Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Don't Throw the Tree Out

Saint Francis of Assisi called Christmas the feast of feasts – above all other feasts – and he celebrated it with unutterable devotion. He kissed images of the Christ-child with great devotion and he stammered tender words such as children say…
For the early Church, the feast of feasts was Easter: in the Resurrection Christ had flung open the doors of death and in so doing had radically changed the world: he had made a place for man in God himself. Now, Francis neither changed nor intended to change this objective order of precedence among the feasts, the inner structure of the faith centred on the Paschal Mystery. And yet through him and the character of his faith, something new took place: Francis discovered Jesus’ humanity in an entirely new depth. This human existence of God became most visible to him at the moment when God’s Son, born of the Virgin Mary, was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. The Resurrection presupposes the Incarnation.
For God’s Son to take the form of a child, a truly human child, made a profound impression on the heart of the Saint of Assisi, transforming faith into love… In the child born in the stable at Bethlehem, we can as it were touch and caress God. And so the liturgical year acquired a second focus in a feast that is above all a feast of the heart.
This has nothing to do with sentimentality. It is right here, in this new experience of the reality of Jesus’ humanity that the great mystery of faith is revealed. Francis loved the child Jesus, because for him it was in this childish estate that God’s humility shone forth. God became poor. His Son was born in the poverty of the stable. In the child Jesus, God made himself dependent, in need of human love, he put himself in the position of asking for human love – our love. Today Christmas has become a commercial celebration, whose bright lights hide the mystery of God’s humility, which in turn calls us to humility and simplicity. Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season, and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light.
Homily, Mass, December 25, 2011
Reflection – Now, I realize that for almost the entire secular world, the ‘superficial glitter’ of Christmas is a remote memory by now. We remain in the liturgical Christmas season while the culture has moved on to… well, what, now? Come to think of it, early January is a bit of empty space, culturally.
Actually this disjunction between cultural Christmas and liturgical Christmas may be a blessing in disguise for us Christians. It can be distracting, all the superficial glitter of the season, especially since more and more people are determined to separate the celebration of Christmas from anything to do with Jesus and his birth. The tired (and utterly false, by the way) trope that Christians took a pagan holiday and Christianized it continues to be used to justify neo-pagans taking Christian Christmas and paganizing it. Even if we know how spurious that claim is, it can be an effort to swim against the tide and really celebrate Christmas as a Christian feast.
And so we have the opportunity in this period from Dec 26-Jan 6 (or 8 if you are in a country where Epiphany is moved to the nearest Sunday) to truly focus ourselves on the mystery of this child in Bethlehem, the awesome coming of God to us in such humble and poor garb. God making himself something we can pick up and caress, God making himself something needy, a being we can love and care for. Everyone else has forgotten about Christmas, and so we have the joint to ourselves for this time, and can relax and do what we like with it.
So let’s stay with baby Jesus for a while yet – until this Sunday, anyhow. He may not be done with us this year; he may have more Christmas gifts to give us, still. There might still be a package or two under the tree with your name on it. Don’t throw the tree out just yet!

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