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 – Luke 14:1, 7-14

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C): Gospel – Luke 14:1, 7-14

Why is pride so harmful to the spiritual life? Pride is rooted in a lie, as though we’re the architects of our own existence, with no need for God.

Humility, on the other hand, is grounded in the truth of who we are. As creatures, we are constantly dependent upon God. As sin-prone human beings, we are incapable of saving our souls for eternal life. And as disciples of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we are called to emulate His humility.

In today’s Gospel, set against the background of intense social competition at a banquet, Jesus takes the opportunity to instruct the guests on the virtue of humility. In essence, He counsels us to follow His example.

As God the Son, the Eternal Word of the Father, He humbled Himself to take up our humanity in order to redeem us. Just as He tells His host that he should invite the poor and outcast, so does Jesus invite us, who cannot possibly repay Him, to His eternal banquet.

In the words of Pope St. Gregory the Great (d. 604),

that He might bring us back to the way of life through humility, He deigned to exhibit in Himself what He teaches us…For to this end the only begotten Son of God took upon Himself the form of our weakness; to this end He endured…the reproaches of derision, the torments of suffering; that God in His humility might teach man not to be proud. How great, then, is the virtue of humility for the sake of teaching which alone He Who is great beyond compare became little even unto the suffering of death!

Book V, Letter 18.

Remembering that we are sinners, forever in God’s debt, helps us to develop a true sense of humility before God and neighbor – not to denigrate our gifts and accomplishments, but to know that they come from God, and to view ourselves in proper perspective.

Because humility enables us to recognize our dependence upon God, and to treat others charitably, it is essential for growth in the spiritual life.

Question for reflection: How might I cultivate the virtue of humility?

Engaging the Gospel – Luke 5:1-11

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C): Gospel – Luke 5:1-11

Despite the fact that Simon Peter had failed to catch a single fish after spending all night at sea, he obediently followed Jesus’ instruction to “put out into the deep water,” and was amazed at the miraculous number of fish bursting within his nets. As a result, he grasped the significance of Who Jesus is:

Faced with God’s fascinating and mysterious presence, man discovers his own insignificance….Before the divine signs wrought by Jesus, Peter exclaims, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’ (Catechism paragraph 208).

The term “Lord” itself encompasses the name of God:

Out of respect for the holiness of God, the people of Israel do not pronounce His Name. In the reading of Sacred Scripture, the revealed name (Yhwh) is replaced by the divine title ‘Lord’ (209).

The New Testament uses this full sense of the title ‘Lord’ both for the Father and – what is new – for Jesus, Who is thereby recognized as God Himself (446).

By attributing to Jesus the divine title ‘Lord,’ the first confessions of the Church’s faith affirm from the beginning that the power, honor, and glory due to God the Father are due also to Jesus (449).

Question for reflection: When have I found unexpected joy in doing God’s will?

Crux fidelis

Good Friday CrossA beautiful hymn with great theological depth, Crux fidelis is a 6th century composition by Mamertus Claudianus, according to Dom Prosper Gueranger’s Liturgical Year.

You can listen to it chanted in Latin here.

And here is the translation as it appears in the current edition of the Roman Missal:

Faithful Cross the Saints rely on, noble tree beyond compare! Never was there such a scion, never leaf or flower so rare. Sweet the timber, sweet the iron, sweet the burden that they bear!

Sing, my tongue, in exultation of our banner and device! Make a solemn proclamation of a triumph and its price: how the Savior of creation conquered by His sacrifice!

(Repeat) Faithful Cross the Saints rely on, noble tree beyond compare! Never was there such a scion, never leaf or flower so rare.

For, when Adam first offended, eating that forbidden fruit, not all hopes of glory ended with the serpent at the root: broken nature would be mended by a second tree and shoot.

(Repeat) Sweet the timber, sweet the iron, sweet the burden that they bear! 

Thus the tempter was outwitted by a wisdom deeper still: remedy and ailment fitted, means to cure and means to kill; that the world might be acquitted, Christ would do His Father’s will.

Faithful Cross the Saints rely on, noble tree beyond compare! Never was there such a scion, never leaf or flower so rare.

So the Father, out of pity for our self-inflicted doom, sent Him from the heavenly city when the holy time had come: He, the Son and the Almighty, took our flesh in Mary’s womb.

Sweet the timber, sweet the iron, sweet the burden that they bear! 

Hear a tiny baby crying, Founder of the seas and strands; see His Virgin Mother tying cloth around His feet and hands; find Him in a manger lying tightly wrapped in swaddling-bands!

Faithful Cross the Saints rely on, noble tree beyond compare! Never was there such a scion, never leaf or flower so rare.

So He came, the long-expected, not in glory, not to reign; only born to be rejected, choosing hunger, toil and pain, till the scaffold was erected and the Paschal Lamb was slain.

Sweet the timber, sweet the iron, sweet the burden that they bear! 

No disgrace was too abhorrent; nailed and mocked and parched He died; blood and water, double warrant, issue from His wounded side, washing in a mighty torrent earth and stars and oceantide.

Faithful Cross the Saints rely on, noble tree beyond compare! Never was there such a scion, never leaf or flower so rare.

