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Posts Tagged ‘Nativity’

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Christmas Eve, late at night, burning the Advent wreath down, listening to Christmas hymns, the children and Regina finishing the decorating, and contemplating the Nativity in a year that has challenged us all like few others. I’m not thinking of peaceful nativities and Hallmark images.

I’m thinking this Christmas Eve of how much the real nativity speaks to the weariness in so many hearts this year. Specifically, I’m thinking of my best friend who endured three heart surgeries and almost died as many times, of Father Luke McCann who was the most influential mentor in my life who died on Columbus Day, of Superstorm Sandy having laid waste my community, and the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary.

It’s been quite a year, yet the story we tell tonight reveals the main characters, not as humans without a care because of God’s design for their lives, but as characters who suffered greatly because of God’s design for their lives: a design that required the deepest faith to accept, and the most difficult burden to bear.

“Faith,” as Father Luke McCann would remind me, “isn’t for when we have all the answers, but for when the roof is caving in and we don’t know what’s coming next.”

Mary had to endure a lifetime of taunts, of deep suspicion and gossip over her fidelity to Joseph, and her divine son’s legitimacy. She had to walk Joseph through the doubt about her fidelity and sanity, and it would still require the assistance of angelic visions to convince Joseph to stay with her.

Then there was the unimaginable selfishness of a society that had become so calloused and coarsened to life that not one person would give up their bed for a young girl in labor.

Not one.

The indignity of a barn awaited the birth of the King of Kings. They wouldn’t be long in the barn because the government, in the person of the king, had decided to butcher every male under the age of two in an attempt to slaughter Mary and Joseph’s child. They would need to live on the road, on the run, as they fled into Egypt; far from either of their families, and with none of the help that a new and young mother needs from the older women of the family.

Homelessness, death, privation, targeting of babies for death…

Not much has changed in 2,000 years. But God came to earth and showed from the moment of His human conception that He would identify with the poor and the least among us. Having escaped murder several times, He would eventually suffer that indignity as well. The nativity narratives tell us not only of God’s great condescension in taking on our humanity, but in His great identification in all things with the suffering of the world. It is the coupling of the great condescension and the great identification with the poor and the least that point to the majesty of God, a majesty whose might is shown in His infinite mercy and forgiveness.

When people look to the tragedies of this year and ask, “Where was God?”, what is really being asked is why God could permit such evil. For me this evening, as I look at the nativity set, the answer is that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph suffered mightily as well. I often wonder what went through Mary and Joseph’s minds and hearts as they contemplated all of those children slaughtered in the effort to get their child. The joy of the birth swallowed up as their hearts must have broken beyond description.

God was right there, physically there, in the midst of it all. So it is that He remains right here with us in the midst of it all.

If it’s true that there was a murderous Herod with designs on the child’s life, then it is also true that there were Magi who returned by a different route, having left gifts to sustain the young family in Egyptian exile.

If it’s true that there was the indignity of a stable, it’s also true that there was the great Theophany, when Heaven opened onto earth and the Angels sang.

If it’s true that there was the parsimony of the residents in the inns, there was the adoration by the shepherds and the Magi.

If it’s true that Mary suffered ridicule and the opprobrium of the women of Israel, it is true that her fidelity to the Father and the Son was rewarded greatly in Heaven.

If it’s true that the slaughter of innocents heralded the first coming of our Lord in His humble origins, then it is true that this mass slaughter of innocents in the womb and the classrooms of America and the world will herald the Second Coming of Jesus in glory.

So, on this quiet night as I reflect on a year that has tried our souls, I contemplate the sufferings of Mary and Joseph, of the mothers and fathers, grandparents and families of Herod’s victims, but also on all of the goodness that God sent into their darkness. I also think of the immense outpouring of charity in the wake of that killer storm in October.

I praise God for our modern Magi; the thousands of volunteers who came from around the nation to help us rebuild, for the endless convoys of truckloads of food, clothing, and supplies. I praise God for the goodness that so much suffering elicited–mainly from church groups acting in the name of Jesus.

I praise God for the outpouring of love, and prayers, and toys for the children and residents of Sandy Hook and Newtown.

