Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Something New at Christmas
Look over there at our beautiful Christmas crib. Ever wondered where we got the custom of setting up a nativity scene in our churches and homes?
St. Francis of Assisi came up with the idea. In a cave in the Italian hill town of Greccio, the saint created a manger with hay and a live ox and ass. He then invited the townspeople to gaze at the scene while he preached about Christmas.
Maybe St. Francis was hoping the people would think tender thoughts about “the babe of Bethlehem” lying before them in the manger. But my guess is that he wanted them to connect the birth of Christ with their own lives—because these were people who had mangers and cattle in their back yards.
Almost 800 years later, Pope Francis is trying hard to connect the coming of Christ to our lives. With the same revolutionary spirit as the Poor Man of Assisi, the new Pope is doing something new in the world and in the Church. Are we ready for it?
I hope so, because Christmas is the perfect time for something new! Eighteen hundred years ago Saint Irenaeus wrote “By his coming, Christ brought with him all newness.” A month ago today, Pope Francis wrote that with this “newness” Christ is always able to renew our lives and our communities. His letter on the joy of the gospel reminds us that the Christian message will never grow old, even though it has had periods of darkness and weakness.
Pope Francis gets very personal in his letter. He says “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.’”
Notice that: “no one is excluded.” How wonderful to hear those words at Christmas, when we often have people with us at Mass who may feel uncertain about Jesus and the Church.
The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded. That is what the angel proclaimed to the shepherds in Bethlehem: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people” (Lk 2:10).
No one is excluded from the Lord’s joy! From the most pious to the most uncertain, the celebration of the mystery of Christ is an occasion of joy. The Holy Father specifically includes those who are grieving or who have to endure great suffering. He realizes of course that joy is not experienced or expressed in the same way at all times in life, especially at times of great difficulty.
The Pope says “I understand the grief of people, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress.” Joy can persist through dark times if we believe that, “when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.”
So the joy of the Lord is for everyone. The Lord is for everyone—because he came down to earth for everyone.
But where do we go, where do we look, to find this joy—for surely everyone here today, from oldest to youngest, richest to poorest, wisest to simplest, longs for the joy that sets us free “from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness.” Because many of us have discovered that pleasure is not the same as joy, and we long for something more than what we have.
The Pope’s answer seems simple: we find deep and lasting peace and joy by “a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ.”
But for some of us, those words aren’t simple at all. Many things hold us back from such an encounter and we are not sure where to start. The angel gives us the first step in the words he spoke to the shepherds keeping watch in their fields that first Christmas night: “Do not be afraid.” How can a personal encounter proceed in fear?
And the angel takes us to the next step: “I am bringing you good news of great joy.” A key point of Pope Francis’ remarkable letter is that the Gospel is good news, not bad. Christians “should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet”—not as a people of rules, regulations and obligations.
Christ wants those away from him to return willingly—because they find the life he offers attractive.
Like any family, the Church has skeletons in the cupboard, feuds here and there, and all the misunderstandings that are inevitable when people live closely with one another. But like most families, she also offers a place of acceptance, nourishment, and growth.
Our parish family already strives to meet the many challenges Pope Francis has given us. It’s a community that reaches out to the poor while helping more affluent folks “to preserve, in detachment and simplicity, a heart full of faith.” We show love for our seniors, tender care for our children, and take great interest in youth and young adults.
In the coming year, we will continue to examine parish life in light of this dynamic pontificate. So that our joy may be renewed and strengthened, we hope to listen to what the Lord wishes to tell us in his word and to let ourselves be transformed by the Spirit through a particular way of prayer heartily praised by both Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. This prayer, often called by its Latin name of lectio divina, “consists of reading God’s word in a moment of prayer and allowing it to enlighten and renew us.” It is both simple and profound, and will build on the excellent Bible study courses the parish has offered over the years.
If you are an active parishioner, are you ready for something new? If you’ve been away for a while, are you brave enough to return during these lively times? Or if you are not yet a Christian, does the joy we’re talking about sound like something you want and need?
Don’t feel too bad if you’re not quite sure! Do you think that “the people who walked in darkness” were ready for that great light? And the shepherds were sure thrown for a loop when the angels showed up with their astonishing news. The gospels tell us that even Mary and Joseph took some time to absorb what God was asking from them.
God is always full of surprises, and he wait for us to catch up.
Pope Francis writes that “He always invites us to take a step forward, but does not demand a full response if we are not yet ready. He simply asks that we sincerely look at our life and present ourselves honestly before him, and that we be willing to continue to grow, asking from him what we ourselves cannot yet achieve.”
Perhaps you’ll decide to take that step forward tonight—by a quiet prayer accepting God into your heart, or by a decision to come back to Mass next Sunday, or by a recommitment to speaking daily with God in prayer and allowing him to speak to you in Scripture.
It might be as simple as deciding to take and read one of the books we’re offering as a gift to our visitors after Mass.
Or maybe all you’ll do is take a good look at our Christmas crib, and try to connect what you see with the joys, sorrows and circumstances of your life.
But do not be afraid. The news is new, and the news is good—for each and every one of us.