Lofty timber, smooth your roughness; flex your boughs for blossoming; let your fibers lose their toughness, gently let your tendrils cling; lay aside your native gruffness, clasp the Body of your King!

Sweet the timber, sweet the iron, sweet the burden that they bear! 

Noblest tree of all created, richly jeweled and embossed; post by Lamb’s Blood consecrated, spar that saves the tempest-tossed; scaffold-beam which, elevated, carries what the world has cost!

Faithful Cross the Saints rely on, noble tree beyond compare! Never was there such a scion, never leaf or flower so rare.

Wisdom, power, and adoration to the Blessed Trinity for redemption and salvation through the Paschal Mystery, now, in every generation, and for all eternity. Amen.

Engaging the Gospel – Second Sunday of Lent

Second Sunday of Lent (Year B): Gospel – Mark 9:2-10

The Transfiguration is rich in meaning on several levels, beginning with its timing. Christ’s divine glory was made manifest during the Jewish Feast of Sukkoth. Commemorating Israel’s time of wandering in the desert after the Exodus, living in tents (“sukkoth”), this feast had messianic overtones: the Jewish people believed that it foreshadowed the coming age of the Messiah.

Jesus fulfills this hope, as Benedict XVI observes:

Indeed, the Lord has pitched the tent of His body among us and has thus inaugurated the messianic age…Jesus is the holy tent above whom the cloud of God’s presence now stands.

— Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 1, pp. 315-16.

The presence of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration demonstrates Jesus’ fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures. They represent the Law and the Prophets, which proclaimed the Messiah’s coming. Although Moses and Elijah had encounters with God in the Old Testament, “only on the mountain of the Transfiguration” did they “behold the unveiled face of Him Whom they sought” – in Christ (Catechism paragraph 2583).

Moreover, the Transfiguration gives us a glimpse of the Holy Trinity.

As St. Thomas Aquinas noted, “The whole Trinity appeared: the Father in the voice; the Son in the man; the Spirit in the shining cloud” (quoted in paragraph 555).

Question for reflection: In what ways do I listen to the Lord?

The Awesome Truth about Christmas

The Nativity Scene at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Lexington, Ky.

The Nativity Scene at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Lexington, Ky.

Are we so accustomed to Christmas that we overlook the shocking truth of what we’re actually celebrating?

Christmas, “Christ’s Mass,” marks the birth of Our Lord. What a startling fact: God has become man to redeem us! God the Son, the Eternal Word of the Father, holds His arms out to us as a newborn baby!

Pope St. Leo the Great (d. 461) describes the mind-boggling awesomeness:

He comes down from the throne of heaven…Invisible in His own nature, He became visible in ours. Beyond our grasp, He chose to come within our grasp. Existing before time began, He began to exist at a moment in time. Lord of the universe, He hid His infinite glory, and took the nature of a servant. Incapable of suffering as God, He did not refuse to be a man, capable of suffering. Immortal, He chose to be subject to the laws of death.

Leo’s words are recalled especially for our March 25 celebration of the Annunciation, when the Blessed Virgin Mary accepted her role in salvation history, the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, and she conceived Jesus — the precise instant of the Incarnation, the enfleshment, of the Lord.

God went to such extraordinary lengths to seek us out, cultivate a relationship with us, and save us so that we may enjoy eternal life with Him.

That in turn calls for a response from us, to welcome the Lord into every aspect of our lives. Can’t we respond with greater love and fidelity to the One Who has loved us infinitely?

Engaging the Gospel – Fourth Sunday of Advent

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Gospel – Luke 1:26-38

The Annunciation marks the turning point in all of history: when the Eternal Son of God descends to take on our human nature, our flesh, becoming incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In recognition of this sublime mystery, we bow during these lines when we profess the Creed.

At this moment, God and Mary are entrusting themselves to each other, as St. John Paul II observed in Redemptoris Mater:

For it must be recognized that before anyone else it was God Himself, the Eternal Father, Who entrusted Himself to the Virgin of Nazareth, giving her His own Son in the mystery of the Incarnation (39).

And Mary surrenders herself totally to the Lord, freely consenting to become the mother of the Savior:

The mystery of the Incarnation was accomplished when Mary uttered her fiat: ‘Let it be to me according to your word,’ which made possible, as far as it depended upon her in the divine plan, the granting of Her Son’s desire.

Mary uttered this fiat in faith. In faith she entrusted herself to God without reserve…And as the Fathers of the Church teach – she conceived this Son in her mind before she conceived Him in her womb: precisely in faith! (13).

Thus in a sense Mary as Mother became the first ‘disciple’ of her Son (20).

While Mary’s faith is an example to us, she continues to exercise a much more active role on our behalf. Jesus gave Mary to us as our mother too:

Along the path of this collaboration with the work of her Son, the Redeemer, Mary’s motherhood itself underwent a singular transformation, becoming ever more imbued with ‘burning charity’ towards all those to whom Christ’s mission was directed.

…In response to this interior willingness of His Mother, Jesus Christ prepared her ever more completely to become for all people their ‘mother in the order of grace’ (39).

Thus, in her new motherhood in the Spirit, Mary embraces each and every one in the Church, and embraces each and every one through the Church (47).

Question for reflection: How does the Blessed Virgin Mary help me to be a better disciple?