“Nails, Spear shall pierce Him through
The Cross be borne for me, for you
Hail, Hail the Word Made Flesh
The Babe, the Son of Mary…”
-From the Christmas Carol, What Child is This?, written in 1865
Dear brothers and sisters of the Congregation and the Passionist Family,
When we celebrate Christmas we celebrate the coming of God among us: He is a Child that is born into a family of the spouses Mary and Joseph, who will love him with simplicity and faithfully care for him in silence with the dedication of ones who know that God is in their home. At the Annunciation the Angel said to Mary: Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High (Lk.1:31-32). His birth is so human! He is immersed in the fullness of humanity: sent from the perfect communion of the Trinity, he entered into a world of conflict.
Jesus is born as a man in the context of contemporary history:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria… And Joseph too went up from… the town of Nazareth…to Bethlehem… to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn (Lk. 2:1-7).
Respectfully and reverently we almost always skip over the words of the angel: you will conceive in your womb – even if we recite them in the Hail Mary; and also: Mary, his betrothed, who was with child…the time came for her to have her child. She was a pregnant woman like so many others in the world who was expecting the birth of her child and the time arrived for her to give birth to Jesus.
God is born like all the children of the world and Mary is his mother and gives birth, although immaculate, like every other mother who gives birth to a child and feeds him at her breast. Mary, according to the accounts of the nativity, gives birth to the One who was foretold, in poverty and in the solitude of a courageous journey. She would not receive the glorious announcement of the angels: I proclaim to you good news of great joy…a savior has been born for you (Lk.2:10-11); rather it would be the shepherds who would bring her the message and she would accept it in a spirit of faith.
Mary meditates on these events, trying to understand their meaning. (Lk.2:19) It is by the power of faith that she struggles to enter into the mystery of God. The relationship between this human maternity and the challenge to accept the reality of Jesus in faith will achieve its fulfillment when a woman in the crowd called out and said to him, blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed.” But Jesus said:“Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it (Lk. 11:27-28).
In addition to bearing him in her womb and nursing the Son of God at her breast, Mary was situated in her mission by the prophetic words of the old man Simeon: And you yourself a sword will pierce (Lk. 2:35). If Jesus would be a sign that will be contradicted, i.e. he would encounter challenges, confrontations and rejection by the people that he came to save, then Mary would have to participate in the sorrowful mission of her Son. Here, too, Mary is presented as a mother, but above all as a “believer” who hears the word of God and observes it. She must walk along the dark road of danger and suffering.
Whoever believes in and loves God shares in His mission and if God calls him, he allows himself to be found and he accepts his plans even without knowing the details, as did Mary. And all of us, religious and laity, are challenged, each according to his or her own status in life.
And we may ask ourselves, filled with wonder and surprise at such great simplicity: Is the Baby that is wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger with animals really Him, the God announced by the prophets and the long-awaited Messiah who will free his people from oppression? This is the same question that would be posed to John the Baptist when Jesus, now an adult, was about to begin his mission: Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another? (Mt. 11:3)
Jesus is not confused by this question. He understands John’s perplexity and he opens his mind and his heart: Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me (Mt. 11:4-6). At times we too are blind and we don’t want to see or hear. And many times and in different ways, whether on a personal level or the level of the Congregation, we refuse to accept new things as did the citizens of Nazareth when Jesus entered their synagogue one Sabbath to read the prophecy of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk. 4:18-21).
But he was rejected: to free the oppressed and to bring good news to the poor was at the very heart of his mission and because of this mission conversion and a change of heart from those things that have been irrefutable for so many years were needed.
And in profound agreement with the response he gave to John’s disciples and what he read in the synagogue of Nazareth, in Matthew 25, Jesus invites us to recognize him in the sick, in the hungry, in the imprisoned, in the poor and in the powerless of this world. But we need eyes and evangelical wisdom to recognize him and a change of heart to understand and study the signs that God is sending us.
And at Christmas the sign that is also given by the angels is a Child wrapped in swaddling clothes. Word and sign, simplicity and poverty, the gift and the glory of God come together in Him: the Word was made flesh and came to dwell among us. The Child Jesus is the language of God that reveals to us that not only man is in God, but primarily, that God is in man.
And this helps us to understand that perfection is not about self-realization, but is found in one another; that greatness is not about being served, but serving; that the fullness of liberty is to be free from oneself, free for others and for God; that freedom is about total and serene abandonment to God especially in suffering and in sickness; that the fullness of love is not about being loved, but about loving. Thus it is for man and thus it is for God: The Child of Bethlehem and the Crucified One on Golgotha is the sign and the gift of the one, same love. May St. Paul of the Cross open our hearts to understand this great love!
Merry Christmas! May the New Year 2012 be a year of peace for our communities, for the Passionist nuns and Sisters, for our families and for the world! May there be work for the unemployed and a peaceful future for the young.
Together with the General Council and the religious of the Community of Sts. John and Paul, I particularly wish to remember the sick and those who are alone and suffering in spirit.
Fr. Ottaviano D’Egidio
Retreat of Sts. John and Paul
Rome, 20 December 2011
from Passionist Generalate website