Category Archives: Christmas

Christmas in the cave of Bethlehem

Last Saturday we celebrated the feast of Christ the King in our sector of the parish, which includes four aldeas. We had a Celebration of the Word with Communion and then a short meeting. Padre German had hoped to have meetings in all the sectors; he would go to five; Fernando, a seminarian with us this year, would go to three; and I’d take the last three. Because of impassible roads, I didn’t get to the other two sectors that were assigned to me.

At the meeting in Plan Grande spoke of a few things and I mentioned that we should carefully on how we would celebrate Advent and Christmas.

Here there is a tradition of the Posadas, from the first Sunday of Advent to Christmas eve. People gather and, usually with images of Mary and Joseph, go to a house (and sometimes several houses) seeking posada, a place for the holy family to stay. There is a song that is sung, alternating with the people outside and those inside the house. Finally, the door is opened and prayer and celebration continue.

This is a very popular devotion and many people come out for it. Before the hurricanes, aware of the dangers of COVID-19, we were thinking that we would encourage villages to not have one big Posada but Posadas in several parts of each barrio at the same time. Each village will have to decide how to do this.

But then I started a discussion about celebrating Christmas. From somewhere, I was inspired to say that this year we need to think about celebration Christmas in light of the cave of Bethlehem – not in terms of the splendor with which we usually celebrate.

Site of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Jesus came among us in the poverty and simplicity of a manger, a place where animals feed. It may have been a stable, part of the house, or even a cave. But I think the image of a cave might be helpful for us this year.

Woodcut by Ade Bethune

I will try to develop this theme in reflections throughout Advent. I invite you to share your reflections with me.

Touching the Word today

What we have touched
1 John 1: 1

How often we lament that we do not have direct personal contact with Jesus, that we cannot touch him, hear his voice, and sit down at the table and eat with him.

In today’s first reading from St. John’s first letter, John recalls that he has experienced the Lord. He heard him saw him, touched him with his hands. But he realizes that this was not for his personal satisfaction. His experiences of the Word of Life were given him to share with other, to announce to others.

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life—for the life was revealed; we have seen it and testify to it and announce to you eternal life… what we have seen and heard we now announce to you, so that you too may have community/communion (koinonia) with us… (1 John 1: 1-3)

Thanks to Saint John and the other evangelists and writers of the early church we have accounts of this Jesus who came to save us.

But still we might long to the chance to see Jesus, to serve him, to be with him.

This morning I came upon a column of Dorothy Day in The Catholic Worker, thanks to a Facebook post of a friend, Jim Forest, who has written an incredibly beautiful illustrated biography of her, All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day.

In Dorothy Day’s column, found here, we hear her call upon us to make room for Christ:

It is no use to say that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts.

But now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that he speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers and children that he gazes; with the hands of office workers, slum dwellers and suburban housewives that he gives…

We can do now what those who knew Him in the days of His flesh did. I’m sure that the shepherds did not adore and then go away to leave Mary and her Child in the stable, but somehow found them room, even though what they had to offer might have been primitive enough. All that the friends of Christ did in His life-time for Him we can do.…

In Christ’s human life there were always a few who made up for the neglect of the crowd.

We can do it too, exactly as they did. We are not born too late. We do it by seeing Christ and serving Christ in friends and strangers, in everyone we come in contact with. While almost no one is unable to give some hospitality or help to others, those for whom it is really impossible are not debarred from giving room to Christ, because, to take the simplest of examples, in those they live with or work with is Christ disguised.….

For a total Christian the goad of duty is not needed–always prodding him to perform this or that good deed. It is not a duty to help Christ, it is a privilege….

If that is the way they gave hospitality to Christ it is certain that is the way it should still be given. Not for the sake of humanity. Not because it might be Christ who stays with us, comes to see us, takes up our time. Not because these people remind us of Christ, as those soldiers and airmen remind the parents of their son, but because they are Christ, asking us to find room for Him exactly as He did at the first Christmas.

May we see Jesus and respond with love.

