We find ourselves approaching the end of a year perhaps unlike any other of recent memory. The turmoil and uncertainty of the past months have presented unique challenges—missing out on time with loved ones, in-person celebrations, socializing freely, and carrying out our normal routines. With all this adjustment, perhaps we have had to face challenges to our faith, our hope, and our spirits. Nevertheless, the faithful can assuredly find renewal and peace in the Christmas season as we celebrate God becoming one of us in all ways but sin. While we shall always have to face challenges in life, recent events and how society has responded to them can motivate us to re-evaluate where we look to center ourselves and our priorities in life.
The world celebrates Christmas with music, movies, decorations, presents, and other traditions that set it apart from the rest of the calendar year. With the increasing commercialization of Christmas, the true meaning of the season has become obscured. The bright lights, noise, and pressures of the holiday strongly contrast the stillness and the simplicity of what happened two thousand years ago far away in the town of Bethlehem. The Gospels describe various accounts surrounding the mystery of the Incarnation; especially in 2020 we can be confident that the Christmas story continues to have meaning and reminds us of important lessons to keep in our hearts all year long.
The world our Lord was born into is vividly recalled, during the Vigil Mass of Christmas, with a reading of the Proclamation of the Birth of Christ from the Roman Martyrology. The setting framed by the author details a world under the rule of the powerful Roman Empire, with God’s chosen people, who are forced to pay regular tribute to a ruler they did not select. By that point, the hope for a liberating Messiah by the Jews had narrowed to an expectation that the Messiah would wage a militaristic campaign and preside over an earthly kingdom of God’s people. It was under these circumstances that the Holy Family finally arrived in the City of David, as observed by Fulton Sheen in The Life of Christ:
There was no room in the inn but there was room in the stable. The inn was the gathering place of public opinion, the focal point of the world's moods, the rendezvous of the worldly, the rallying place of the popular and the successful. But there's no room in the place where the world gathers. The stable is a place for outcasts, the ignored, and the forgotten. The world might have expected the Son of God to be born in an inn; a stable would certainly be the last place in the world where one would look for him. The lesson is: divinity is always where you least expect to find it. So the Son of God-Made-Man is invited to enter into his own world through a back door.
The adorers who made their way to the Christ-child certainly had their own situations and positions to consider, but they nevertheless left behind their comforts and security to answer a higher calling. The shepherds made haste after the revelation by the angels; the wise men set off on a long journey to seek out the mystery the star guided them to. They came in humility and awe to behold God’s incarnate love in the darkness and stillness of the winter night. The experience was unlike any other in history; they returned to their lives changed by encountering the Lord God Himself.
This Christmas season, we may not have a star to guide us through the chaos of the world to the blissful peace of Christ, but the invitation to do Him homage is not diminished. No matter our state in life or the challenges we face, we can be confident that the Lord calls each of us to Himself, rising above our troubles and beyond any comforts the world could offer. We have cause to rejoice! The God Who ordered the universe and made all things good has humbled Himself and entered into this world to save us from our sins and claim us as His own through our faith. We cannot lose sight of this significant truth: the pilgrimage through the world in this life does not end in pointless suffering or hopelessness but in happy reunion with our God for all time. We liken ourselves to the first adorers who could not understand what had been revealed to them, but were so moved by the experience that they returned praising God and sharing what they learned with all they encounter. May our encounter with the Christ renew our hope, faith, and love to be shared with all nations.
Glory to the newborn King! Forever and ever, Amen.
"From starry skies descending,
Thou comest, glorious King,
A manger low Thy bed,
In winter's icy sting;"
~St. Alfonso Liguori 1732
In a few short days, millions of children will wake up excited to see what is under the Christmas tree. Many will be eager to wake up their families so they can unwrap these gifts. There is a sense of pure joy and excitement that radiates from these children. I have a young Goddaughter, who was explaining to me over Thanksgiving about all the different things she hopes to receive. Her eyes lit up at just the mere thought of Christmas morning. It made me stop and wonder about my own excitement and joy for Christmas. I get caught up in all of the trappings of the season and not the very reason it exists. I started to question if I had that childlike excitement for the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The more and more I thought about it, the more I realized that I have lost part of that joy.
Advent and Christmas provides one the time to stop and think about how the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, the Messiah, did not come in some powerful show of force or splendor. Rather, God chose quite the opposite. He came to us as a child, born in a manger. The human embodiment of love and mercy came to us in the form of a helpless baby. In the middle of the holiday season, you rarely take the time to stop and think about how perfect that is.
Being a godfather has taught me about the amazing ability of a child's capacity to love and forgive. Many a family function, I will walk in and my goddaughter drops what she is doing and runs over to give me a big hug. Her face lights up with joy and excitement. One can only imagine a young Jesus showing the same sort of love to Mary and Joseph.
The beauty of this simplicity has inspired the Church for two thousand years. A wonderful example of this is the Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican. At the end of Mass, the pope carries a small statue of Jesus to be placed in nativity scene as the choir sings the carol "Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle". This carol was written by Saint Alphonso Liguori in 1732 and translated from Neapolitan into Italian by Pope Pius IX. This hymn is about Christ as a child who descends from heaven out of love for us.
"Dearest, fairest, sweetest Infant, Dire this state of poverty. The more I care for Thee, Since Thou, O Love Divine, Will'st now so poor to be."
I think it is the perfect hymn for these last few days of Advent.
For these next few days, I invite you to join me in a quest to be like a child. A quest to seek the joy of Christ's birth of in a pure, whole hearted, and simple way. Pope Francis tweeted about a year ago "to be friends with God means to pray with simplicity, like children talking to parents." For the next few days, as prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, let us embrace peace, love, joy, and mercy just like a child who runs to greet you with open arms and an open heart.
