Ecclesiasticus 4:28

"Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will war on your side."

Ora pro nobis,

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Dominic. Amen.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Third Joyful Mystery

The Nativity of Jesus

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
A Reading from the Holy Gospel According to St. Luke (2:1-21)
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.

I will admit to a great sacrilege here. Christmas is not my favourite time of year. In fact, ever since the allure of getting an annual Lego set wore off, Christmas just wasn't the same. (Actually, if I recall correctly, receiving the annual Lego set ended before the allure wore off. I guess my parents figured I'd outgrown Legos before I had...Anyway...) Now, there are a lot of reasons why people tend to disdain Christmas: it's too commercial; they had a traumatic experience one Christmas; or various other reasons. I can honestly say that those aren't my reasons for never really appreciating Christmas. It might be too commercial for some people, but that's honestly a matter of choice. It doesn't have to be for you, if you choose not to let it. I've also never experienced some sort of Christmas-related trauma, thankfully. No, my reasons for never appreciating Christmas are ostensibly more "spiritual".

You see, Christmas is about Jesus coming to earth, as a baby. As a devout Christian, I'm interested in how Jesus saves me, what He did to redeem Mankind. And growing up, I was always taught (rightly) that Jesus saved us by His death on the Cross. Well, that was some thirty-three years after He was born as a baby in Bethlehem. So while obviously Jesus' birth was a necessary way to begin God's life as a human being, I was always too impatient to move on to the really important holiday: Easter.

It honestly wasn't until I became interested in Catholicism, and began attending Mass, that Christmas began to actually mean something more to me than a necessary prerequisite. Now, I know I'm likely going to take flak for that statement, from Protestants who love Christmas and perhaps realised what I'm going to say in this meditation without having to become a Catholic. I'm not saying that my newer appreciation for Christmas is a proof for Catholicism or a fault for Protestantism. I'm simply saying, "This is how it was for me."

You see, Jesus' saving act wasn't limited to Calvary. Revelation 13:8 points out that He is the Lamb "slain from the foundation of the world." So His redemptive act began in intention, if not in fact, from all eternity (It's not as if, after all, the Cross was "plan B" for a situation that caught the omniscient God off-guard). But in a very real way, Christ's saving action began tangibly at the moment of His conception (which is why the Rosary starts with the Annunciation--because it traces the Gospel of Christ's salvation through its mysteries). In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas was of the opinion that Christ's becoming Man was enough of an act to effect our Salvation, and he claims that His death was simply the way He showed us how ugly sin is. While I'm not entirely sure that I agree with St. Thomas' assessment on that matter, it is food for thought. And the thought is this: everything, and I mean everything, that Jesus did here on earth, brought us redemption. Everything He did was salvific, not simply His death on the Cross. In fact, it is all of a piece. It is all interconnected. Or as Archbishop Fulton Sheen once wrote, "It was not so much that His birth cast a shadow on His life and thus led to His death; it was rather that the Cross was first, and cast its shadow back to His birth" (Life of Christ, p. 14). It is this realisation that made me appreciate the Christmas story.

We see Christ's redemptive act in the Nativity in His very and utter reversal of that Original Sin which separated men from God--that sin of pride which said, "I want to be my own God and rule my own life!" Christ, then, overturned completely that attitude, as His arrival as the New Man. Where men wanted to be gods, God deigned to become a Man. Where men were filled with pride at their own self-importance, God caused Himself to become unimportant by worldly standards: He became not just a Man, but a Baby. Where men wanted to become the masters of their own destinies, the Christ-child caused Himself to become wholly dependent upon His mother and foster-father. Unable to eat, He had to be fed; unable to walk, He had to be carried; unable to take care of Himself, He had to be mothered. He, the great and omnipotent God who created Heaven and Earth, had now entered it, and became utterly dependent.

But it was not even as a rich King's son that He was born. He so disregarded His divine dignity as to be born into poverty, and laid in a barn's feeding-trough because no one in Bethlehem could find it in their hearts or in their homes to put up a pregnant woman for the night. Christ, the King and creator of the world, could find no welcome in it--as He Himself said, "no place to lay His head" (Matt 8:20). Fulton Sheen again writes, "When finally the scrolls of history are completed down to the last words in time, the saddest line of all will be: 'There was no room in the inn'" (ibid., p. 21).

