Friday, December 24, 2010

On Recognizing and Receiving the Gift of God

He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him. (John 1:10-11)

The Gospel account of Luke tells us that Mary had to give birth to Jesus, the Son of the Most High, in, of all places, a shelter intended for animals, "because there was no room for them in the inn" (Luke 2:7). Bethlehem was apparently filled to capacity with people who, by decree of the Roman government, had returned to their hometown, in order to be registered as taxpayers. But yet, among all those people, there was not a single incidental witness to His miraculous birth there in their midst. Everyone was too busy responding to the voice of the world, to the "decree that went out from Caesar Augustus." Meanwhile, the Messiah had been humbly and silently "brought forth" by Mary, with the very people that had been longing for their King and His kingdom passing the night oblivious and unaffected.

No Room in the Inn
It was only to some shepherds tending their sheep in the area that the angel of the Lord appeared and announced that their promised Messiah had finally come. Like Mary (Luke 1:45), these simple people believed and rejoiced in what the Lord had told them through His heavenly messenger. The shepherds also made haste, "to see this thing" that had taken place, which the Lord had made known to them (Luke 2:15), as did Mary nine months prior, upon hearing the joyful news that her older childless relative Elizabeth had conceived a son (Luke 1:36-39), "for with God nothing will be impossible" (Luke 1:37).

It was clearly because of their faith in the Lord, in their openness and readiness of heart to the accepting of His Word, that the shepherds were blessed with the gifts of both receiving the news of the long-expected Messiah's birth, and of beholding Him with their own eyes. In their great joy, the shepherds then told everyone what they had heard and seen, and "all who heard it were amazed" (Luke 2:18). Like all the men and women in the entire Gospel of Luke who would approach and encounter Jesus with faith in their hearts, the shepherds were forever changed that night in a very dramatic way. They were still poor shepherds, returning to their flocks and their way of life, but now the joy-filled act of "glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them" (Luke 2:20) had also become a part of their day-to-day living.

But what about us? What is the focus of our attention at Christmas? Is it the tree and the gifts, or is it the Manger and the Eucharist? Are we indifferent to and unaffected by the birth of the Lord, or do we continue to be amazed by the mysteries of the Incarnation and God's infinite love for us?

A.R. Mengs, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1770
Like the people in the Gospel who spent the night in the Inn, have we also perhaps returned to our own hometown to celebrate Christmas, finding ourselves resting comfortably in the company of family and friends, only to forget that there is One we have excluded from our company; that there is One we have left outside in the cold? Or are we like the humble shepherds, open to the voice and the grace of God, and eager to welcome our Savior Christ the Lord into our hearts, and at Mass, into our bodies as well? If it is His birth, His coming, that we are truly celebrating, then we, too, can be forever changed by our encounter anew with Jesus at the coming of Christmas, and after the celebration of this day and season has passed, can then return to our everyday lives, glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen, just as it had been told to us!

But to those who did accept him 
he gave power to become children of God,  
to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice 
nor by a man's decision but of God.  
And the Word became flesh 
and made his dwelling among us, 
and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son, 
full of grace and truth (John 1:12-14).

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The True Meaning of Christmas

Antonio da Correggio, Nativity c. 1529-1530

What Child is This?
Original version of the Christmas Carol, lyrics by William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898), published by Rev. Henry Ramsden Bramley (1833-1917) and Sir John Stainer (1840-1901) in Christmas Carols New and Old, First Series (London: Novello, Ewer & Co., 1871), Carol #14

What Child is this, Who laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthem sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and Angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

Antonio da Correggio, The Pietà c.1522-1523

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.

Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

"The baby born in Bethlehem comes to bring us light and peace. But to do that, he comes to die for us and rise again. He comes to deliver us from the evil in ourselves and in the world that slew...even the Son of God Himself." 
--Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
from "Him Who is the Last: An Advent Reflection"

Monday, December 20, 2010

On the Necessity of Prayer in the New Evangelization

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Jubilee of Catechists, 12 December 2000

 A few years ago, I was reading the biography of a very good priest of our century, Don Didimo, the parish priest of Bassano del Grappa. In his notes, golden words can be found, the fruit of a life of prayer and of meditation. About us, Don Didimo says, for example: "Jesus preached by day, by night he prayed."

With these few words, he wished to say: Jesus had to acquire the disciples from God. The same is always true. We ourselves cannot gather men. We must acquire them by God for God. All methods are empty without the foundation of prayer. The word of the announcement must always be drenched in an intense life of prayer.

God cannot be made known with words alone. One does not really know a person if one knows about this person secondhandedly. To proclaim God is to introduce to the relation with God: to teach how to pray. Prayer is faith in action. And only by experiencing life with God does the evidence of his existence appear.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

To Evangelize Means to Teach the Art of Living

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger on the New Evangelization
from his "Address to Catechists and Religion Teachers"
Jubilee of Catechists, 12 December 2000
Night in Bethlehem
Human life cannot be realized by itself. Our life is an open question, an incomplete project, still to be brought to fruition and realized. Each man's fundamental question is: How will this be realized—becoming man? How does one learn the art of living? Which is the path toward happiness?

evangelize means: to show this path—to teach the art of living. At the beginning of his public life Jesus says: I have come to evangelize the poor (Luke 4:18); this means: I have the response to your fundamental question; I will show you the path of life, the path toward happiness—rather: I am that path.

The deepest poverty is the inability of joy, the tediousness of a life considered absurd and contradictory. This poverty is widespread today, in very different forms in the materially rich as well as the poor countries. The inability of joy presupposes and produces the inability to love, produces jealousy, avarice—all defects that devastate the life of individuals and of the world.

This is why we are in need of a new evangelization—if the art of living remains an unknown, nothing else works. But this art is not the object of a science—this art can only be communicated by [one] who has life—he who is the Gospel personified.