Nativity scenes – God in many colors

Where I’m now living in the Honduran countryside I don’t have internet access.

So I’m posting a number of the nativity sets I saw in the Ravenna, Italy, cathedral in February 2013.

God comes to us, in a poor babe in a manger – in many colors:

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O Wisdom

Today the Church begins the use of the “O Antiphons” for the Canticle of Mary at Vespers. In the English-speaking world we are acquainted with them by the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

Today Jesus is invoked as “The Wisdom of God”

The Gospel acclamation reads:

O Wisdom of our God Most High, guiding creation with power and love: come to teach us the path of knowledge!

The Magnificat antiphons (from Benedictine Daily Prayer) reads:

O Wisdom, You came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and reaching from the beginning to the end, You ordered all things mightily and sweetly. Come, and teach us the way of prudence.

The verse in the Advent hymn reads:

O Come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orders all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show
And teach us in her ways to go.

How much our world needs this wisdom of God, with so many things disordered. We need the sweetness of a God who comes among us as a poor human child.

This morning I awoke with a song that I had heard in my dream: “You, O Lord, are wonderful, all the days of my life.”

We need to remember the wonderful works of God – and the Wisdom that we are offered to work with God to help restore the sweetness of creation.

This nativity scene from an exhibition in the cathedral of Ravenna makes me think of the Wisdom of our God, revealed in a tiny Babe.

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O Come, O Wisdom of God

The Posadas

A beautiful Latin American tradition is the Posadas. People from the community – sometimes carrying a nativity scene, sometimes with children dressed as Mary and Joseph – go from door to door, seeking a posada, lodging.

The procession is accompanied by a hymn which is a dialogue between Joseph in the street and the inn-keeper inside the house. Finally, the door is opened and the pilgrims are welcomed.

In our parish here in Honduras, Padre German has invited the people to do the posadas starting on December 1, though the traditional starting date is today, December 16.

To celebrate these last nine days before the Feast of the Birth of the Lord, I’ll try to post a nativity scene, starting with several I ran across last year visiting the cathedral in Ravenna.

They suggest that the incarnation of the Lord Jesus happens in every land, in every culture. We just have to have the eyes and the heart to see.

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Revolutionary prayer: Merton and Barth

On December 10, 1968, two great twentieth century religious men died.

One, Karl Barth, was a Swiss Reformed Church pastor and theologian, who is renowned for his role with the German Confessing Church, which saw allegiance to Hitler as heresy and apostasy.

The other, Thomas Merton, was a Trappist monk, famous for his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In his life of silence in the Abbey of Gethsemani, he wrote books and letters that shared his concern for deep love of God and his opposition to war, racism, and poverty.

Both these men shared a sense that prayer is essential for our spiritual life – and for real change in the world.

For Merton, prayer opens us to the new horizons that God is always revealing to us, if we would listen in prayer. In Contemplation in a World of Action, Merton wrote:

Prayer and meditation have an important part to play in opening up new ways and new horizons. If your prayer is the expression of a deep and grace-inspired desire for newness of life—and not the mere blind attachment to what has always been familiar and “safe”—God will act in us and through us to renew the Church by preparing, in prayer, what we cannot yet imagine or understand. In this way our prayer and faith today will be oriented toward the future which we ourselves may never see fully realized on earth.

In prayer, we can be vulnerable enough to lay aside our visions and open ourselves to the vision that God has for us and for our world. God opens us to what is possible – with God’s help and vision.

I think that is why Karl Barth saw prayer as important and wrote:

To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of our uprising against the disorder of the world.

When we pray we acknowledge that the powers of this world are ephemeral and often tied to fear and violence. When we pray we can see that allegiance to Hitler – and to systems of violence and racism – are apostasy, refusals to acknowledge a living God who call us to solidarity and nonviolence.

Prayer does not take us out of the world; prayer takes us where we can see that the world is not as God wants it; and prayer can change us so that we can be signs and agents of God’s vision for this world and for the Kingdom. Prayer can be revolutionary.

Hearing the poor

My dear Lady,… this I beg you, entrust your mission to one of the important persons who is well known, respected, and esteemed, so that they may believe him. You know that I am a nobody, a nothing, a coward, a pile of old sticks… You have sent me to walk in places I do not belong. Forgive me and please do not be angry with me, my Lady and Mistress.
St. Juan Diego

 On December 9, 1531, a Christian from the Chichimeca tribe, Juan Diego Cuatitlatoatzin (“the talking eagle”), was called by the Virgin. She told him to go to the bishop and ask that a church be constructed on the hill of Tepeyac.

