Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Parish, New Bedford, MA
Vigil: Is 62:1-5; Acts 13:16-17,22-25; Mt 1:18-25
Midnight: Is 9:1-6; Tit2:11-14; Lk 2:1-14
Dawn: Is 62:11-12; Tit3:4-7; Lk 2:15-20
Day: Is 52:7-10; Heb1:1-6; Jn1:1-18
1) In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi — the spiritual father of our patron, St. Anthony — inaugurated a pious practice that today has become so common that many think that it always existed. This great saint, as he was traversing the rolling hills of central Italy one December to proclaim the Gospel, noticed that few of his countrymen were taking the mysteries of the faith seriously. Many were not even preparing for Christmas. Of those who were getting ready to celebrate the Lord’s birth, they looked at it as an event tied exclusively to the past. The mysteries of the faith had become sterile. The central persons in the drama had become stale and lifeless, incapable even of stimulating his contemporaries’ imaginations — and therefore no longer capable of inspiring them to a greater relationship of mutual love with God in the present.
2) To counteract these tendencies, on Christmas Eve 1223 in the town of Greccio, St. Francis set up the first crèche in recorded history. He brought in live animals — an ox and an ass. He recruited a newborn baby and a young set of parents. Hay and a manger were brought in. There was even the attempt — with hundreds of burning torches — to create the luminescence of a bright star. And Francis could not have been happier with the results. People came from all over to see the living nativity. Through all the sounds, sights and even smells, the multitudes became convinced that Christmas was not just a cute story, but a real event, one that was not just PAST, but something which they were called to enter in the present. Soon living crèches like this spread throughout Italy and into other parts of Europe. The phenomenon soon extended into art, as artists started to paint nativity scenes with all the main characters dressed anachronistically in 13th century garb — to emphasize that Christmas is not just a bygone event, but, even more importantly, one very much in progress, in which every believer is called to “go now to Bethlehem” and “pay [Christ] homage.” As St. Francis’ first biographer wrote, “The Child Jesus had been forgotten in the hearts of many; but, by the working of his grace, he was brought to life again through his servant Francis and stamped upon their fervent memory.”
3) All the crèches in our homes, the beautiful praesepio here in Church, the Christmas pageants and plays in which our children participate — all of these have the same purpose, to “bring the child Jesus to life again” so that he may be “stamped upon our fervent memory.” Just as in St. Francis’ time, the “Child Jesus has been forgotten in the hearts of many.” Notice I said in the HEARTS of many, and not the MINDS. The minds of multitudes still recall details of Christ’s birth. Their memories are full of the words of Christmas hymns learned long ago. But their hearts are cold. Their reflection on Christ Jesus in Bethlehem does not ignite their hearts on fire with greater love for him.
4) That’s why one of OUR contemporaries — whom I believe future generations will regard as great a saint as we regard St. Francis today — during the last Christmas of his life tried to do for us what the poverello from Assisi did for his generation. He wanted to try to “bring the Child Jesus to life again.” The means he proposed did not involve animals, or hay, or high- or low-tech attempts to emulate a shining star. They involved something far more basic, something that we can often take for granted and treat as lifeless as a plaster statue of the baby Jesus. To help the Child Jesus come to life in us, Pope John Paul II called us all to live an intensely Eucharistic Christmas.
5) As he approached what would be his last Christmas here on earth, our saintly Holy Father wanted to help us see the connection between Christmas and Mass, convinced that if we did, we would get so much more out of both and out of the faith as a whole. The Mass, he thought, was a better means of revivifying the genuine spirit of Christmas in us than even living nativities, because they merely remind us of Christ through actors, whereas in the Mass, we encounter the very same Lord. The structure of the Mass is meant to recapitulate the entire life of Jesus, from his incarnation and birth, to his death and resurrection. Have you ever wondered why we sing “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth” at the beginning of every Sunday Mass (outside of penitential seasons)? When have we heard those words before? Those are the very words, of course, that the Angels used to announce the birth of Christ to the shepherds, which the Church proclaims at the Christmas Midnight Mass. At the beginning of every Mass, we’re called to reflect that the angels are announcing to us again “good news of great joy for all the people,” that Jesus, Emmanuel, is present. The same Jesus whom the shepherds went in haste to adore comes down on our altars through Christ’s own power working through his priests. The Gospel for Christmas Mass during the day climaxes with the expression, “The word took flesh and dwelled among us.” That of course is true for what happened two millennia ago, but the Word-made-flesh continues to dwell among us in the Mass. God-with-us is still with us because the Eucharist is Emmanuel. Simply put, the Church is the modern Bethlehem. The word Bethlehem means, in Hebrew, “house of bread,” and in each Mass Jesus, the “Living Bread come down from heaven” (Jn 6:51), comes down from heaven for us. The Baby Jesus took on a body so that he could give that body for us. He was placed in a manger, a trough from which animals were accustomed to eat, and that could not have been more appropriate considering that that very body placed in that manger was intended for us, his creatures, one day to consume.
