From the Manger to the Cross

We love the manger scene at Christmas, don’t we?  Ever since St. Francis of Assisi made the first one in 1223, Christians of all sorts have loved seeing the tender scene of the stable at Bethlehem.  Tiny Nativity sets on our coffee tables.  Carved wooden family heirlooms under our Christmas trees.  Large realistic statuary in front of the altar of our church.  We love the sight of all the animals gathered into the stable around the manger.  We see the shepherds there, running in from their flocks to worship the newborn baby.  The angels who proclaimed His birth hover nearby, trumpets in hand, trailing banners that read, “Gloria In Excelsis Deo.” The sweet old man leaning on his staff must be St. Joseph.  A misreading of Scripture sometimes places the three wise men in the Nativity scene too, though it was probably at least a couple of years later that they made their appearance.  Every manger scene features the Blessed Virgin Mary looking down lovingly at her newborn son.  Even the most spartan Christian denominations trot out a Nativity scene at Christmas.  No one could object to these warm and fuzzy images.  And then, there’s the baby—tiny and perfect and cooing up at His mother and foster father.  Just looking at Him gives us a warm glow, a feeling that all is right with the world once more.  We look at this idyllic scene and smile.

And yet to view His birth as only a kind of Disney cartoon filled with little lambs and singing cherubs is at least a misunderstanding and maybe even a heresy.  This is not just the miracle of another birth to another poor couple in desperate circumstances.  This is the Creator God Whose birth is cleaving creation in two.  By being born as a baby, He is dividing time itself.  We measure time as either before or after the Incarnation.  This cooing infant has all the power and knowledge of the great “I AM” in Him from the moment of His conception.  Fully human and fully divine, this newborn is the Word made flesh.  Look closely at Him and you’ll see much more than just a babe in swaddling clothes.

Nestled in His mother’s lap in the stable, does He also imagine the last time she’ll hold Him, as He is taken down from the Cross?  Looking around Him there in the manger, does He notice the donkey patiently chewing some hay nearby and does he see that other one that He’ll ride into Jerusalem for that last Passover?  Does His borrowed stable remind Him of the borrowed tomb yet-to-be?  Does He wonder why so many want to see Him in the crib, but so few will want to walk with Him to Golgotha?  Crowds come to pray at His birth, but He knows that in Gethsemane, He’ll pray alone.  The stable filled with love and homage will one day be a lonely hill, rocky and barren and full of suffering.  Does the baby know this?  Surely.  And yet He chooses to come to us anyway.  He comes to be one of us so that we can know how to be more like Him.  He comes because He knows we have nowhere else to go and no one else who can save us.  He comes because it is His Father’s will and He and the Father are One. He comes out of love because He IS Love. The baby in the manger is already sacrificing Himself for you and for me.  The star shining so brightly overhead throws a shadow on His face, the shadow of a Cross.  We can never truly know the joy of that Bethlehem night unless we also embrace with Him that long afternoon on Good Friday.  Our beloved manger scenes at Christmas hold the promise of Easter morning within them, if we only choose to make the journey with our Savior.  It begins here in Bethlehem as we kneel by the baby.  Mary’s little lamb is already the Lamb of God “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8).

Advertisements

Mercy and Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite secular holiday.  It doesn’t involve much overdone commercialism and it’s free from all the consumer-driven anxiety of Christmas.  Thanksgiving is a day to remember and be thankful to God for all the graces and blessings in our lives.  We gather together with family and friends and share a meal.  Many of us may go to Church as well.  We’ll come together before the altar of God and offer our thanks to Him for the precious gift of our salvation:  His Son, Jesus Christ.  And we’ll ask God to forgive us for our sins.  We do this at the beginning of every Mass because there is such a strong connection between forgiveness and thanksgiving.  We can’t approach the thankfulness of Holy Communion until we’ve approached the Lord for mercy and forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession.  This is God’s plan for us.  And so, during this Thanksgiving week as we prepare the pies and the turkey to share with the people we love, let’s also prepare our hearts by forgiving those in our lives who have wronged us.