The bishop was skeptical, to put it mildly. But several days later the Virgin had Juan Diego gather roses in his tilma, his cloak, to show the bishop a sign. But an even more impressive sign was the image of the Virgin imprinted on his tilma, the image we now know as the Virgin of Guadalupe.

“Who would listen to an ‘indio,’ an Indian?” some would say. What can one of those uneducated savages teach us, who have been trained in the schools and churches of Europe?

That message is what Juan Diego seems to have imbibed from the Spanish invaders. It is a message that the poor, especially the rural poor, still receive from much of the world – especially here in Honduras. “You are just an ‘Indio;’ you don’t know anything. Let us tell you what to do and how to do it.”

This message comes not just from foreign institutions; it comes from people in their country, even in the government. A few years ago I read of a Honduras president of Congress who called the people “gente del monte,” which can be variously translated as “hill billies,” “hayseeds,” “people of the weeds.”

But said to say they also sometime get this message from the church. I have heard radical priests denigrate the poor because they don’t understand things.

But the message of the Virgin of Guadalupe is that God speaks to us through the poor. Sometimes those with the least education are those who can show us the wisdom of God.

This is the message of Jesus that we find in the Gospel for the Mass of St. Juan Diego:

I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and have reveled them to the simple.
Matthew 11: 25

Today, Lord, help me to listen to the little ones, so that I may hear your voice and respond in love, as Juan Diego responded to the call of Your Mother.

Mary Immaculate

Today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.

The feast refers to a teaching of the Catholic Church that Mary was conceived without original sin, through the working of the redemption of the human race by Jesus.

The teaching does not deny the saving power of the death and resurrection of Christ but recognizes that God’s grace is not limited by time (or place).

Mary was conceived sinless – and, by being in the presence of God all her life – remained sinless. It was God’s doing, not hers.

On this day, we who are beset by sin – not only original sin, but our own sins – might remember God’s loving grace and ask for forgiveness so that we might share in the joy of the Lord and live in his gracious love.

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This feast is special for Franciscans since they have been advocates of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, especially Blessed John Duns Scotus. Though many theologians (including Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventure) opposed it, we can find its roots even in St. Efrem the Syrian (306-373) who wrote in one of his hymns: “No blemish in you, my Lord, and no stain in Your Mother.”

Below is a photo of a large mural int he Vatican Museum of the proclamation of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. I have no idea who all these people are – though I can identify Franciscans, Carmelites, and Dominicans.

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Mural, Vatican Museum

Comfort my people

Yesterday I received the news that a dear friend, whom I’ve known for about 30 years, has terminal cancer.

I last saw her in June when I went to Dubuque for the ordination of two men I knew when they were Iowa State students. I stayed with her and we got many chances to talk and share.

I called someone here in Honduras who is also a friend of Mary’s. As I told her the news tears came to my eyes and I got choked up.

Yesterday, I also finished spending two days with the Dulce Nombre parish assembly, which was actually a very hope-filled experience. We evaluated the year and made plans for next year. I’ll have a lot of work.

This morning, as I read the first reading from Isaiah (40: 1-5, 9-11), I felt sustained in the desert of my distress about Mary.

Comfort, give comfort to my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…

Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
carrying them in his bosom…

 The image of the Lord comforting us, carrying us in his arms, gives me hope – not for a miraculous cure, though I am praying to God for a cure (through the intercession of Archbishop Romero).

No, the reading from Isaiah gives me hope that God is there sustaining us, opening roads where there are none, making paths straight where they curve, providing us with light in the midst of darkness.

So this Advent will be different in one sense – the sadness at the illness of my friend makes the sadness of the world very personal for me.

But Advent will also be a time to reconnect with the sorrow and pain of those around me here in Honduras – especially when I move out to the countryside within two weeks.

In many ways we are always surrounded by the sorrows and the pain of the world and of our friends; but God provides us with signs of hope, signs that life conquers death and suffering – not in an easy way, but in the difficult ways of solidarity and conversion, which will let the light of God appear in our world.