Let us go to Bethlehem

“Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.

(Luke 2:8)

Suddenly the shepherds hear the voice of an angel. Struck with awe they listen to the angel say, “Behold, I proclaim to you good news”. 

“For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

(Luke 2: 11-12)

The shepherds turn to each other and said, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2:15)

The shepherds make their way to the little town of Bethlehem. Days before their journey, Mary and St. Joseph travel to this place to take part in the census, even though the timing was not convenient for the expectant mother. The time for her to have her child was drawing near. 

The Virgin consented to the impossible. An angel had visited her too. She gave her “fiat” to be the “handmaid of the Lord” and so the savior of the world was conceived. “The most sublime work of God’s mercy was accomplished: one Person of the Blessed Trinity, the second, came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. Behold the Word, God’s only-begotten Son, “who for us men and for our salvation, descended from heaven and became incarnate” (Credo).” (Divine Intimacy #26, Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdelen)

The shepherds hurry along prodding the sheep with them. What will they see? 

Joseph and Mary arrive in the village, swarming with other pilgrims. It is night, cold and the time for the child’s birth is fast approaching. Joseph’s poverty as the head of the family is palpable. He must trust in God. St. Joseph trusts with “creative courage”. He arrived “in Bethlehem and finding no lodging where Mary could give birth, Joseph took a stable at hand, as best he could, turned it into a welcoming home for the Son of God come into the world.” (Patris Corde, Pope Francis)

With tender care and attention, Mary wrapped the infant Jesus tightly in cloth as any loving mother would do. Swaddling Him in strips of cloth so that He would be warm, snug and safely protected from the outside world now that He has left the womb. Swaddling infants is still something mothers do today. In past years, narrow stripes of cloth wrapped around a newborn helped to restrain a baby’s movement and quieten him to sleep more contently and prevent him from accidentally scratching his soft, fine skin.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem reminds us that Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes, placed in a manger, and was poor, vulnerable, dependent, and cold. The swaddling cloths foreshadowed the burial cloths. However, at His next coming, Jesus will be glorious – wrapped in light! 

“For with you is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light.”

(Ps36:10)

The Lord’s binding as an infant was one of love. He submitted to Mary’s love and attention to his tender, fragile needs as an infant. As a matter of fact, all of His bindings were bonds of love. He was bound and taken by his enemies as His hands were tied and He was led away from the Garden of Gethsemane out of love for us. He was wrapped in bands of cloth for His funeral, but at the resurrection – glorified, He removed the cloths that bound Him.

Now the shepherds have their personal encounter with Jesus, led to this encounter by the Star to a poor manger with a little baby. A baby who will “bring peace on earth”. They behold the infant, a poor infant lying in the poverty of a manger, sleeping, resting. Together with the shepherds, we move from this sight of Jesus with faith to follow Him along His way of sorrows with the Cross. 

This Christmas may we welcome the Savior. May Jesus find our hearts empty and poor with the poverty of the manger where He can come and find his rest. Seeing that only a poor heart can truly receive God, let us make room for Grace. 

Preparing the Way for Jesus

In this week’s Gospel, we encounter John the Baptist, the messenger calling the people to “prepare the way of the Lord”.  St. John completes the work of all the prophets beginning with Elijah. He proclaims to the people that the consolation they have been longing for is fast approaching. In the reading this week from the Prophet Isaiah, we are told that “A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord”. The prophets were always calling the people back from their wayward way of living.  Jesus’ first coming is near and John the Baptist is in the desert calling the people to “repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. The people came to John in the desert and “acknowledged their sins”. Today it seems as though there is so much sin, and yet very little acknowledgment of our own personal sin. It is much easier to be like the Pharisees and point out the plank in the other person’s eye. It is time to repent!

Remember St. Peter? He denied Our Lord three times at his trial and fled before His crucifixion. But that was not the end of his relationship with Christ. After the resurrection, Jesus meets up with Peter and the other apostles for breakfast on the beach. It is morning, a new day has begun and the apostles are eating breakfast with Jesus. It is a new day and a new beginning for St. Peter.

This scene tells us of something so foundational about our faith in Jesus. It tells us that Jesus has a merciful heart. His mercy is antithetical to the scornful attitude of the Pharisees. The mercy of Jesus is like that of the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost. He goes out in search of the sinful in order to find them, rescue them, and bring them back into the sheepfold.

This Divine Mercy extents to great sinners who have repented of serious sin and have turned to Him. His mercy also reaches to those who humbly turn from venial sin only to rise again after each failure committed due to weakness or lack of reflection. Here is where I have sympathy for St. Peter. He was weak, like me. He did not reflect, but acted wrongly even though he loved the Lord. How much I am like St. Peter. I make many resolutions and want to overcome some fault, and still, I fail – again and again. But Jesus is merciful each time I repent and turn back to Him. 

