I proclaim to you good news of great joy: today a Savior is born for us, Christ the Lord. -Luke 2:10-11
The Delicate Light of God
There can be any number of feelings or sentiments that other people or corporations or the Hallmark Channel or (even!) the Church tell us we should experience today and during this season. After all, it’s Christmas! Christ is born into human flesh and all of its realities out of love for us, subjecting the Word of God to the human condition. The temptation is to snuff out the true impact of Christ’s birth into categories, sentiments, experiences, and expectations borne, not from our own experience, or Christ’s, but our of everyone else’s. Such an approach, in my humble opinion, only results in snuffing out the true joy of this season.
The great spiritual masters of the Church’s tradition encourage us to pay close attention to the peripheral circumstances of Christ’s action in the Gospels. I would encourage us to pay attention to the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth from the perspective of Mary and Joseph and what their experience can lend to you and me. Keep in mind, the circumstances of their life are the circumstances that God chose to be born into.
First, it was cold, “in the bleak mid-winter”. This added a layer of stress for Joseph that he probably would not have preferred not to deal with. Second, they were displaced from their home “to be enrolled in the census”, so that they would be considered good citizens of the Roman Empire. Enrolling in the census was crucial for receiving the protection of the structure of the Empire. If they didn’t enroll, it would be the equivalent of not paying their taxes and there would be consequences. And there was absolutely zero flexibility on the part of the officials of the Empire to get out of a civic obligation. They were on their way to fulfill their civic duty when Mary went into labor with Jesus. Third, they were poor. Their survival depended on the goodness and generosity of other people. In short, the circumstances were challenging. Jesus was born in a barn, in the unsanitary and harsh conditions of the presence of livestock. These facts capture the less-than-ideal circumstances into which God is born to us. But keep in mind, these circumstances didn’t diminish or impede Christ’s impact on the reorientation of human history and its salvation!
During this time, I think it is best for us to experience Jesus Christ precisely where he chooses to insert himself in our own individual lives. The invitation for this season is celebration, indeed, but to celebrate Christ’s presence in the circumstances of our lives and our culture where he is deeply and lovingly present to us and/or where he is waiting to be discovered. And discovering God’s presence in the midst of our less-than-ideal circumstances is what brings us true joy. In fact, I would say that God chooses, as he did two millennia ago, to be born into the worst imaginable circumstances in order to transform them from within. Hence, when we discover Jesus Christ present in these analogous circumstances in our lives, we, too, are transformed from within. The peripheral or less-than-perfect circumstances of life are the places where Jesus Christ waits to reveal himself in mercy, healing, and transformation.
On behalf of Bishop Bambera, Monsignor Rupert, Father Shantillo, Father Polednak, Deacon Ed Shoener and the Cathedral staff, I extend my most heartfelt thanks for all the kind messages you have expressed, the cards you have sent, and the prayers you have offered me and my brother priests, not only on this occasion but throughout the year. Have a merry and truly blessed Christmas, everyone!