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The Church serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God's family. [ Gaudium et Soes #40]

Some Christmas Thoughts through the Years (Part One)

Updated: Jan 3


I thought it might be interesting to examine how I have addressed the Christmas mystery over the many years of being a pastor at various parishes.  So, this first part of my Christmas blog is a pastiche of several bulletin articles from the last twenty years.  By re-reading them, it is clear to me that I have several common themes I like to touch upon at Christmas.  I give them to you  as food for thought.  A second Christmas blog will follow, where I will do the same with some of the more poetic ways I have used over the years to delve into the Christmas mystery.  Then a final Christmas blog will focus on what is called the “Christmas Proclamation,” a sung proclamation (usually tied to Mass at Midnight on Christmas morning), which connects the birth of Jesus to both biblical and secular history.

 

I.

How does the world and all of humanity grow into the community of justice and peace, the community of joy and hope, the community of truth and life, which God desires?

 

Perhaps through human power and wealth with its strong and powerful ability to shape the world for all others? But then why did God choose people as vulnerable as Mary and Joseph, from an unimportant town in a politically weak—at that time—nation? If political or cultural power and wealth is the answer, why not be born into a politically powerful family, a leading family in the Roman empire?

 

Perhaps through divine power and the overwhelming majesty of God? But then why the slow unfolding of the universe, the interplay of chance and freedom which marks all of life and all of human history? Although the Nativity stories of the gospels do have some elements of that divine power—angelic messages to Mary, to Joseph, to the shepherds; the magi visiting a child whose birth was marked in stars of the sky—at the heart of the story is divine vulnerability. God’s Word made flesh, God’s full entering into human history—which becomes so clear in the baby Jesus—is at the mercy of the forces of the world and needs the love and care and protection of others to survive.

 

God, then, is not some mastermind whose core attribute is being all-powerful. God is love; love outpoured and overflowing; love freely given. As Love, God reaches out to all but especially to those most in need. As Love, God never coerces a response but invites a freely given “yes” from each of us.

 

May our “yes” to God this Christmas season increase our ability to love all whom God sends our way, particularly those who are hurting in any way. May the Word enfleshed in Jesus at Bethlehem, now risen, be enfleshed in all that we say and do.

 

A very blessed Christmas to you and your families.

 

 

II.

Have you ever seen the northern lights or a gentle snowfall or a flower in bloom or a red-tinged sunset on the water or the kindness of a stranger or an artist or athlete at the peak of their performance or the face of a beloved and not felt a moment of wonder and a desire to share that sense of wonder?

 

Think about what a child, especially an infant, does to us. Almost impossible, isn’t it, to not want to touch and hold her? Beyond our control to want him to smile and shake with that infant joy, which in turn reverberates into joy within us?

 

In a world of war and violence, senseless killings and exploitation, huge inequalities and selfishness, fear and envy, untimely illnesses and deaths, unexpected accidents and disappointments, it is easy, almost acceptable to lose that wonder and joy.

 

Fight it. Through joy and wonder we experience what it means to be fragile, limited, created beings with seemingly unlimited capacity to learn, to embrace, to grow, to love, to transcend. We learn to open our humanity to that which is of God.

 

May the gift of wonder and joy be yours yet again this Christmas season and throughout the New Year.

 

 

III.

The Christmas faith story: A child with a manger for a bed; born in a place where animals spend the night; proclaimed as Messiah, Savior, and Lord; God’s answer to the deepest human needs and longings. How does that story impact us today?

 

A pastor I know finds a new children’s Christmas book each year. He reads to the children at the Christmas service and ties the story’s message to the Christian meaning of Christmas. I think this year’s story is about how an ox, a dog, a cat, and even a mouse find a way to get along and thereby share in the moment of Jesus’ birth!  In thirty years this pastor has never run out of new material. There is always some author who imagines what Joseph or Mary or the shepherds or the angels or even animals and fictional characters might have been experiencing.  This leads usually to some ‘miracle of Christmas’ which connects the children to core human qualities such as hope, forgiveness, joy, trust, or generosity. Even our trite cultural Christmas messages—stories about Santa or movies about dysfunctional families experiencing crazy things—usually end up focusing on the good we humans desire or can do.  Isn’t it interesting how Christmas stories, even those with no mention of the original story, try to enlarge or deepen our humanity?