Advent is a time for us to reflect on how we may have offended Him and to turn to Him to receive mercy. Since we are poor sinners let us remember St. Peter and trust in God’s infinite mercy as we examine our conscience and seek out the Sacrament of Penance as a way to prepare the way for the Lord this Christmas.

The Sacrament of Penance is there to help us prepare for our celebration of Christmas. We should also try to make this sacrament a habit in order to be prepared for His Second Coming. The second reading for this Sunday, taken from the Second Letter of Saint Peter, so aptly reminds us about how our conduct ought to be and what kind of persons we should be, conducting ourselves “in holiness and devotion waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God”.  All the while remembering that the day of “the Lord will come like a thief” and when we least expect it. So let us have Him find us always ready!

Or we can just go on with our lives in peace instead. However, there are different kinds of peace.

There is the false peace that the world gives. First among this type of peace is riches. People with wealth and who try to lead holy lives avoiding any serious sin, think that they are secure. Nevertheless they often fail to reflect on the fact that they are stewards and that their money is not theirs, but has been entrusted to them by God. They do give sometimes, but they need to be sure to not delay in helping those who are poor and suffering with the surplus. For those who are not rich, St. Teresa counsels to “be content with little.“ Otherwise they will find themselves embittered with envy. (Meditations on the Song of Songs, 2, 10)

The second false peace the world can give is through honors. If we heed St. Teresa’s advice on being content with little, then this next one should not be too difficult, since “the poor are never honored very much”. Praise can cause much harm if one is not careful. Words of praise can cause harm by making you “believe that the truth was spoken or make you think that now everything is accomplished and that you have done your part.” St. Teresa’s advice is that whenever you are praised to move quickly in waging war interiorly by humbling yourself “and if in some matters people speak truth in praising you, note that the virtue is not yours and that you are obliged to serve more.” (Meditations on the Song of Songs, 2, 11-13)

Then there is the false peace that comes from our bodies, which are very fond of comfort. St. Teresa wants us to understand that there is a false peace that comes from seeking “one’s peace in comforts” and living comfortably, since the Lord suffered so much and underwent many trials. Additionally, “the body grows fat and the soul weakens” when we give the body so much pampering. Craving comforts can harm the soul without one even being aware. She gives examples of how one day the body can endure a hardship and then a week later it is unable to bear with something like a rough tunic. Or that “some days eating fish may hurt you, but once your stomach gets used to it, it will not harm you.” Her point here is that “we must not find our rest in being lax.” Since the body can be so untrustworthy, we need to understand this about it and to use discretion. (Meditations on the Song of Songs, 2, 15)

Aware of the kinds of false peace will enable us to love God more and help us reach true peace and friendship with Him. May all our efforts cooperate with the grace God gives in each moment to prepare a heart, pure and receptive, to receive so great a gift as we prepare for His coming. 

“Since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him and at peace” 2 Pt 3:14

Making Room for Jesus

“She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Luke 2: 7

With tender care and attention, Mary wrapped the infant Jesus tightly in cloth as any loving mother would do. Swaddling him in strips of cloth so that he would be warm, snug and safely protected from the outside world now that he has left the womb. Swaddling infants is still something mothers do today. In past years, narrow stripes of cloth wrapped around a newborn helped to restrain a baby’s movement and quieten him to sleep more contently and prevent him from accidentally scratching his soft, fine skin.

Mary would have brought these strips of cloth with her to Bethlehem, since the time of giving birth was approaching. The usual custom was to wrap the newly born infant in these strips of cloth after washing and anointing the body. 

St. Cyril of Jerusalem reminds us that Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes, placed in a manger and was poor, vulnerable, dependent and cold. The swaddling cloths foreshadowed the burial cloths. 

However, at his next coming, Jesus will be glorious – wrapped in light! 

“For with you is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light.” (Ps 36:10)

The Lord’s binding as an infant was one of love. He submitted to Mary’s love and attention to his tender, fragile needs as an infant. As a matter of fact, all of his bindings were bonds of love. He was bound and taken by his enemies as his hands were tied and he was led away from the Garden of Gethsemane out of love for us. He was wrapped in bands of cloth for his funeral, but at the resurrection – glorified, he removed the cloths that bound him.

There is a great lesson of the swaddling cloths for all of us that can be found here since we too can be wrapped in swaddling cloths. In this excerpt from Mother Marie des Doublers’ book, Joy Out of Sorrow, we can learn what it takes to make room for Jesus who could find no room in the inn of our heart. We can enjoy his presence only after we make an expansive space for him, for Light, for Love, for Peace.

