What are we really celebrating at Christmas?

pax-christi-nativity

The short answer to this question, of course, is “We celebrate Jesus’ birthday.”

But if we stop there, and regard the holiday as just another historical anniversary, we would overlook the life-changing truth: God became man, and was born of the Virgin, to fulfill his saving plan for you.

Jesus knows us, intimately and personally, because He is truly God, the Son of the Father. Existing from all eternity, He thought of us and loved us, eons before He created us.

That’s why the Son descended from heaven and became a baby in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jesus was undertaking a divine mission to redeem us from our sins and make it possible for us to enjoy life with God forever.

Therein lies the radical newness of Christmas, its fundamental difference from the usual events of human history. Instead of receding ever further away from us over time, Christmas marks a new stage of the relationship between God and humankind – a relationship that is ongoing, touching each one of us, and drawing us toward union with God.

Benedict XVI has spoken movingly of the meaning of Christmas:

At Christmas, therefore, we do not limit ourselves to commemorating the birth of a great figure: we do not simply and abstractly celebrate the birth of the man or in general the mystery of life…

A great light really was lit: the Creator of the universe became flesh, uniting Himself indissolubly with human nature…made Himself tangible to our senses and our minds: we may now touch Him and contemplate Him.

Thus the Word of God “is a ‘Word’ addressed to us…a Person who is concerned with every individual person: He is the Son of the living God Who became man…”

We rejoice that God is not a “remote being, Whom it would never be possible to reach, but a God Who made Himself our neighbor and Who is very close to us, Who has time for each one of us and Who came to stay with us.”

Quotes from General Audience of December 17, 2008

Engaging the Gospel – Christ the King

Solemnity of Christ the King (Year C): Gospel – Luke 23:35-43

For the Solemnity of Christ the King, the final Sunday of the liturgical year, the Church presents us with a stark Gospel: Jesus on the Cross.

“The Cross is the paradoxical sign of His kingship,” Benedict XVI has reflected:

It is in the very offering of Himself in the sacrifice of expiation that Jesus becomes King of the universe…

But in what does this ‘power’ of Jesus Christ the King consist?…It is the divine power to give eternal life, to liberate from evil, to defeat the dominion of death. It is the power of Love that can draw good from evil, that can melt a hardened heart…

This Kingdom of Grace is never imposed and always respects our freedom….Every conscience, therefore, must make a choice. Who do I want to follow? God or the Evil One? The truth or falsehood?

November 22, 2009.

This choice is reflected in today’s Gospel, in which Jesus is reviled by some, but venerated by the “Good Thief.”

The Gospel dialogue reverberates to our own time, when the kingship of Christ is still subject to mockery and derision. Many in our culture commit the sin of blasphemy, “uttering against God – inwardly or outwardly – words of hatred, reproach, or defiance” (Catechism paragraph 2148).

As members of the Body of Christ, we are called to shape our world, and transform our culture, in the light of the Gospel (898-99, 2105), and thus advance the Kingdom.

Question for reflection: How do I respond when someone mocks the Lord?

Engaging the Gospel – Luke 21:5-19

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C): Gospel – Luke 21:5-19

While last Sunday’s Gospel focused on the resurrection at the end of time, today’s passage braces us for the wars, disasters, and persecutions that must be endured before the Lord comes again. But whatever suffering we experience, Jesus promises us that by our “perseverance” (sometimes translated as “endurance”), our lives (or “souls”) will be saved.

We should ask God for the gift of final perseverance. As St. Augustine (d. 430) observed in Admonition and Grace,

God willed that His saints should not…glory in their own strength, but in Himself, who gives them not only such assistance…but He also works in them the will to persevere….Aid, therefore, is brought to the weakness of the human will, so that it might be affected firmly and invincibly by divine grace (12, 38).

A current scholar of Augustine, Benedict XVI, has also spoken of the saint’s view of perseverance:

I return to St. Augustine: at first he was content with the grace of conversion; then he discovered the need for another grace, the grace of perseverance, one which we must ask the Lord for each day…

It seems to me that we must have trust in this gift of perseverance, but we must also pray to the Lord with tenacity, humility and patience to help and sustain us…and to accompany us day after day to the very end, even if our way must pass through dark valleys.

Address of February 17, 2007.

Question for reflection: When have I learned the value of perseverance?

Engaging the Gospel – Luke 19:1-10

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C): Gospel – Luke 19:1-10

Today’s Gospel, focusing on the dramatic repentance of Zacchaeus, reveals that an encounter with Jesus is a life-changing experience.

Benedict XVI has often emphasized this very theme of encountering Jesus:

We are only Christians if we encounter Christ…We too can encounter Christ in reading Sacred Scripture, in prayer, in the liturgical life of the Church. We can touch Christ’s Heart and feel Him touching ours. Only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One, do we truly become Christians.

September 3, 2008.

St John Paul II viewed Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus as a “biblical icon” that illustrates the sacrament of Reconciliation, “God’s arrival at a person’s home.” Just as Jesus’ look deeply affects Zacchaeus, “that same gaze looks upon each” one of us:

Mercy has already come to him as a gratuitous and overflowing gift…Beneath the loving gaze of Christ, the heart of Zacchaeus warms to love of neighbor…

The salvation which truly heals and restores, involves a genuine conversion to the demands of God’s love. If Zacchaeus had welcomed the Lord into his home without coming to an attitude of openness to love and reparation for the harm done, without a firm commitment to living a new life, he would not have received in the depths of his heart the forgiveness which the Lord had offered him with such concern.

Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2002.

Question for reflection: In what ways do I relate to Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus?

Engaging the Gospel – Luke 15:1-32

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C): Gospel – Luke 15:1-32

St. Luke’s Gospel has been called the “Gospel of Mercy,” and today’s parables are especially illustrative of this theme.

As Benedict XVI has commented,

Above all, this Gospel text has the power of speaking to us of God, of enabling us to know His Face and, better still, His Heart. After Jesus has told us of the merciful Father, things are no longer as they were before.

We now know God; He is our Father who out of love created us to be free and endowed us with a conscience, Who suffers when we get lost and rejoices when we return.

Benedict explains that our relationship with God develops over time, much as the child-parent relationship does:

In these stages we can also identify moments along man’s journey in his relationship with God. There can be a phase that resembles childhood: religion prompted by need, by dependence.

As man grows up and becomes emancipated, he wants to liberate himself from this submission and become free and adult, able to organize himself and make his own decisions, even thinking he can do without God. Precisely this stage is delicate and can lead to atheism, yet even this frequently conceals the need to discover God’s true Face.

Fortunately for us, God never fails in His faithfulness, and even if we distance ourselves and get lost, He continues to follow us with His love, forgiving our errors and speaking to our conscience from within in order to call us back to Him…

Only by experiencing forgiveness, by recognizing one is loved with a freely given love – a love greater than our wretchedness but also than our own merit – do we at last enter into a truly filial and free relationship with God.

Angelus of March 14, 2010.

Let us respond to the Father’s merciful love by availing ourselves of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Question for reflection: How have I experienced being lost, and being found by God’s merciful love?

Engaging the Gospel – Luke 14:25-33

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C): Gospel – Luke 14:25-33

Jesus challenges us with very difficult sayings – that anyone who doesn’t “hate” his own family and life, and renounce all of his possessions, can’t be His disciple.

Of course, Jesus isn’t literally telling us to hate, when His commandments call us to love. Rather, it is a manner of expression in Semitic languages like Jesus’ own Aramaic: Jesus is pointedly stating that to be true disciples, we must put God first, and prefer Him to everything, including family and possessions. We must not allow relationships, or things, to become obstacles that keep us from God.

Put another way, “Christ is the center of all Christian life. The bond with Him takes precedence over all other bonds, familial or social” (Catechism paragraph 1618).

As Benedict XVI has reflected,

If we listen to today’s Gospel, if we listen to what the Lord is saying to us, it frightens us…We would like to object: What are you saying, Lord?

But the Lord is revealing a profound truth:

Whoever wants to keep his life just for himself will lose it. Only by giving ourselves do we receive our life. In other words: only the one who loves discovers life.

And love always demands going out of oneself, it always demands leaving oneself. Anyone who looks just to himself, who wants the other only for himself, will lose both himself and the other. Without this profound losing of oneself, there is no life.

‘Whoever loses his life for my sake…’ says the Lord: a radical letting-go of our self is only possible if in the process we end up, not by falling into the void, but into the hands of Love eternal. Only the love of God, who loses Himself for us and gives Himself to us, makes it possible for us also to become free, to let go, and so truly to find life.

Homily of September 9, 2007.

Question for reflection: What is the most difficult thing that God has asked of me?

Engaging the Gospel – Luke 10:25-37

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C): Gospel – Luke 10:25-37

The usual reaction to the parable of the Good Samaritan is an examination of conscience: how well do we step forward to help our neighbor?

But instead of always comparing ourselves to the Good Samaritan, it can be beneficial to identify with the robbers’ victim. From a spiritual perspective, we are the wounded; unable to save ourselves, we need someone to rescue us from sin and eternal death.

The Church Fathers interpreted the parable through this lens, seeing the wounded man as symbolic of fallen humanity and the Good Samaritan as a symbol of Jesus.

Benedict XVI summarizes this theologically rich explanation in his first volume of Jesus of Nazareth (pp. 200-201):

The road from Jerusalem to Jericho thus turns out to be an image of human history; the half-dead man lying by the side of it is an image of humanity. Priest and Levite pass by; from earthly history alone, from its cultures and [human] religions alone, no healing comes.

If the assault victim is the image of Everyman, the Samaritan can only be the image of Jesus Christ. God Himself, Who for us is foreign and distant, has set out to take care of His wounded creature. God, though so remote from us, has made Himself our neighbor in Jesus Christ.

He pours oil and wine into our wounds, a gesture seen as an image of the healing gift of the sacraments, and He brings us to the inn, the Church, in which He arranges our care and also pays a deposit for the cost of that care…

Now we realize that we always need God, Who makes Himself our neighbor so that we can become neighbors.

The Good Samaritan parable thus has special resonance during this Jubilee Year of Mercy. Having received God’s mercy, we then act mercifully toward our neighbors:

Everyone must first be healed and filled with God’s gifts. But then everyone is also called to become a Samaritan – to follow Christ and become like Him.

Question for reflection: How am I allowing the Lord to heal my woundedness?