Thursday, January 10, 2013

How Far is it to Bethlehem?

Once the angels departed, the shepherds said to one another: Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened for us (cf. Lk 2:15). The shepherds went with haste to Bethlehem, the Evangelist tells us (cf. 2:16). A holy curiosity impelled them to see this child in a manger, who the angel had said was the Savior, Christ the Lord. The great joy of which the angel spoke had touched their hearts and given them wings.

Let us go over to Bethlehem, says the Church's liturgy to us today. Trans-eamus is what the Latin Bible says: let us go "across", daring to step beyond, to make the "transition" by which we step outside our habits of thought and habits of life, across the purely material world into the real one, across to the God who in his turn has come across to us. Let us ask the Lord to grant that we may overcome our limits, our world, to help us to encounter him, especially at the moment when he places himself into our hands and into our heart in the Holy Eucharist.

Homily, Midnight Mass, 2012

Reflection – Going across ‘the purely material world into the real one’ – I do love this Pope and his way of putting things.

We were just talking a little bit about this at MH yesterday. We are reading, as we often do at this time of year, the classic book The Reed of God, by Caryll Houselander for our post-lunch spiritual reading. She was writing about how we don’t know Christ, even after 2000 years, how we tend to cut him down to a size and shape convenient or fitting to us. How, of course, what we then have is not Jesus but an idol made in our own image and likeness. How we have to be vigilant to read the whole Gospel, not just the parts we like, and continually allow ourselves to come before this Christ who is not comfortable and convenient, but who is the real God.

She puts it all with much greater elegance and beauty, of course (if you haven’t read that book, you have really missed out on a gem, by the way). But it seems to me that this is what Pope Benedict is saying when he talks about ‘going across’ to Bethlehem.

God is real – reality Himself – but to enter that reality always is an ascetical act on our part. It always implies the simple, frank acknowledgment that our own reality is partial, limited, bound by our own subjectivity, insufficient for our needs. To go across to Bethlehem means to enter into mystery, to bow before a Reality that is not ours, that we did not make, that we certainly do not understand all that well, and to allow that Reality to shape our reality, instead of the other way around.

I don’t think any of us would really have done it that way, if the world’s salvation was up to us. We would have gone for a show of power—shock and awe them into repentance!—or perhaps just a simple unveiling of God’s infinite beauty—we’ll make ‘em love God!

But… a baby born in hiddenness? A child growing up in an obscure village? A man hanging on a cross? A Church made up of sinners and fools, carrying this salvation to the nations? A host and a chalice holding the very life of God under the appearance of bread and wine?

No… we wouldn’t have done it that way. Too hard. Too mysterious. Too much can go wrong (and has!). But God did it that way. And this is the real world, the Bethlehem to which we are to continually go across to. The path of childlike faith, abandonment, obedience, and suffering love. God’s path, not ours. How far is it to Bethlehem? Not very far, if we choose to go there.

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