Forgiveness is at the heart of our salvation.  Through Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled to the Father.  Nothing we have ever done is so heinous that God’s mercy is denied us.  What a wonderful thing to know!  This alone is more than enough to fill our “things I am thankful for” list a thousand times over.  Our salvation journey starts when we acknowledge our sinfulness before God and beg His forgiveness.  But we grow in our faith when we extend that forgiveness to the people in our lives.  This is so important that Jesus included it in the perfect prayer He shared with His friends:  “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”(Luke 11:4).  As we receive God’s mercy we’re called to extend it to other people.  We must be conduits of forgiveness.  But we also know how difficult it can be to forgive someone, don’t we?  Everyone reading this has been hurt by someone and found forgiving them hard, or even impossible to do.  We’ve held onto the pain they caused us and maybe we’ve let it simmer like a poison inside us for months, or even years.  In fact, the root meaning of the word “grudge” is “to murmur”—isn’t that what unforgiven hurts do in our hearts?  They murmur and echo in the small dark closet in our soul where we harbor our secret pains.  And it saps the joy out of what God means for us to have.  We need to forgive to fully live our redeemed lives.

So, suck it up and forgive somebody.  Especially this week.  How can we gather in thankfulness if we have those murmuring hurts and angers?  Christ says, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins”(Mark 11:26).  That’s how important it is for us to let go–we have to forgive so that God can forgive us.  In fact, God has only one solution to the problem of our sin and that is forgiveness.  “To forgive” means “to be gracious.”  We are called to give grace to one another as God has given His grace to us.  But what if that other person has been so mean, so hurtful, so awful that you just don’t believe they deserve to be forgiven?  Newsflash:  none us should hope to get what we really deserve.  Mercy is NOT getting what you and I deserve for our sins (i.e. punishment) and grace is getting what we DON”T deserve (i.e. mercy).  As Christians we live in the sweet grace of knowing that we NEVER get what we deserve, thanks be to God!  None of us deserves forgiveness so it’s mercy when we extend that to someone who has hurt us.  Forgiveness isn’t about fairness, it’s about grace.  And here’s something else to consider:  forgiveness isn’t a feeling, it’s a decision.  If you wait until you feel like doing it, you never will.  God doesn’t tell us to forgive them if we feel like it.  We read in Hebrews how God forgives:  “Their sins and their lawless acts I will remember no more”(10:17).  God chooses not to remember our sins.  We should imitate Him.  We make the choice to forgive and then we pray for God to help us live out that decision.

As you gather to share Thanksgiving, remember to give thanks for God’s great love and mercy in your life.  In the end, what we have in this life is each other.  The Lord has forgiven your sins and offered you eternal life in Jesus Christ.  At the center of that love and grace is the Cross.  This Thanksgiving, lay the burden of your un-forgiveness at the foot of that Cross.  And be thankful.

“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of His grace.”

                                                                                —Ephesians 1:7

The Power of Touch

A little boy scrapes his knee on the playground and runs to his mother for comfort.  She holds him close while he cries and gently cleans the scratch.  An old woman sits by her husband’s hospital bed as he lays ill.  She places a cool cloth on his forehead and murmurs her love for him.  A priest stops at a crosswalk and bends to talk to a man sitting on the sidewalk holding a sign and a cup.  He touches the man on the shoulder and the man looks up for the first time.

We all know the healing power of touch.  Without words, the touch of someone we love can comfort and affirm us, can shield and protect, can forgive and heal.  On nearly every page of the Gospels we read of Jesus’ healing touch.  The sick were drawn to Christ for His touch.  They are all hoping for physical healing, seeming to know intuitively that Christ can heal them if He chooses to.  And He does choose to heal them, one after the other.  But He gives them all a “bonus” in the process, something they didn’t expect and weren’t thinking about:  spiritual healing.  In fact, He often withholds their hopes for physical health until He’s addressed the state of their souls and the depths of their faith.  Their spiritual sicknesses are Christ’s primary concern.  And yet He always wants them to be physically whole.  He loves us—body AND soul.  When a leper came to Him for healing, Jesus didn’t rely on parables or preaching or prophecy, but on the simple human gesture of touch.  In the culture of His day, which placed so much value on words alone to convey meaning, thought and emotion, Jesus goes against Jewish norms and touches an “unclean” person.  By reaching out to the leper, Jesus made him entirely whole again.  He healed his body by removing the skin disease.  He healed his dignity by touching his body in the face of social ostracism.  Once excluded, the leper left Jesus accepted, an outcast no longer.

Our mission as His Church is to do what Jesus did.  In anointing the sick, we continue the healing Sacrament established by Christ (Mark 6:7-13;James 5:14-15).  Through the power of touch, infused by the graces of the Holy Spirit, Christ’s healing gifts continue today.  We are also called to minister to the “untouchables” in our own communities:  the homeless, the displaced, the immigrant, the imprisoned, and the forgotten among us.  To fail to love the less lovable and touch the less touchable is to fail in our imitation of Christ.  As He healed the lame, the blind, the deaf and the sick of all kinds, His sacred hands freed them from their spiritual illnesses as well.  Those same hands broke the bread that fed the five thousand, and broke His own Body as the Bread of Heaven at the Last Supper.  And on the next day, His healing hands were pierced through for you and me by Roman nails.  As His Church, we are His hands now, called to heal one another in His love.