The Marriage of Two Such as These

When the time had come

for him to be born,

he went forth like the

bridegroom

from his bridal chamber,

embracing his bride,

holding her in his arms,

whom the gracious Mother

laid in a manger

among some animals

that were there at that time.

Men sang songs

and angels melodies

celebrating the marriage

of Two such as these.

But God there in the manger

cried and moaned;

and these tears were jewels

the bride brought to the

wedding.

The Mother gazed in sheer wonder

on such an exchange:

in God, man’s weeping,

and in man, gladness,

to the one and the other

things usually so strange.

Romances by St. John of the Cross

Figures of Light Around the Manger

Following Christmas the Church celebrates three other important people and events closely related to the Incarnation and Redemption: December 26th – the Feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr; December 27th – St. John, the beloved disciple; and December 28th – the infants of Bethlehem, the Holy Innocents. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross writes in The Mystery of Christmas that these all have a place around the Child in the manger:

st. stephen

One the day after Christmas the Church removes her white garments and clothes herself in the colour of blood, and on the fourth day in the violet of mourning: Stephen, the first marytr, the first to follow his Lord to death, and the infants of Bethlehem and Judea who were brutally slaughtered by crude henchmen, all have a place around the Child in the manger. What is the meaning of this message? Where now are the jubilant sounds of the heavenly choir? Where the peaceful bliss of Holy Night? Where the peace on earth? Peace to those of good will; but not all are of good will. Therefore, the Son of the Eternal Father must leave the splendour of heaven because the mystery of evil has wrapped the earth in dark night.

Darkness covered the earth and he came as light to illumine the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend him. To those who received him, he brought light and peace; peace with the Father in heaven, peace with everyone who like them are children of light and children of a heavenly Father, a deep interior peace of the heart; but no peace with the children of darkness. To them the Prince of Peace brings no peace but the sword. He remains for them a stumbling block of scandal against which they charge and are smashed. That is the one hard and serious fact which we may not allow to be obscured by the visible attraction of the Child in the manger. The mystery of the Incarnation and the mystery of evil belong together. The dark night of sin stands in stark and sinister contrast with the Light which came down from heaven. The Child in the manger extends its little hands and its smile seems to be saying what would come forth later from the lips of a man: ‘Come to me all you who are weary and heavy burdened’; and the poor shepherds out on the hills of Bethlehem, who heard the good news of the angel, follow his call and make their way with the simple answer, ‘Let us go to Bethlehem’. Also from the kings from the orient lands, who followed the wondrous star with like simplicity, there dropped from the infant hands the dew of grace and ‘they rejoiced with great joy’. These hands give and request at the same time: you wise men, lay down your wisdom and become like children; you kings, give up your crowns and your treasures and bow down meekly before the King of kings; do not hesitate to take up the burdens, sorrows and weariness which his service demands.You children, you cannot yet give of your own free will, of you these little hands will request your gentle life before it has even begun; it can serve no better purpose than sacrifice in praise of the Lord.

baby jesus

‘Follow me’ say the little hands, words which later will come from the lips of the Man. Thus they spoke to the disciple whom the Lord loved and who is now also a part of the group at the manger. St. John, the young man with the pure, youthful heart followed without asking, ‘where to? why?’ He left his father’s boat and went with the Lord along all his ways, even to Golgotha. ‘Follow me’ – young Stephen understood this also. He followed the Lord in the struggle against the powers of darkness, the blindness of obstinate unbelief; he bore witness to him with his word and his blood; he followed him in his Spirit, the Spirit of love, which resists sin but loves the sinner, and even in death intercedes with God on behalf of the murderer. These are the figures of light that kneel around the manger: the gentle, innocent children, the faithful shepherds, the humble kings, Stephen, the enthusiastic youth and beloved apostle, John – all of them follow the call of the Lord.

St. John

In contrast to them, there is the night of incomprehensible callousness and blindness: the scribes who have information as to the time and place where the Saviour of the world was to be born, but who say nothing about ‘Let us go to Bethlehem!’ and King Herod who wants to kill the Lord of life. In the presence of the Child in the manger, the spirits line up to take sides. He is the King of kings and Lord of life and death. He utters his ‘follow me’ and whoever is not for him is against him. He also speaks for us and invites us to choose between light and darkness.