I praise God that evil never has the last word, and always evokes a far greater expression of goodness and virtue.

I praise God for all of the good people whom God has sent into my life, whose goodness has been the sign of His constant love and presence, especially for Regina and the children.

Most of all, I praise God for the witness of Mary and Joseph. In their darkest hours they never questioned God’s presence, or His love, or His goodness, or His fidelity. Their faith told them that there was a purpose beyond all human understanding and that He was with them always. They are our perfect role models in this difficult year.

Theirs is a nativity for our time.

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As I have done in the past, I repost some of Deacon Greg Kandra’s homilies here at Coming Home (with his permission). Deacon Kandra writes a terrific blog, The Deacon’s Bench, over at Patheos. Stop by The Deacon’s Bench daily for a dose of spiritual refreshment. Today’s homily is a soothing balm after the events in Newtown this past week. Here’s Deacon Kandra:

As some of you know, my office is located in the Catholic Center in Manhattan, on First Avenue. On Friday they were decorating the lobby for Christmas – trimming trees and hanging lights and assembling a small wooden stable, the Nativity scene. As I was leaving work, I stopped to take a look.

This Nativity scene is a little out of the ordinary. While it has all the usual characters, carved from wood – Mary, Joseph, shepherds, animals — it doesn’t have a manger. Instead, the figures are arranged in a kind of semi-circle, and Mary is kneeling, with her arms outstretched – arms that, at Christmas, will hold the Christ child. But now, like all of us this Advent, she is waiting. Her arms are empty.

It’s a poignant image – and, I think, given the events of the last 48 hours, devastating.

In those outstretched arms, we can’t help but notice what is missing. I looked at that figure in the crèche on Friday night and thought of the empty arms of the mothers of Newtown.

We are all Newtown this morning. Those children are our children. The indescribable heartbreak of those parents is shared by the world.

Ironically, in our liturgy, this third Sunday of Advent is a Sunday for rejoicing. We put away the purple and wear rose. The readings point with excitement to Christmas. “Cry out with joy and gladness,” the psalm tells us. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” St. Paul declares. In the gospel, we hear for the first time the phrase that will define the Christian faith for all time: “good news.”

Yet, the news right now isn’t what anyone would call good.

We keep hearing words like “massacre” and “tragedy” and “slaughter.” Mixed in, of course, is another word that we can’t escape: “Why?” I wish I had an answer. I can’t explain it. I don’t think anyone can.

At times like this, God can seem distant, even detached. Yet, this Sunday, we are reassured: He is closer than we realize. “The Lord is near,” Paul writes. And it’s not just because Christmas is 9 days away. It is so much more than that. In the great mystery we are about to remember at Christmas—the Incarnation, the Word made flesh—we celebrate this astonishing fact: God became us. He invested Himself in humanity.

The implications are staggering.

On the five-year anniversary of 9/11, the great Presbyterian minister Timothy Keller spoke about the Incarnation. I’d like to read you part of what he said:

“One of the great themes of the Hebrew Scriptures,” he said, “is that God identifies with the suffering. There are all these great texts that say things like this: If you oppress the poor, you oppress me. I am a husband to the widow. I am father to the fatherless. I think the texts are saying God binds up his heart so closely with suffering people that he interprets any move against them as a move against him. This is powerful stuff! But Christianity says he goes even beyond that. Christians believe that in Jesus, God’s son, divinity became vulnerable to and involved in – suffering and death! He didn’t come as a general or emperor. He came as a carpenter. He was born in a manger, no room in the inn.”

And then Rev. Keller adds this:

“But it is on the Cross that we see the ultimate wonder. On the cross we sufferers finally see, to our shock, that God now knows too what it is to lose a loved one in an unjust attack.”

On TV the other night, they showed the devastated father of a child, hearing the news of what happened and burying his face in his hands.

God is that weeping father.

“The Lord is near.” He knows what it’s like.

And He knows what we need: hope. And He has given it to us. The Passion of His son assures us of this: death doesn’t have the last word. We have been promised eternal life. We live in the hope of one day seeing God face-to-face – and seeing in His reflected light those we love.