Newness

I moved into the new house in Plan Grande on Friday, December 19. Not everything was moved, nor everything in order. But I spent the night in the house – and participated with the village in the Posadas.

The Posadas are an Advent custom that includes a sung dialogue between Joseph outside and the innkeeper within. It ends with a joyous verse, with a different melody, calling on the pilgrims to enter.

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Here, the people then listen to the day’s Gospel and a reflection, followed by coffee and a sweet bread.

I participated in the Posadas two other evenings. There were over 80 people each night.

As I reflected on the readings for the Posadas and the readings for the last nine days of Advent, what struck me was the sense of something new happening.

An angel appears in the Jerusalem temple to an old priest, Zechariah, and tells him that he’s going to be a father. He is struck dumb – literally. It’s too much for him.

The same angel visits a young virgin, Mary, in a town in the sticks and tells her that the Son of God is to be born of her. She responds that she is the Lord’s servant and the Lord dwells in her womb in an out of the way place – not in the temple.

A sterile woman, Elizabeth, gives birth to John the Baptist. That’s something new and unexpected.

God works and opens ways that are not expected.

God is the God of surprises of newness.

And on December 25 we celebrate the outstanding Good News that God becomes flesh and pitches his tent among us – in poverty.

May God open our eyes to see the newness that God brings about in the world.

And may we be open, with God-among-us, to open new ways for all God’s people, especially the poor.

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Where will God be manifest today?

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Epiphany, the manifestation of the Lord. The official date is January 6, but in many places the feast is celebrated on the closest Sunday so that we might remember the feast.

Sant' Apollinaro Nuovo, Ravenna

Sant’ Apollinaro Nuovo, Ravenna

In the West we think of this day as the day of the three Magi, the three wise men, who arrived and worshipped Jesus. But it is not at all clear that there were three wise men, that they were kings,  or even that they arrived when Jesus was still in the manger. Some would dismiss this as great story with little fact.

That doesn’t bother me at all.

Epiphany is a day when we celebrated God-made-flesh made known to the people of all the world.

One tradition tells us that the represent three different races. God has come for everyone and he wants to be known by all.

Today is a day when we should keep our eyes open for the signs of God’s presence among us, he manifestations of God in Word and Sacrament, but also in the family member in need of a loving word, in the neighbor in need of our help, in a world in need of peace.

Let us open our eyes, follow the stars, and rejoice in the manifestation of the Lord in our midst.

God nursed at Mary’s breast

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Mary, Mother of God.

For most Catholics, the words “Mother of God” trip off the tongue, without thought. But this was not always so.

Nursing Mother of God

In the fifth century Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, claimed that Jesus was two persons – divine and human – and that it was not right to call Mary the mother of God, the Theotokos, but she was the mother of Christ, the Christotokos. It would thus be offensive to him to say that God was nursed at his mother’s breast.

But at the Council of Ephesus in 431, Mary was proclaimed the Θεοτοκος, the bearer of God.

God did not play at being human; in Jesus God became flesh, like us (in all but sin). He suffered, he cried; he enjoyed the company of friends and he ate with others. He was fully human, as well as fully God. His was not a split personality – but an integration of human and divine.  As Galatians 4:4 puts it: “God sent his Son, born of a woman.”

Thus, for us holiness is to be lived out in the ordinary things of our daily human lives. How we respond to our families and friends, how we carry out our daily labors, how we love family, friends, and enemies – that’s how we let God’s holiness take hold of our lives.

On this first day of the year many of us make resolutions, proposals on how we will change our lives.

But the first, most important change ought to be something very simple, yet often so difficult: be attentive to God in the ordinary things of our daily lives.

There we may encounter God, who will make us holy.

—–

The image of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the infant Jesus is on the portico of the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, which is, according to Richard McBrien in Lives of the Saints, the oldest church dedicated to Mary in Rome. It is also the “station” church for today.

Fear and the Innocents

It is the constant fear of every tyrant
that somewhere, perhaps in a obscure village,
perhaps at that very moment,
there is a baby born who will one day signal the end of his power.
Robert Ellsberg,  All Saints

 Today we remember the Holy Innocents, the male children two years and under who were killed by Herod’s troops, told only in Matthew’s Gospel. Herod was threatened by the report of the Magi of the newborn King of the Jews. In fear and rage he responded with what the powers of this world always have at their disposal – death.