“One of the greatest diseases is to be nobody to anybody.” 

St. Teresa of Calcutta

Kneeling

When we hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a baseball game, we stand up.  We may remove our ballcap and place our hand over our heart. You can’t always count on this at football games nowadays, though. Likewise, when we meet an important person, we stand up to shake their hand.  Our British cousins may bow in the presence of their Queen.  We use the posture of our bodies to show respect and loyalty.  In effect, what we do with our bodies gives evidence to others of what we believe in our hearts.  This is why Catholics kneel during Mass.  We kneel because we are in the presence of Christ.

There are many dozens of instances of kneeling described in both the Old and the New Testaments.  Sometimes, kneeling is an act of supplication, of asking for something from God in a humble way.  “And at the evening sacrifice, I rose from my fasting, with my garments and my mantle rent, and fell upon my knees, and spread out my hands to the Lord” (Ezra 9:5).  In other examples, kneeling is an act of worship, of reverence and humility to God.  “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker”(Psalm 95:6).  In the New Testament, many people would kneel before Jesus, some asking Him for healing. “…and behold, a leper came to Him and knelt before Him saying, ‘Lord, if You will, You can make me clean’ “(Matthew 8:2).  Jesus Himself often knelt in prayer to His heavenly Father.  “And He withdrew from them (His disciples) about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed”(Luke 22:41).

Kneeling is the ultimate posture of submission and surrender and is the exterior sign of our interior posture before Christ.  It humbles us before God and reminds us that Jesus must increase and I must decrease.  Kneeling takes us out of our usual postures of sitting or standing and radically changes our world view.  We are vulnerable and a bit uncomfortable.  We are saying to the world: “I am not in control anymore.”  Kneeling makes us look up, both physically and spiritually, to the One Who is in control.

When we worship together, all our gestures and postures are meaningful.  As Catholics, the Bishops of the Church instruct us regarding our posture during Mass.  In this way, we worship together as a unified family, both in our words and in our actions.  Our unity is affirmed when we stand together, bow together, and kneel together.  Catholics kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.  Kneeling at this moment is also kneeling at the foot of His Cross, on that Friday at Calvary.  Kneeling together is a sign of our unity as Catholics.  We kneel together in reverence and adoration, as a family, in the presence of our Lord and Saviour in the Blessed Sacrament.

How beautiful it was to see the late Pope John Paul II, aged and racked by Parkinson’s disease, slowly and painfully kneeling in prayer.  Towards the end of his public life, he could only kneel with the help of other people.  This “Servant of the Servants of God” showing humility, reverence, and obedient love to the God he had served so faithfully throughout his life.  Like him, our posture reveals our soul.  When we kneel beside the bedside of a dying person or stand up for the dignity of an unborn child, or genuflect before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, we say what we believe louder than with any words we could speak.  Our posture tells others what we are willing to live or die for.

If we are called to imitate Christ, then are also called to kneel in prayer.  In the garden of Gethsemane, on His knees, He prayed “Father, if You are willing, take this cup away from me; still not My will but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42).  Kneeling is not mere piety.  It is a fundamental act of faith in Christ.  Kneeling is a strong expression of Who stands at the center of your life and Who stands at the center of all creation.  There is nothing passive about kneeling in humility and love.  When knees bend in response to a heart that loves Christ, there is unleashed a force so great and so strong that it can change the face of the earth.  We call this force “grace.”

In the fourth century, a Catholic priest named Abba Apollo described the devil as having no knees at all.  He cannot kneel, cannot adore, cannot pray.  He can only look down his nose in contempt.  St. Paul, in his letter to the Phillipians, believed otherwise.  In his beautiful hymn to Christ, he tells that “at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil 2:6-11).  When we kneel at Jesus’ name, we imitate the Magi who knelt at His birth.  Instead of gold and fragrant spices, we offer Him our humble hearts.  When we bow down to serve others, we imitate Christ as He washed the feet of His disciples,  We give Him our hands to do His will.  When we kneel in adoration of Christ, we imitate all the angels and saints kneeling at this very moment around His throne in heaven.

“Kneeling does not come from any culture, it comes from the Bible.”

—Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI