Your Price

My first job after graduate school was as a psychotherapist in a small town in west Texas.  I worked for a public mental health agency and we were missioned to serve all the psychological needs of the community.  We saw anyone and everyone that walked through our doors.  It was a great learning experience for me.  One of the aspects of our clinic was that our fees were based on our client’s income.  The more they earned, the more they paid.  But no one left without paying something.  The idea was that people tend not to place value on things they receive for free.  So even our poorest clients would pay something for their therapy sessions, even if it was just a dollar.  And if they didn’t keep their appointments, they would still be charged.  Very few would no-show their sessions this way.  This arrangement didn’t come close to meeting our operating expenses, but that wasn’t the point anyway.

After all these years, I think our assumptions about value and worth were right.  Life has taught me that people tend to not value things that come to them without a price.  When something is valuable to us, we take better care of it.  We make sure it doesn’t get damaged and, if it does, we have it repaired.  We use it for the purpose for which it was made.  We don’t let others misuse it. In the first letter of St. Paul to the church at Corinth, the truth of this is brought home to us directly: “You were purchased at a price” (I Cor 6:19-20).

Thank about that for a moment.  “You were purchased at a price.”  You are so valuable that God bought you with the life of His only Son.  What would you purchase with the life of your only child? Can you even imagine that kind of love?  And yet that’s how much God loves you.  In the midst of your sinful life (in the midst of my sinful life), that’s how much God values and loves you.  He loves you more than you can understand, and with a love that is beyond your human comprehension.  Knowing this should call each of us to have a conversion in our hearts and in our lives.  We belong to the Lord.  He has claimed us as His children though the sinless blood of Christ.  All that we have, all that we are is His and His alone.  Every breath we take is a gift of His generous love.  This knowledge has big and practical consequences for us:

1.  All human life is precious and must be treated with dignity and respect from the moment of conception until natural death.

2.  Parents have a duty to raise their children in His Church, teaching them about God’s great love for them and guiding them in the way of that love.

3.  We must love one another as God loves each of us.

4.  Our bodies belong to God.  They are the temple of His love for us and should be treated with holy respect.’

5.  Every day is a gift from God and so we must spend it doing good and working for the benefit of others.

6.  No one is outside the love of God.  Even if we don’t like them, God loves them ferociously.

7.  No one is unable to be redeemed.  No matter the sin, no matter the sinner.  We are ALL the prodigal children of the Father.  By His mercy, we seek His forgiveness.  Through His grace, we are saved.

8.  God has never been closer to you than He is at this very moment.  If you’re still reading this, it’s only because God is calling to you.  He longs for your friendship because “you were purchased at a price.”  He has valued you above and beyond anything else in the universe. You are the treasure of His Sacred Heart.

What’s your response to this sort of overwhelming love?  How do you begin to be grateful?

“God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” — St. Augustine (354AD-430AD)

The Christ Child

She looked him over, from the top of his tiny head, to the soles of his wiggling little feet. Ten fingers, ten toes—all parts accounted for. Perfectly formed. Perfectly normal. She wrapped his wriggling body in a rough blanket. So small. She held him against her, feeling him struggle and whimper at this latest outrage. Fists waving, eyes squinting and unfocused and then, the crying began. His wails were out of proportion to his little body, piercing the cold midnight with their insistent “I am here!” declaration. Was he hungry, she wondered? Cold? Wet? She begins to learn about this new person in his first few minutes apart from her body. This child may be helpless and dependent, she thinks, but he is certainly not passive. She smiles and remembers his beginnings inside her, that moment of aching, unknowing hope that took root and grew within her. Now, here he is—crying and demanding and separate from her. And she wishes she could keep him safe forever.

As for the child, his world is a much smaller and much simpler place than hers, at least for now. He wants warmth and food and human touch. He shamelessly demands your attention to him. A Jewish infant, he is completely unconcerned with the politics, religion, or ethnicity of his comforters. His mother is an unmarried teenaged peasant, but he wouldn’t care if she’d been born a princess or a courtesan. Some shepherds are coming to visit him, but their lowly vocation and social status are of no concern to him at all. He’ll be visited soon by three pagan strangers from what is present-day Iraq, but their expensive gifts won’t impress him. Everyone gathering to see him comes laden with their own complicated personal histories and predicaments. Each one has questions and doubts about him, born of their own issues and weaknesses, their own personal sins and woundedness. None of this concerns the child. What he wants is their love. Unquestioningly, he reaches out to each one in their turn, seeking out their humanity, desiring their touch. A tiny hand seeking them right where they are.

