When I realized that my next blog was to be posted on December 29th my first thought was, “What did I have to offer for follow-up of such a beautiful celebration of God’s love for all creation?”
I paused and took to prayer my memories of Christmas past. My earliest memories involved going to bed with no Christmas tree decorated in the house and waking up to find one beautifully decorated in the living room. What we interpreted as a Christmas miracle was in fact parents who couldn’t afford to buy a tree and had to wait for the tree lots to close and go scrounge a left-over tree for our family. What a joyful memory their sacrifice made for us.
Fast forward to Christmas eve 1967, my first Christmas at Sacred Heart Monastery. Our formation director at the time thought it would be a good exercise to experience the reality of a barn filled with cattle on a cold December night to put us in touch with the human reality of Jesus’ birth in a stable. This city girl learned quickly that the reality was far removed from the sanitized nativity scenes I was accustomed to. The powerful lesson learned was that the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, Ruler of the Universe, freely took on human flesh with all the messiness and difficulty that was entailed in belonging to the fallen human race.
As I look back on these two memories, I am struck with the lesson to be learned from them. Like loving parents who sacrifice to bring joy to their children, our loving God made the supreme sacrifice by sending the Son to become flesh with all its messiness and pain.
“On this night, like a burst of brilliant light, there rings out the proclamation of the Apostle: ‘God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race’” (Tit 2:11).
On a dark night in turbulent times, God touched our world quietly and gently and with light. This Christmas we are once again reminded how deeply we are loved.
The question we must all answer is, “What exactly are we going to do with this realization?” In our secular culture, the Christmas season begins around Halloween and ends on December 26. Christmas trees and other decorations appear at the curbside early on December 26th. The secular Christmas season has become all about commercialization and extravagant consumption that abruptly end with putting decorations away and returning gifts that didn’t fit or suit our taste. However, for Christians, December 25th is the beginning of this wondrous and solemn Feast. Christmas itself is an 8-day event of sacred rejoicing second only to the octave of Holy Easter. The Christmas Season is further extended to the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which this year falls on Sunday, January 9th. It is such a challenge to remain counter-cultural in our time an place, but if we give in to secular dynamics, we risk missing some of the season’s most important lessons.
Christmas is about the opening of closed doors and of closed hearts. During this season, we celebrate the birth of Christ into our world and into our hearts and reflect on the gift of salvation that is born with him… including the fact that he was born to die for us. The darkness of sin has given way to the eternal Light that has come to us in a form like us so that we too may become like He is!
There are also some very important Feasts that occur during the season of Christmas. On the first Sunday of the season we celebrate the Holy Family. Pope Francis tells us “to reflect on the fact that the Son of God wanted to be in need of the warmth of a family, like all children.” The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph can serve as a model in which all families of the world can find their sure point of reference and inspiration. Amid all the difficulties experienced by this small family, their life together must have been filled with joy, with the Child Jesus surrounded by the mothers’ affection of Mary and the care of Joseph in whom Jesus was able to see God’s strength and tenderness modeled.”
On December 27th we celebrate the Feast of Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, the Apostle of Love. It was Saint John who received into his loving care Mary the Mother of Jesus as Jesus hung dying on the cross. What a privilege and responsibility! It was also Saint John who gave us the beautiful words in his Prologue: “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 the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:1-5).
That darkness is remembered the very next day, December 28th, as we remember the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Out of envy and hatred, Herod had countless innocent children killed in an attempt to eliminate Jesus, the newborn King. How many children still suffer in our world because of greed, jealousy, and the pursuit of power?
At Christmas we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, but more than one recent Pope has reminded us that peace is the work of justice. Unfortunately, when justice knocks at our homes, work places, parish, school, or diocesan doors, it too often receives about as warm a welcome as Mary and Joseph did at the inn at Bethlehem.
Hopefully, each of us are at a different stage of our lives this year, viewing Christmas in a brighter light, experiencing its charms as well as its sharper edges in a slightly different way after all that our world has gone through and continues to endure.
May we take to heart a prayer of Pope Francis, “Through our frail hands, may Jesus clothe those who have nothing to wear, give bread to the hungry and heal the sick. Through our friendship, such as it is, may Jesus draw close to the elderly and the lonely, to migrants and the marginalized.”
“Christmas itself does not change. It is we who change, and the world we inhabit.” May the Prince of Peace guide us always.
By Sister Janet Marie Flemming, OSB