Tyrants and all those who seek to hold on to control are threatened by the new and react in fear. As St. Quodvultdeus said in a sermon:

You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart.

Fear destroys others because it destroys the person who fears. Fear pales in the face of uncertainty and the lack of control. Fear keeps us from welcoming the newborn king of the Jews.

Today activists recall those children whose lives have been taken in war and whose lives are threatened by war and nuclear weapons. Other activists recall those killed by abortion. We should also remember those children killed each day by hunger, oppression, and injustice.

About 1965, Emily Sargent Councilman wrote a short poem that, perhaps, shines some light in the darkness of the death of the innocent:

When?

The Herods of the world,
fearful for their power,
send soldiers
to slaughter
innocents.
The Caesars of the earth
dispatch armies
to implement decrees
for conquest
and taxes.
But the God
above all governors
came himself,
his armor and his purpose:
love.
We have read the pages
of centuries.
When
will we dare
to write
peace?

 

 

The ladder of love

Christ has set up a ladder of love,
and every Christian can climb to heaven on it.
St. Fulgentius of Ruspe,
Sermon on St. Stephen’s feast

 The message of the tender and merciful love of God has been a central theme of the preaching and practice of Pope Francis.

It is also the message of the season of Christmas.

Love has become flesh.

It is a Love that is tangible – because this Love is a Person, as the first letter of John (1:1) puts it:

What was from the beginning, what he have heard and seen with our own eyes and touched with our own hands, what we were observing and our hands were touching…

Love has taken up His abode with us.

And we are called to live in the dwelling place of love.

There is a story that Jerome tells of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, whose feast is today.

When he was old and had to be carried into the assembly, he kept repeating the same message:

My little children, love one another.

A little put off, some asked him why he always had the same message. His reply was to the point:

Because it is the word of the Lord, and if you keep it, you will do enough.

Love is the ladder that God has thrown down to us and love is the way we climb this ladder, accompanied and helped by Love made flesh.

 

Christ has come uninvited

My favorite Christmas quote is from Thomas Merton’s “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room” in Raids on the Unspeakable.

Into this world, this demented inn,
in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all,
Christ has come uninvited.
But because He cannot be at home in it,
because He is out of place in it,
His place is with those others for whom there is no room,
His place is with those who do not belong,
who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak,
those who are discredited,
who are denied the status of persons,
who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated.
With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in the world.
He is mysteriously present
in those for whom there seems to be nothing
but the world at its worst. . . .
It is in these that He hides Himself,
for whom there is no room.

This past Sunday I went with Padre German to visit an elderly woman in her home. She had been abandoned by some relatives in Tegucigalpa but a daughter and her family had taken her in – in a dirt-floor shack in the countryside outside the town of Concepción, Copán.

As Padre baptized 81 year-old Adela, anointed her with the oil of the sick, and gave her the Eucharist, I noted a small poster of the baby Jesus in the manger above the bed.

Christ had come there – uninvited.

As he comes in all our lives – if we open our hearts.

Pastorela in Gracias, Lempira

Pastorela in Gracias, Lempira

The peace of Epiphany

Salvadoran martyr and archbishop, Monseñor Oscar Romero, spoke of peace in his 1978 Epiphany homily:

Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.
Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution
of all to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity.
It is right and it is duty.
In it each one has a place in this beautiful family,
which the Epiphany brightens for us with God’s light.

May this vision of peace guide us this year.

The unexpected Christ

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“Into this world, this demented inn,
in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all,
Christ has come uninvited.
But because he cannot be at home in it,
because He is out of place in it,
His place is with those others for whom there is no room.
His place is with those who do not belong,
who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak,
those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons,
who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated.
With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in the world.
He is mysteriously present in those
for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst….
It is in these that He hides Himself,
for whom there is no room.”

                                                                                      Thomas Merton,
Raids on the Unspeakable