Grace and Peace be with each of you this Christmas! The Grace, and Joy of the Infant Jesus be with you, and all your family.
We need Grace and Peace now as much as ever in our world that is so topsy-turvy. Just watching a few minutes of any news network and my nerves feel jazzed up.
So let us take some time this Christmas Eve, setting aside for the moment the tumult of our world and our Church. Let us take in the beauty of this night, this space, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus. (Breathe in!)
Did you know that Saint Francis created the first Nativity Scene?—It happened in the year 1223 in a small village named Greccio. There he set up a live Nativity with animals and a newborn to draw in the people.
The wonder and awe of the Incarnation took Francis’s breath away. In Thomas of Celano, an early Franciscan writer, we read, “Francis used to recall with regular meditation the words of Christ and recollect His deeds…Indeed, so thoroughly did the humility of the Incarnation and the charity of the Passion occupy his memory that he scarcely wanted to think of anything else.” He scarcely wanted to think of anything else!
The idea of the humility of Christ is expressed in Philippians: “Christ Jesus who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself…coming in human likeness…he humbled himself.”
Still, Jesus could have been born into a royal, wealthy, privileged family to be protected from the stresses of a common ordinary life. Rather, Jesus chose a poor, simple family from Nazareth, a small rural town about 90 miles north of the big city Jerusalem. A family who could only afford a place in a small barn when travelling to Bethlehem for the big census. Was it cold in this barn? Drafty? Had the stalls been mucked out? Was the feed trough where the babe was laid scrubbed clean or only licked clean by the sticky tongue of an ox?
This holy family was soon visited by shepherds who were considered unclean and banned from temple worship. No high class guests there!
Barns are dusty smelly places. I grew up on a farm and often played in the barn. After breathing in the dust for an afternoon, the insides of our nostrils would be pure black. For a time, my uncle across the road had some sheep. One day my brother and I spent some hours in his barn hanging out with my cousins and watching them sheer the sheep. When we happily returned home, my mother would not allow us to enter—such was our stench from the sheep. AND she forbade us to ever go to the sheep barn again. And we never did.
Jesus was born to poor, humble parents, Mary, and Joseph, a simple carpenter…born in a barn and laid in a feed trough. Yes! Christ Jesus did not grasp equality with God. He humbly became human.
So, could humility be the message for us this Christmas 2018? Saint Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that “Humility is the foundation and guardian of all the virtues, for without it no other virtue can exist in a soul.”
Indeed humility is present in every virtue. For example, what would prideful love be? Or a haughty kindness or generosity? In contrast, negative attributes show an absence of humility. Is there humility in arrogance or greed? When nations rage against one another is humility to be found? When oppressors exploit the poor, when the powerful abuse their power, when the health of the planet is ignored, is humility to be found?
Could humility be the message for us this Christmas? Jesus said: “Learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” Matthew 11:29.
Saint Bonaventure, another early Franciscan writer states: “Francis used to say that it was for this…that the Son of God came down from the heights…to our lowly estate –so that our Lord and Teacher might teach humility in both example and word.” (Major Legend 6:1)
I quote again from Celano: “Francis observed with inexpressible eagerness, and above all other solemnities, the birth of the Child Jesus, calling it the feast of feasts on which God, having become a little baby, hung on human breasts. [Francis] would avidly kiss pictures of those infant limbs, and his compassion for the child overflowed his heart, making him stammer sweet words, even like a child. The name Baby Jesus was for him honeycomb-sweet in the mouth.” Obviously, Francis was a passionate Italian.
But this was no empty piety. Francis was so filled and overfilled with this mystery of the love of God manifest in Christ Jesus that he was transformed into a humble servant of the Gospel. I would say that Francis caught the fragrance of the Nativity.
So let us also breathe the fragrance of this Holy Night, this mystery of God revealed in the humble incarnation of the Infant Child Jesus, born in a stable, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger—that we too might be transformed into humble servants of this Gospel. Merry Christmas!