The One who owns the cattle on a thousand hills (cf. Ps 50:10) made His bed among them. From this descent into poverty, a renewed emphasis on the poor is proclaimed--that which the Church calls "the preferential option for the poor," or as Jesus Himself would proclaim, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18). It is thus fitting that poor shepherds nearby would be the first to hear the good news from the angels, directing them to the stable. It was these shepherds, who themselves likely were tending and raising the lambs for the following Passover, who were the first to adore "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world," and they who were the first to go and "praise God for all they had seen and heard" (Lk 2:20). Thus again, the shadow of the Cross hung over the stable, to borrow Fulton Sheen's phrase.

Jesus' plan of salvation, achieved ultimately in the Cross, and perpetuated and applied through our participation in His Body and Blood in the Eucharist also finds foreshadowing in the Nativity, as the Living Bread Who came down from Heaven was born in Bethlehem, the "House of Bread", and laid in a manger, literally, an "eating place".
In the filthiest place in the world, a stable, Purity was born. He, Who was later to be slaughtered by men acting as beasts, was born among beasts. He, Who would call Himself the "living Bread descended from Heaven," was laid in a manger, literally, a place to eat. Centuries before, the Jews had worshipped the golden calf, and the Greeks, the ass. Men bowed down before them as before God. The ox and the ass were now present to make their innocent reparation, bowing down before their God (Life of Christ, p.22).
I had said at the beginning that I never was thrilled with Christmas. Part of the reason was always that I felt people took it too lightly--a Baby in a manger was not an image that called people to repentance. He was too small, too cute. And yet, it was this humilation, this littleness, that makes us able to love God. Another word from Archbishop Sheen will say what I mean more eloquently,
No man can love anything unless he can get his arms around it, and the cosmos is too big and too bulky. But once God became a Babe and was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, men could say, "This is Emmanuel, this is God with us" (ibid., p.26).
Thus the Christ-child, just by being a child, already begins to reconcile us to God.

The encounter with the shepherds is now Mary's second act of mediation--the second time in which she brings Jesus to us. In a sense, it is the ultimate time, for she has borne Him into the world. But in a specific manner, she then presents Jesus to the shepherds, who relate all that they had been told by the angels. Again we see her quiet humility, as she directs the shepherds to the Child, and not to herself. And we see her modelling the contemplative spirit which should govern all of us her children, as we seek to know Jesus more, for "Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart" (Lk 2:19). It is not the only time that Luke mentions her reflecting and treasuring the mysteries of her Son, and just as it must have been a regular part of her life, as she saw Jesus grow "in wisdom, stature, and in favour with God and men" (Lk 2:52), so she becomes our model and our teacher through the Rosary, as we meditate on these same mysteries.

We also should realise that Mary was more than simply a "necessary vessel" through which Jesus could become a Man and be born, for this most obviously was not the extent of Mary's role--to give birth to the Messiah and then recede into oblivion. No, for it was Mary who mothered Jesus, who clothed Him and fed Him and changed Him and protected Him as He grew. She was just as much a mother as any mother ever has been--and every mother will tell you that their job involves far, far more than giving birth! Moreover, Mary was the mother to whom Jesus had to be obedient, and whom He had to honour. Without Mary, and Joseph, Jesus could not have fulfilled the Law to honour one's mother and father. Mary's role is always secondary to Christ's, but it is not, by that reason, expendable. Not in the least.

Within eight days of His birth, Mary again acts as mediatrix, as she brings Jesus to be circumcised. And again, the shadow of the Cross falls across the Baby, as He begins already to shed His blood for the salvation of sinners, and in so doing, receives the name above all names: Jesus--the Saviour. He does not receive the Name at the Cross, or upon His resurrection, but here, at His circumcision, when first His blood is shed. All of Christ's life was lived in order to redeem a fallen humanity. As Fulton Sheen again comments,
In the Circumcision of the Divine Child there was a dim suggestion and hint of Calvary, in the precocious surrendering of blood. The shadow of the Cross was already hanging over a Child eight days old....But whenever there was an indication of Calvary, there was also some sign of glory; and it was at this moment when He was anticipating Calvary by shedding His blood that the name of Jesus was bestowed on Him (Life of Christ, p.33).
As we treasure all these things in our hearts with Mary, our Mother, let us not be in a hurry to rush past the Nativity to the Cross, but in patience and meditative wonder, see God's plan of salvation unfold step by step. For as all parents can attest, He'll grow up before you know it, and you don't want to miss a second of what He has done for us! Amen.

(Category: Catholic Devotions: The Rosary.)

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