 

Every birth and every life changes human history, alters relationships, sends out ripples in time that are uniquely tied to that person, no matter the length of their lives. What is uniquely tied to Jesus (Yeshua) of Nazareth whose birth those many years ago we remember at Christmas? Depending on how one looks at Jesus, the answers will differ, of course. But what if the uniqueness of Jesus lies in the irrevocable and definitive way God becomes united through him to all of human history? Doesn’t that change everything? Doesn’t that invite us to cherish the gift our humanity? To not just wish for but actively work for the welfare of all human beings? If God claims our humanity as God’s own, then nothing that is authentically human is to be demeaned or neglected.  If God unites with humanity, then human history is not merely a happenstance in this vast universe of time and space but an essential part of its meaning. All of our work for justice, for the least among us to have life and dignity, to move from violence to nonviolent cooperation, to forgive rather than seek revenge, to be caretakers who sacrifice now so that today’s children and grandchildren might have hope for the future—all of this is both most deeply human and truly of God.

 

So says the original Christmas faith story.  What about our lives? Whether we name it that way or not, we all have Christmas stories to tell, don’t we? What is yours? Share it. Live it.

 

 

IV.

As with all Christian thinking about Jesus, we cannot escape the paradox of humanity and divinity intertwined.  We can be tempted to sever the paradox, for example, saying that there is no way for the infinite to become finite.  In which case we can then opt for a strong, powerful, amazing human being from Nazareth named Jesus, who lived and died but is not essentially of greater significance for humanity than any other human being. Or alternatively, we can choose to regard Jesus as extraordinarily different from us, an all-perfect Divine One, whose humanity was not essential to our salvation but his divinity was; who went through life always knowing, because of his divinity, that all would work in his favor, untouched at the core by life’s doubts, despairs and uncertainties.  But such severing of the paradox of who Jesus is destroys the very reality at the core of our Christian faith.

 

Instead of choosing one side of the paradox over the other, Christmas asks us to hold both together, leading us to wonder and awe. Fully human, fully divine. Infinite yet a vulnerable baby. The unchangeable God within the very changing history of the universe. Human rationality—be it of the historical narrative variety or the scientific thesis approach—by itself cannot fully explain that faith-filled paradox.  In fact, no rational system of thought can eliminate the fact that paradox will always be part of any complete explanation of reality. We humans use our gift of rationality to know that no rational system will ever capture the fullness of what we know! For you of a more mathematical-philosophical bent, Kurt Gödel’s famous proofs of two “incompleteness theorems” established such a surprising conclusion. This does not mean that all paradoxes are true or that one is as good as another. But it does mean that we cannot simply dismiss a paradox as irrational, or sever a paradox so it fits our preconceived view of things. To know in a human way is to know both rationally and more-than-rationally.

 

That is why we turn to poetry. That is why we meditate on works of art from the great Masters (who clearly capture the humanity of Jesus in their renderings but also a sense of the divine mystery that is so much more than we can see, often by their use of light). That is why we create Christmas hymns with engaging melodies that allow our hearts to sing out the paradox without having to explain it. Take a more recent (1984) Christmas carol, Mary Did You Know, by Mark Lowry:

 

Mary, did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water? Mary, did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters? Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new? This child that you've delivered will soon deliver you?

 

Mary, did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man? Mary, did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with His hand? Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod? And when you kiss your little baby, you've kissed the face of God?

 

Mary, did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation? Mary, did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations? Did you know that your baby boy is heaven's perfect Lamb? This sleeping child you're holding is the Great I Am?

 

The paradox of Christmas. And that is why, in the end, we find ourselves every year invited by this paradox, this Christmas reality, into silence, wonder, awe, and heart-felt gratitude.

 

A blessed Christmas to all who read this.

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