Monthly Archives: December 2009

New Birth

Some beautiful writings on the Christmas mystery. Here are a couple of sentences from Pope Leo the Great, an early pope.

‘We’re called to fill our own place and all the children of the church are separated from one another by intervals of time. Nevertheless, just as all the faithful are born in the font of baptism, crucified with Christ in his passion, raised again in his resurrection, and placed at the Father’s right hand in his ascension, so we’re born with him in his nativity.”

There’s a special on Darwin’s theory of evolution on PBS these evenings. I wonder if someone will speculate about the union of all creation by reason of  DNA and our belief in the  Word become flesh.  It will be interesting to see theology and science exchange their wisdom.

Again, back to Leo:  “In adoring the birth of our Saviour, we find we are celebrating the beginning of our own life, for the birth of Christ is the source of life for Christian folk, and the birthday of the Head is the birthday of the body.”

Is it also a celebration of the beginning of creation?

Following the Word

Hippolytus, an early Roman theologian reflects on the mystery of the Word made flesh:

“ We know that Christ’s humanity was of the same clay as our own; if this were not so, he would hardly have been a teacher who could expect to be imitated. If he were of a different substance from me, he would surely not have ordered me to do as he did, when by my very nature I am so weak. Such a demand could not be reconciled with his goodness and justice.

No. He wanted us to consider him as no different from ourselves, and so he worked, he was hungry and thirsty, he slept. Without protest he endured his passion, he submitted to death and revealed his resurrection. In all these ways he offered his own humanity as the first fruits of our race to keep us from losing heart when suffering comes our way, and to make us look forward to receiving the same reward as he did, since we know that we possess the same humanity.”

The Word became flesh. What does his early life tell us? In one sense, his birth and early life show us the helpless Word, carried along and cared for by others, part of an extended family that nourishes and instructs him, one of the nameless crowd swept along by the strong currents of his time.

Isn’t that what happens to all of us?

His Kindness Has Appeared

Following Jesus in his earthly life doesn’t only mean  reconstructing his life in the light of the scriptures and the historical sciences. St. Bernard reminds us that Jesus is the Word of God who reveals God to us. In him “the kindness and love of God has been revealed and  we receive “abundant consolation in this pilgrimage, this exile, this distress.”

Before he appeared as human, God’s kindness lay concealed, Bernard says. “Of course it was already in existence, because the mercy of the Lord is from eternity, but how could we know it was so great? It was promised but not yet experienced: hence many did not believe in it. At various times and in various different ways, God spoke through the prophets, saying I know the plans I have in mind for you: plans for peace, not disaster…”

“What greater proof could he have given of his mercy than by taking upon himself what needed mercy most? Where is there such perfect loving-kindness as in the fact that for our sake the Word of God became perishable like the grass? Lord, what is man, that you make much of him or pay him any heed?”

“See how much God cares for us. See what God thinks of us, what he feels about us. Don’t look at your own sufferings; look at God’s sufferings. Learn from what he was made for you, how much he makes of you; let his kindness be seen in his humanity.”

“ The lesser he has made himself in his humanity, the greater has he shown himself in kindness. The more he humbles himself on my account, the more powerfully he engages my love. The kindness and humanity of God our Saviour appeared says St Paul. The humanity of God shows the greatness of his kindness, and he who added humanity to the name of God gave great proof of this kindness.”


Today’s gospel from Luke says that Mary and Joseph customarily took the Child up to Jerusalem for the yearly Passover feast. But was Jerusalem the only place they took him? Surely, they had friends and relatives in Cana and Capernaum, as well as in the Judean hill country, whom they visited from time to time? I don’t think they were a reclusive family hiding in the hills.

What about Sepphoris– Zippori the Israeli call it today– the capital of Galilee at the time, about five miles away from Nazareth, an easy walk for people then? According to one tradition, Mary’s family came from there. For the past decade, archeologists have been uncovering the ruins of this fascinating city.

Sepphoris was a flourishing place in Jesus’ day where, unlike Nazareth, gentiles and Jews lived together. Like other cities it was built on a hill surrounded by fertile valleys; looking east you could see the Mediteranean Sea. The city had a theater that sat 4,500 people, gleaming mansions with sparkling mosaics, streets lined with shops and public buildings. It was a center for tax-collecting and trade.

For sure, Galilee’s ruler, Herod Antipas, had his father’s taste for building. As in Jerusalem, building must have been going on there all the time. Did Joseph, a “builder” according to the gospel, work there? Did he bring his Son along with him? Did people from Nazareth bring their produce to the city to sell to the residents who smiled at the “simple” Nazarenes? Did Jesus see there how proud bureaucrats, like Pilate and Herod,”made their authority felt.” Did he watch the tough Roman legionnaires based there and recognize how futile a fight against them would be?