(Taken from The Mystery of Christmas, the title of a lecture given by Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross on January 13, 1931 in Ludwigshafen)

Innocents4_1

The Incarnation and Poetry

St. John of the Cross was a wonderful poet, probably the best poet Spain has ever known. One set of his poems titled, “The Romances”, expounds on themes of salvation history. Below is part of this poetry that expresses his thought on the Incarnation.

7. The Incarnation
Now that the time had come
when it would be good
to ransom the bride
serving under the hard yoke
of that law
which Moses had given her,
the Father, with tender love,
spoke in this way:
“Now you see, Son, that your bride
was made in your image,
and so far as she is like you
she will suit you well;
yet she is different, in her flesh,
which your simple being does not have.
In perfect love
this law holds:
that the lover become
like the one he loves;
for the greater their likeness
the greater their delight.
Surely your bride’s delight
would greatly increase
were she to see you like her,
in her own flesh”.
“My will is yours,”
the Son replied,
“and my glory is
that your will be mine.
This is fitting, Father,
what you, the Most High, say;
for in this way
your goodness will be more evident,
your great power will be seen
and your justice and wisdom.
I will go and tell the world,
spreading the word
of your beauty and sweetness
and of your sovereignty.
I will go seek my bride
and take upon myself
her weariness and labors
in which she suffers so;
and that she may have life,
I will die for her,
and lifting her out of that deep,
I will restore her to you”.
8. Continues
Then he called
the archangel Gabriel
and sent him to
the virgin Mary,
at whose consent
the mystery was wrought,
in whom the Trinity
clothed the Word with flesh
and though Three work this,
it is wrought in the One;
and the Word lived incarnate
in the womb of Mary.
And he who had only a Father
now had a Mother too,
but she was not like others
who conceive by man.
From her own flesh
he received his flesh,
so he is called
Son of God and of man.
9. The Birth
When the time had come
for him to be born,
he went forth like the
bridegroom
from his bridal chamber,
embracing his bride,
holding her in his arms,
whom the gracious Mother
laid in a manger
among some animals
that were there at that time.
Men sang songs
and angels melodies
celebrating the marriage
of Two such as these.
But God there in the manger
cried and moaned;
and these tears were jewels
the bride brought to the
wedding.
The Mother gazed in sheer wonder
on such an exchange:
in God, man’s weeping,
and in man, gladness,
to the one and the other
things usually so strange.

20 days old baby sleeping in a christmas nativity crib

Three Christmas Masses

The Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve tells about how the birth of Jesus came about. The Gospel of Matthew 1:18-23 is read at this Mass. During the Christmas Eve Vigil we hear that, “She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” and that “God is with us.” No one could know God is charity, except through this most important event in all of history – the Incarnation.

On Christmas Day the Church celebrates three Masses. The first Mass is the Mass at Midnight. This is also known as the Angel’s Mass since the scripture passages are highlighted with the visit of angels. “The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord’. . . And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel praising God. . .” The Gospel reading is taken from Luke 2:1-14 which describes how the birth of Jesus took place.

Traditionally it is believed that Christ was born at midnight. Midnight is when it is darkest and this can be seen to represent spiritual darkness that is in the world. Only Christ, the Light of the world, can dispel this darkness. The birth of Jesus, the Word made flesh, has shown us the love of God. With allusions to Christ’s birth in our souls by grace – through the Word, God’s love is manifested and now tangible in this little baby who holds out his arms to us.

The Shepherd’s Mass or Mass at Dawn is celebrated early Christmas morning. Continuing with the theme of light, this Mass takes place at dawn when the natural light is increasing. The shepherds go to the crib to see the Christ child – a light in the darkness. In our consideration of these three Masses it would be incomplete without a visit to the creche, to see and worship the Infant Jesus.

creche

The third Mass of the day is known as the Mass of the Divine Word. The Word is a light that shines in the darkness. The Word is life. The Word became flesh. The Word is God. The Word enlightens and dwells among us. (Jn 1:1-14) And the Word ushers in a new law.

This is how St. John of the Cross speaks of the new law of grace now that it has entered into time, explaining how we do not need to question God and have him reply as it was necessary in the Old Testament because:

 “in this era of grace, now that the faith is established through Christ and the Gospel law made manifest, there is no reason for inquiring of him in this way, or expecting him to answer as before. In giving us his Son, his only Word (for he possesses no other), he spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word – and he has no more to say.” (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, 22. 3)

God has spoken through his Son. The Son speaks the Divine Word. We are to listen to that Word and carry the love that God has revealed into the dark places of our world.

If possible make plans to attend all three of these Christmas Masses. Reflect on these themes: angels, shepherds and the Divine Word. Worship the Infant Jesus, let his Word enter your heart and bring the law of light and love to our dark world.