From the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
For those who have been privileged to visit the Cathedral of Saint Joseph, the uplifting artistic rendering of the birth of Christ etched into the sanctuary ceiling and which we restored in its colorful glory a few years ago reminds us that what we raise up at Christmas is more than an historic event come and gone. It is a reminder that the entry of God into our lives continues every day.
Among the privileges I have as bishop is to have a view from the bishops chair of those Catholics and not who come to the Cathedral for concerts, weddings, funerals and more. Recently I observed one person who entered, sat down in a pew, looked up at the ceiling and while I could not hear his words, “Wow” his lips seemed to form. We tend to view the incarnation of Christ as a national holiday or liturgical season when in truth it permeates the essence of our faith.
“Wow” should be our response as well.
But to appreciate this truth we first need to prepare which the season of Advent encourages.
“Come, Lord Jesus.” That is the familiar exclamation of Advent as we recall Christ’s birth in Bethlehem and as we anticipate His coming again.
Celebrating the season of Advent sets us Catholics apart from many. For one thing, it takes discipline to do so in the midst of the festive atmosphere around us. And it takes determination to stick with it for the four weeks in the midst of what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once suggested was the “commercial pollution” that blows around us.
While we can and ought to enjoy the secular Christmas traditions that fill the days of December, we as people of faith should also take the time to reflect on the truth about Christmas: that God humbled himself to become one among us.
What an awesome gift that is which can be lost in the superficial and antiseptic offering of “Season’s Greetings.” There are many wonderful moments in the secular celebration of Christmas. It is a time when we do come together in so many special ways. But we also need time to reflect upon and truly appreciate the awe-inspiring gift God has given and gives us which we anticipate in Advent and celebrate at Christmas.
There was a cartoon some years ago in which one character spoke of how wonderful it was that so many people receive the special gifts they wanted for Christmas. His companion commented a little wistfully, “how much better it was when there was just one gift that satisfied all people, the gift of the Christ child.”
That gift is given not simply for a yearly holiday but for a holy life. The gift of the Christ child is for a purpose greater than the warmth of the secular and even religious traditional celebrations.
The Irish poet Shaemas O’Sheel authored a moving poem entitled Mary’s Baby that reflects the most important gift at Christmas.
Joseph, mild and noble, bent above the straw;
A pale girl, a frail girl, suffering he saw;
“O my love, my Mary, my bride, I pity thee!”
“Nay, dear,” said Mary, “All is well with me!”
“Baby, my Baby, O my Babe,” she sang.
Suddenly the golden night all with music rang.
Angels leading shepherds, shepherds leading sheep;
The silence of worship broke the mother’s sleep.
All the meek and lowly of the world were there;
Smiling she showed them her Child was fair.
“Baby, my Baby,” kissing Him she said.
Suddenly a flaming star through the heavens sped.
Three old men and weary knelt them side by side,
The world’s wealth forswearing, majesty and pride;
Worldly might and wisdom before the Babe bent low;
Weeping, maid Mary said, “I love Him so!”
“Baby, my Baby,” and the Baby slept.
Suddenly on Calvary all the olives wept.
Our Lord was born in Bethlehem for a purpose, for our redemption won on Calvary. May we take advantage of the season of Advent to prepare for and to appreciate the loving gift of God’s Son for our salvation. As we celebrate this Christmas may we respond like Mary and “love Him so.”