Sepphoris must have been one of the places, like Jerusalem, where Jesus learned about the world. The two wise teachers who mostly helped him understand what he saw were Mary and Joseph, “simple” people from Nazareth. But there must have been other family members and friends too who brought him up.

Angels didn’t.

The Feast of the Holy Family reminds us it’s not where you go to school, or where you live, or what things you have that’s important. It’s who brings you up?

On to Nazareth

This year we go quickly, too quickly I think, from Bethlehem to Nazareth for the Feast of the Holy Family on Sunday.

According to a story from CNN this week, Israeli archeologists announced that they had uncovered the remains of a house in Nazareth from the time of Jesus. It’s near the Church of the Annunciation, the large Franciscan church that’s built over the center of the ancient town.

The house has two small rooms, a courtyard with a cistern for gathering rainwater and a pit the archeologists speculate was dug as a hiding place at the time the Roman army invaded Israel in the mid 60s. It may not be the actual house where Jesus lived, but it would be like it.

They say that Nazareth probably had about 50 of these modest dwellings, clustered together, where families or groups of families lived. They tended small farms on the outskirts of the town.

This was where Jesus Christ was brought up and spent most of his life. Hardly a showcase for someone Christians call “the Light of the World,” But it was the place God’s Son chose to live among us. Another mystery to wonder about.

CNN also carried a story called Passions Over the Prosperity Gospel: Was Jesus Weathy? The “prosperity preachers,” evangelists who tell you to believe and you’ll get rich, should take a trip to the digs at Nazareth where  Jesus spent most of his days. Probably a little different than where they live.

I Wonder

I wonder as I wander out under the sky,

why Jesus, our Savior, was born for to die,

for poor, orn’ry people like you and like I

I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

Wonder is a word we use often at Christmas.It describes our reaction to something  beyond what we expect, beyond our experience and our understanding. It’s so big it leaves us lost for words.

We describe the mystery we celebrate today as the wonder of the Incarnation.The wonder that God, who made all things could become human like us, and in such startling circumstances.

A woman was telling me about her little girl, Isabel. She’s in the first grade in a little Catholic school down the street from us and they were into the Christmas story recently.

“She can’t wait to go to school, ” her mother said. “They’re putting together a creche for the Baby Jesus and they’re learning all about the angels, and the wise men who come to the stable on camels, and Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds and the wicked king who want to kill all the babies in Bethlehem. They’re offering little prayers that the whole world be blessed when he comes.”

Isabel is enthralled by it all. “Mommy, did you know Jesus had to sleep on straw. That  straw we put in the crib would  hurt him when he slept on it.”

Isabel was asking what she was going to get for Christmas, and her mother told her that before we open our hand to get anything we have to open it to give something. So Isabel wants enough money to buy presents for everyone in the world. She’s going to have to see the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States for a bailout like that, her mother says.

The Christmas story is a wonderful story. Children are delighted by it: it touches the oldest and wisest of us.

I was reading a Christmas sermon of St. Augustine recently. You can see him wondering  too about this great mystery. Listen to him.

The Word of God, maker of time, becoming flesh was born in time.

Born today, he made all days.

Ageless with the Father, born of a mother, he began counting his years.

Man’s maker became man; the ruler of the stars sucked at a mother’s breasts,

Bread hungered,

the Fountain thirsted,

the way was wearied by the journey,

the truth was accused by false witnesses,

the life slept in death,

the judge of the living and the dead was judged by a human judge,

justice was condemned by injustice,

the righteous was beaten by whips,

the cluster of grapes was crowned with thorns,

the upholder of all hung from a tree,

strength became weak,

health was stricken with wounds,

life died.

He humbled himself that we might be raised up.

He suffered evil that we might receive good,

Son of God before all days, son of man these last days,

from the mother he made, from the woman who would never be, unless he made

her.  (Augustine, Sermon 191, 1; PL 38, 1010)

Through the years, this mystery of God made so many wonder. May it bring us to  wonder today.

Visits and Gifts

Visits, gifts and greeting cards ( some now by email) are part of the holiday’s trials. How can you love everyone all at once? Hard to do.

But Luke’s gospel, which we read today, seems to say that visiting is part of the Christmas mystery. Mary goes into the hill country to visit her cousin Elisabeth after she hears the angel’s message. They meet, not just to trade family news and pass the time together, but to share their faith.

They’re two believers who reveal to each other the mystery hidden within them in their unborn children. And they rejoice in their common gift.

We’ll gather with others this Christmas time; most of them people of faith, believers in a mystery they do not see. At Christmas, believers meet, believers to a degree.

More than we know, we are signs to each other, like the bread and wine, sometimes hardly evident. In his commentary today on the gospel of the visitation, St. Ambrose says we are like Mary and Elizabeth; “Every soul that believes–that soul both conceives and gives birth to the Word of God and recognizes his works.”

So visit we must.