This is the real promise and joy of Christmas: the salvation that was made real on Calvary began in Bethlehem.

And so we wait for that beginning. We wait for what will be— like that figure of Mary in a lobby on First Avenue.

We wait with open arms.

And in our waiting, we pray. For the victims. For their families.

We pray for the gunman and his family.

We pray for our country.

And we pray, especially, for the children.

I think one of the reasons that this terrible event struck all of us so deeply is that it was carried out against the smallest among us—the most trusting, the most hopeful, the most vulnerable. Five, six, seven years old.

On Friday night, was there any parent who didn’t hold their child closer, who didn’t pray a little more deeply, who didn’t cherish even more profoundly the gift of life?

As I mentioned at the beginning: we are all Newtown this morning. Those children are our children. The wound is deep.

This morning, we pray for all the victims of Newtown, and we pray for those things we Catholics always pray for in times of mourning. We pray for rest, for light, for peace.

It is a prayer whispered with the resilient hope of people who believe that God is with us.

The Lord is near. He walks with us. He weeps with us.

And so we pray:

Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace, Amen.

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Today is the seventh day of the Octave of Christmas.

In today’s Liturgy of the Hours, Office of Readings Pope St. Gregory the Great meditates not just on our human dignity being elevated by becoming members of the Body of Christ in Baptism, but also on our dignity being elevated by sharing in His Nativity, his coming into the world like us, as a baby. He shared our humanity, and through that sharing gave us a share in His divinity.

Had Margaret Sanger grasped that truth, that cornerstone of Christian Anthropology, we would be inhabiting a very different world today. Science cannot blind itself to its crossroads with Christian Anthropology without resulting in unspeakable tragedy, as we have seen again and again.

A sermon of Pope St Leo the Great

The birthday of the Lord is the birthday of peace.

“God’s Son did not disdain to become a baby. Although with the passing of the years he moved from infancy to maturity, and although with the triumph of his passion and resurrection all the actions of humility which he undertook for us were finished, still today’s festival renews for us the holy childhood of Jesus born of the Virgin Mary. In adoring the birth of our Saviour, we find we are celebrating the commencement of our own life, for the birth of Christ is the source of life for Christian folk, and the birthday of the Head is the birthday of the body.

Every individual that is called has his own place, and all the sons of the Church are separated from one another by intervals of time. Nevertheless, just as the entire body of the faithful is born in the font of baptism, crucified with Christ in his passion, raised again in his resurrection, and placed at the Father’s right hand in his ascension, so with Him are they born in this nativity.

For this is true of any believer in whatever part of the world, that once he is reborn in Christ he abandons the old paths of his original nature and passes into a new man by being reborn. He is no longer counted as part of his earthly father’s stock but among the seed of the Saviour, who became the Son of man in order that we might have the power to be the sons of God.

For unless He came down to us in this humiliation, no one could reach his presence by any merits of his own.

The very greatness of the gift conferred demands of us reverence worthy of its splendour. For, as the blessed Apostle teaches, We have received not the spirit of this world but the Spirit which is of God, that we may know the things which are given us by God. That Spirit can in no other way be rightly worshipped, except by offering him that which we received from him.

But in the treasures of the Lord’s bounty what can we find so suitable to the honour of the present feast as the peace which at the Lord’s nativity was first proclaimed by the angel-choir?

For it is that peace which brings forth the sons of God. That peace is the nurse of love and the mother of unity, the rest of the blessed and our eternal home. That peace has the special task of joining to God those whom it removes from the world.

So those who are born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man but of God must offer to the Father the unanimity of peace-loving sons, and all of them, adopted parts of the mystical Body of Christ, must meet in the First-begotten of the new creation. He came to do not his own will but the will of the one who sent him; and so too the Father in his gracious favour has adopted as his heirs not those that are discordant nor those that are unlike him, but those that are one with him in feeling and in affection. Those who are re-modelled after one pattern must have a spirit like the model.

The birthday of the Lord is the birthday of peace: for thus says the Apostle, He is our peace, who made both one; because whether we are Jew or Gentile, through Him we have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

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