For more information on Advent, check out our resources and devotional material here.
"On this holy night, while we contemplate the Infant Jesus just born and placed in the manger, we are invited to reflect. How do we welcome the tenderness of God? Do I allow myself to be taken up by God, to be embraced by him, or do I prevent him from drawing close?" - Pope Francis (Christmas Homily, 2014)
The past year has seen many moments that called out for the "tenderness of God." Challenging moments of war, suffering, natural disaster, and human-caused neglect - seemingly harsh, rather than tender. Some might use the harshness of the world as an excuse to move away from God or render God irrelevant. Yet, there is still a seeking in the human heart given by God who desires to embrace us and draw us close. When we look at the scene of the Nativity, do we see the tenderness of God in the midst of the harsh reality that Mary and Joseph were not shown tenderness in their need, but instead were rejected? The Son of God came into the world in poverty. At the end of his earthly life, he was rejected once again. The Father, though, continued to show mercy, love, and tenderness by raising him up, opening the way to salvation, and leaving us a share in Christ's mission of love and mercy until he comes again.
During this Jubilee of Mercy and beyond, may we go about doing Christ's mission well through living tenderness, reviving faith, rekindling charity - living the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. These works of mercy are practical ways for us to welcome and share the "tenderness of God."
On behalf of the board, staff, collaborators, and advisors of the Catholic Apostolate Center, may you have a Blessed Christmas and a good New Year! You will be remembered by me at Masses during the Christmas season!
May the charity of Christ urge us on!
Tomorrow, we arrive at Christmas Eve. In the rush of all of the “things we must do” do we stop and reflect on the one who is the true must for us, the Incarnate Son of God, Our Lord Jesus Christ? Stop for a moment and look at a Nativity scene. I mean really look. What do you see? Do you see simply art, or a depiction of a past event, or do you see the one who is the Incarnate Son of God? Our God, who created us, came to us, is with us, is for us, to save us! We are not alone in the vast universe, left adrift. No, our God came to us in a way that we would not expect of one who is all-powerful, he came in the innocent helplessness of a baby. This baby was not born in a palace or even a house, but in a borrowed spot out back where only animals lived. The first people who visited him and his parents were not friends and family, but poor shepherds. The King of Kings came as the Poorest of the Poor. He came to save us not just in the future, but now. We are to assist him in his mission as the third verse of the
Christmas carol “O Holy Night” tells us:
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Like the shepherds and all who have gone before us in faith, our encounter with the Prince of Peace offers us the opportunity to be freed from all that oppresses us in life and the mandate to help others to find this freedom. As Pope Francis teaches us:
“The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew… I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 1, 3).
This Christmas and always, our prayer as the team of the Catholic Apostolate Center is that your encounter with Christ today and every day brings such joy that you must share it with all!
Fr. Frank Donio, S.A.C. is the Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center
I hope everyone has been enjoying the best season of the year! While secular Christmas music and decor can be nice (and luckily, because they’re ubiquitous), I am referring to the liturgical season of Advent. My friends believe Advent to be my favorite time of year because it typically needs considerable defense against the encroachment of the Christmas season, and I am happy to defend it. We need Advent. In my last post, I stated that if we don’t make time to consider consciously what vision we want to move towards, we’ll never move towards it. Advent is the season during which the Church encourages us to do just that.
So allow me to profess my love for this season. This profession might seem fairly theologically-minded, but I’m a firm believer that thoroughly theological reflection is often eminently practical - when we reflect on our vision, our subsequent actions reflect whether or not we truly envision something important.
Looking forward to Christmas alone is the small-minded view of Advent. Yet somehow, it’s the view that even this well-catechized Catholic girl espoused until college – and I don’t think I was alone. Certainly, Christmas is one thing for which we’re preparing. Through our Christmas liturgies, we want to adequately remember and celebrate the miraculous divine self-emptying gift that is the Incarnation, and as always, the salvation that resulted from it. Most Advent calendars and other such aids help us towards this goal.
However, when I listen to the Advent liturgies, I hear a different exhortation. The first Sunday alone, we heard of eternal justice, power and great glory, and were told, “Your redemption is at hand.” Even if I listen just to the Lord’s Prayer, the first half expresses our hope for the fulfillment of several things which the original Christmas enabled. These Scriptures point me toward the greater reality for which we are currently preparing: the eschaton, or the reign of God on earth.
I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of the eschaton. The Kingdom of God is here already? But not yet? It is “at hand”? What does this language of faith mean? Simple. In one of his homilies on Ezekiel, Pope Gregory the Great compares the joy we have now to the joy in store: “The fire of love which begins to burn here on earth, flares up more fiercely with love of God when he who is loved is seen.” Already, we can welcome the fire of Christ’s love into our hearts. But not yet - that love gets inexpressibly better. Advent is a season of hope, and the true beauty of hope is that we believe one day it will be fulfilled. The greatness of Advent is that eventually it will become obsolete.
Take a minute with me this Advent to think about our vision, the Kingdom of God;
All injustices will be made right. We will be living with God, in a world without end. We will no longer get in our own way and separate ourselves from Him. We will glorify Him as we should. There will be no holds barred from His all-encompassing love. This is what we wait for. This is our hope. This is the reality of which Advent reminds us, provided we don’t skip past it. How can we be anything but joyful?
Laura Berlage serves as an Echo Faith Formation Apprentice in the Diocese of Camden, NJ