Soon, he’ll grow up. A king will try to kill him. His family will have to become refugees on the run just to survive. His parents will worry for him beyond our knowing. He’ll grow up to quit the family business and hang out with an odd circle of friends. His crowd will include a variety of shady characters, including prostitutes, radicals, tax collectors and drunkards. He will get into big, big trouble. He’ll confront those in power with an unyielding will, a fierce tongue, and a turn of the cheek. In the end, his friends will desert him and his foes will seemingly destroy him. In the more distant future, his life will inspire a faith that will transform the world. His name will be a source of blessing and will also be used to wage wars. But not tonight. Tonight he’s a baby like all babies, innocent and a sign of hope. Tonight he’s just like any other newborn—both nothing special and seven pounds of pure miracle. The Word made flesh welcomes everyone at His manger. He simply wants you to come as you are and to be there with Him. Let your praises to Him be your deepest longings. Let your prayers be your wholehearted attention. Let your hymn be His lullaby. And your Christmas gift to the King of Kings? Yourself—whoever you happen to be, however you happen to be. Love this Child as He reaches His tiny hand out to grip your finger. The great I AM is looking up at you tonight.

Merry Christmas!

The Cross In The Manger

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).

The Light of Christmas

It’s December again and the darkness of the winter season is all around us. The oak leaves are brown and crunchy underfoot on the cold ground. Frost has burnt the leaves of the rose bush. The nights are long and the blue-white stars shine with a steely cold light. And yet we know that after the depths of winter, spring will come again. At the root of that empty oak tree is the spark of life that will force the green leaves in just a few months. Inside the frost-bitten bush is the sleeping rose bud that will awaken in the warmth of spring. Memory consoles us in winter with the hope of new life. We remember summer’s warmth of long days and soft nights; the abundance of our sun-kissed gardens and the green lushness of field and valley. Even in winter’s darkness, we carry in our hearts the light of summer.

God formed our remembering hearts, to seek Him and to long for the light of His love. He knows how very much we need Him and yearn for the Truth which only He can give us. And so He chose to come to us in the darkest days of winter, when His light would shine the brightest and when the consolation of His coming would be most welcome. Heaven came to earth in the Blessed Virgin’s holy womb; her sacred “yes” inviting the Infinite to make His home among us. But this King of all Kings didn’t come to rule, but to serve. He doesn’t demand homage, but seeks to be in a relationship with each one of us. The great “I AM” comes to us as a shivering baby in a backwater manger. That very night, the winter skies were filled with angels and the light of heaven used a star to shine forth the way to Him. The light of that singular star is reflected today in every twinkling bulb on our Christmas trees, and in every candle flickering on our altar. The sanctuary lamp burns brightly near the Tabernacle of every Catholic church in the world and proclaims that Christ is here! Just as He was in the manger, or the Upper Room, or on the Cross, or arising from the tomb. The uncreated Light that rolled away the stone and banished darkness forever, that made the earth and hung the moon in place, that raised Lazarus from the dead and cured the sick and walked on the water—that same Light comes to us at every Mass. And the angels that dance around His heavenly throne, and who heralded His birth to the shepherds, kneel with us around the altar in loving adoration.

And so in these darkest days of winter, again He comes to us. In the darkness of our lost and sinful world, again He comes to us. In the sinful, secret corners of our guilty hearts, He comes to us. “The Light of the world” (John 8:12) comes to love us, to know us, and to save us. He comes to bring us to Himself in all-embracing Light. He comes to heal our broken souls and bind up all our wounds. In the winter darkness of our sins and failings, our addictions and our weakness, when we can see nothing before us but cold, barren ground and the loneliness of doubt, He comes to bring us new life and hope. Christ, our Light, conquers darkness forevermore. Come, Lord Jesus!