed instead of the rather idyllic story of the shepherds and the angels. The Word is not simply a message that we can put into words. It comes as a person, a life enfleshed and enacted. In Jesus, the message and the messenger are united. The medium is indeed the message!

Through the wonder and mystery of the Incarnation, the Word did not become a philosophy, a theory, or a concept to be discussed, debated, exegeted or pondered. But the Word became a person to be followed, enjoyed and loved! So it’s all right for us to fantasize about that person’s revolutionary dreams, for a world of peace and justice, a world where no one cries and no one goes hungry… a world where the only occupation that takes place will be the Lord’s occupation of human hearts. But more than just fantasizing, Christmas asks us to believe his revolutionary dream, and to put it into practice each day.

The Word that becomes flesh is about compassion and vision, but there is also something frightening about it, a kind of desperate insistence. Our redemption is Jesus Christ. If the future were not the promise of Jesus Christ but the predictable outcome of present sociological trends, despair would overwhelm us and even kill us.

Authentic Adoration of the Word Made Flesh

In the Eucharist, the Church joins Jesus in adoring the God of life. Adoration means being present, resting, and beholding. Beholding Jesus, we receive and are transformed by the mystery we adore. Eucharistic adoration is similar to standing at the foot of the Cross of Jesus, being a witness to his sacrifice of life and being renewed by it.

In her essay entitled “The Mystery of Christmas,” (Edith Stein) wrote:

“In order to penetrate a whole human life with the divine life it is not enough to kneel once a year before the crib and let ourselves be captivated by the charm of the holy night. To achieve this, we must be in daily contact with God. […] Just as our earthly body needs its daily bread, so the divine life must be constantly fed. ‘This is the living bread that came down from heaven.’

If we make it truly our daily bread, the mystery of Christmas, the Incarnation of the Word, will daily be re-enacted in us. And this, it seems, is the surest way to remain in constant union with God. […] I am well aware that many think this an exaggerated demand. In practice it means for most of those who start the habit that they will have to rearrange their outer and inner life completely. But this is just what it is meant to do. Is it really demanding too much to make room in our life for the Eucharistic Savior, so that He may transform our life into His own?”

The ways our words become flesh

New forms of electronic communication are everywhere and being reinvented again rapidly, but God doesn’t care. God does not buy a new iPhone or get a new app (mobile application). His communication platform is the human person. The Christmas message announces a new divine presence among us. Each day of our lives we seek the personal presence of those whom we care for and who care about us. We cannot imagine to leave friendship and love at a distance. Photographs, memories, letters, e-mail, text messages and phone calls are not enough. We want to enjoy the personal presence of those who fill our minds and let us live in their hearts. We live in God’s heart, and Christmas visibly brought among us the Son of God who cares infinitely for each of us. God did not want to live that love at a distance.

The feast of Christmas reminds humanity of one profound message: that God has mixed with the human family, and loved them all- the women and the men, the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor, those who love and those who hate, those who are beautiful and those who are not. And only God, himself, knows who is close and who is far from him. From now on, we can recognize God, not in the power and glory of our temple worship, our power, prestige and numbers. At Christmas we are taught where to find God: in the midst of humanity, in the thick and thin of the human race, in the smile and tears of a newborn baby, in the suffering of strangers, in the cherished gift of friendship. From now on, anyone who really understands that God has become human will never be able to speak and act in an inhuman way.

The highpoint of Jesus’ self-communication is in the Eucharist. Let us remember that the Word did not become an e-mail, an SMS or text message, or some kind of divine oracle uttered from some distant heaven long ago. Through Mary, the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. The Word became close to real people in real time. May the Lord bless you, as your own words become flesh.

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO Salt and Light Catholic Television Network

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)