6) This connection between Christmas and the Eucharist was depicted very beautifully in a chapel I visited a few years back. Behind the tabernacle, there was a stunning painting of the nativity, with Mary and Joseph, the Shepherds and the animals. But there was one noticeable difference about this nativity scene. In the focal point of the whole painting, to which all of the adoring eyes were directed, there was not a manger or a painting of a child Jesus, but rather, there was the TABERNACLE — a real one, not a painted image. The effect was unforgettable. The same Son of God who was worshipped in the stable is worshipped there still in the Eucharist contained within the tabernacle. The only difference is that the veil of Christ’s divinity is no longer humble human flesh but the even humbler external appearances of bread and wine. As Pope Benedict said in his homily earlier this evening in the Vatican, “the manger of the animals became a symbol for the altar, on which lies the Bread which is Christ himself: the true food for our hearts.” We are called to sing about Jesus in the Eucharist what we chant about him in swaddling clothes:
Christ, by highest heav’n adored; Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold him come, offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in [hosts] the Godhead see; Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased as Man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.
7) Jesus, our Emmanuel, is pleased to dwell with us as one of us. This is “the good news of great joy for all the people.” Sadly, though, we know that not all of us are as pleased as he is. We recall that when Christ came into the world the first time, some people had room for him, some did not. Mary and Joseph had room for him and gave their whole lives over to him and his mission. The Shepherds had room for him, left all their flocks behind and, in the middle of the night, ran to adore him. The Magi had room for him, and studied the heavens to discern a sign of his presence; when they discovered one in the star, they traveled for months, over hundreds of miles, to come to adore him, giving him the best gifts they had. But others did not have room for him. The inn-keepers had no room for their creator — or even to give shelter to a woman nine month’s pregnant. King Herod had no room for him, and in fact tried to have him eliminated. The scholars of the law had no room, not even enough curiosity to make the six-mile downhill journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to verify whether the wise men’s story was true. The vast majority of people in Jesus’ time, in Jesus’ land, simply did not accept him when he, the long-awaited Messiah, at last came. That’s why St. John will say in the Gospel for the Mass on Christmas day some of the saddest words ever written: “He came unto his own, but his own people did not receive him.”
8 ) In the Eucharist, we have a chance to get right what the inn-keepers, Herod, the scholars of the law and the vast majority of Jesus’ contemporaries got wrong. Jesus in the Eucharist comes to his own, hoping that his own will receive him. We are his own! We were made his own through baptism, much as the Jews were God’s own through circumcision. The question is whether we’ll receive him with love, or whether — for one bad reason or another — we’ll refuse to make room for him. I’ve always thought one of the reasons Jesus came as a baby is because we know from human experience that when we welcome a baby, all our priorities change. It’s so easy, sometimes, to ignore adults; we can tell ourselves that they can, and should, help themselves. But we can’t do that with a little baby. As every parent in this Church knows, a baby begins to take over an adult’s life. A newborn changes parents’ sleeping patterns, spending patterns, even talking patterns. Jesus, at Christmas, wants to have the same impact on us. He wants to change our sleeping patterns and get us to get up maybe fifteen minutes earlier so that we can pray every morning. He wants to change our spending patterns, so that we give more of our money to caring for others and helping Him grow in others through the mission of His Church. He wants to change our speaking patterns, so that we’ll speak to him, and continue to speak to him, even when at times he does not seem to be listening or responding. Every year at Christmas Jesus comes to us almost as an orphan left on our doorstep and we either take him in, adopt him, allow him to grow with us and change us and our priorities, or we leave him outside in the cold.
9) Pope Benedict spoke of the significance of the Son of God’s coming as a baby in his homily at Midnight Mass in the Vatican six hours ago. “God’s sign is a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Nothing miraculous, nothing extraordinary, nothing magnificent is given to the shepherds as a sign. All they will see is a child wrapped in swaddling clothes, one who, like all children, needs a mother’s care. … God ’s sign is the baby in need of help and in poverty. … God’s sign is that he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendor. He comes as a baby — defenseless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with his strength. He takes away our fear of his greatness. He asks for our love: so he makes himself a child. God made himself small so that we could understand him, welcome him, and love him.”
10) While the Son of God’s initial sign was to become small for us as a defenseless baby, his continual sign is becoming even smaller, even humbler, even less of a threat. He takes on the appearance of food so that we would allow him to enter into our life fully. This mystery, he said, ought to fill us with awe. Pope John Paul II stressed that the experience of Bethlehem is not a once-in-a-lifetime event or a once-in-a-year commemoration, but something that occurs every Sunday — in fact every day — in the Mass. At every Mass we are presented with the “sign” of God’s love and burning desire for communion with us in every part of our life. It is in the Mass that we are called to respond with faith, with a “Eucharistic amazement” that should resemble the wonder of Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Magi in Bethlehem: “Is not the enraptured gaze of Mary as she contemplated the face of the newborn Christ and cradled him in her arms,” Pope John Paul II stated, “that unparalleled model of love which should inspire us every time we receive Eucharistic communion?” The same Jesus she carried in her womb and held in her arms we have a chance to adore in the monstrance, receive on own hands and tongues and welcome within us. If we would have journeyed on foot to Bethlehem 2000 years ago to adore Christ in the manger, John Paul II called us to journey a short distance by car to adore him in the Eucharist here in Church. If we would have had room for him if he came knocking on our door then, then we’re called to make room for him now — and not just once a year, or one hour a week, but, like we would with a newborn, let him thoroughly transform our priorities and give our life true meaning. This is the way Christ will come alive again in our lives. This is the way he will be stamped upon our fervent memory. This is the way he will be remembered in our hearts.
11) Jesus is now knocking on the doors of our hearts with the hands of a little baby. As he said in the last book of the Bible: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev 3:20). As he fulfills those words literally in the Eucharist, we finish with the prayer Christians have lifted up for centuries:
O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!