Jesus Wasn’t Found in a Perfect Christmas

We tend to romanticize what the birth of Jesus was like. It all seems so picturesque to us now: Bethlehem, the manger, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, cute animals, shepherds, the star, and so forth. But the fact is that the birth of Jesus was burdened with many hardships and if we look, it is not hard to see the Passion already prefigured in the birth of Jesus.

I do not write this post to burst any bubbles or simply to be contrary. But I am aware that we set up great expectations for Christmas, that it will be a wonderful, magical time. In some years those dreams come true, but in other years Christmas is difficult. Maybe it is our first Christmas without a loved one, maybe finances trouble us, perhaps we are rushed and hurried and cannot find the gift(s) we want to get for others. Christmas is seldom an “easy” time for any of us. But at some level we have to stop trying to have the perfect Christmas and come to accept the actual Christmas we have.

Christ was not found in a “perfect” Christmas by any means. The first Christmas was difficult at best. Consider the following:

  1. What Kind of Woman is That! There were many questions likely swirling about due to the circumstances of Jesus’ conception. For Joseph they had been resolved through the message of an angel. But it is unlikely that other family members and townsfolk at Nazareth were as accepting of what had happened. Scripture is silent on these matters but the culture of that time did not easily accept that a young woman was pregnant apart from the marriage bed. There was surely tension, perhaps even some shunning of Mary, and Joseph too for he had agree to take a “woman like that” into his home. Perhaps some of them thought that Joseph too was less than innocent in the whole matter. Some of this is speculative I know but the culture of the time was quite exacting about such matters.
  2. Terrible Travels! Just prior to Jesus’ birth Joseph and Mary receive word that they must travel to Bethlehem due to hastily called census. Mary is almost 9 months pregnant and the trip to Bethlehem is almost 80 miles. The only way to get there was on foot. The terrain in the Holy Land is mountainous. The hills around Nazareth are not little rolling hills, they are like the Appalachian Mountains in size and the terrain only gets steeper and rockier as one gets to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Now these were hardy people and such journeys were not unknown to them. Pious Jews went as often as once a year to Jerusalem (70 Miles from Nazareth) to worship at the Temple. Nevertheless the hardships of such a journey on a woman near to giving birth cannot be underestimated. We often see pictures of Mary riding a donkey. It is unlikely that she actually did. Joseph and Mary were not destitute but they were among the working poor. It is unlikely they could have afforded a donkey for such a journey. It is possible that Joseph was able to pull a small cart upon which Mary could ride along with some of their belongings. But remember the steep hills to which we have referred. Such carts were often more trouble than they were worth. Probably they both walked.
  3. Bethlehem was No Blessing! After a long and difficult journey of several days Joseph and Mary reached the town of Bethlehem. Now I don’t want to be unkind but let me just make it plain. Bethlehem is no cute “little town of Bethlehem.” It is a run down city set on steep hills. The terrain is rocky. And the Shepherds field was not a grassy rolling pasture. It is a very rocky, hard scrabble land. Even today after all the glory that happened there, the town is still a very poor and run down place. Due to Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the town is largely cut off economically and the poor line the streets begging you to buy olive wood trinkets from them. It is rather a sad place actually. At the time of Jesus’ birth the town was vastly over crowded due to the Census. Huge numbers who had long since left (like Joseph and Mary) had now returned for the count. On my recent trip I took pictures in Bethlehem which you can see here: Bethlehem
  4. Born like That?!? As they enter town Mary may be experiencing her first labor pains. Joseph with great anxiety seeks a place quickly for her. Surely room could be found for a woman in labor! But no. Surely someone would understand and give their spot over to the couple! But no. Scripture gives us very little detail actually as to the place of Jesus’ birth. We are only told by Luke that Mary laid Jesus in a manger (a feed box for animals) because there was no room for them in an inn. Most moderns think of a wooden stable or barn-like structure. But it was more likely a cave beneath and behind a house where people routinely sheltered their animals. This is the likely place where Jesus was born for this is where mangers are found. Ancient tradition confirms this for the place of Jesus Birth in in the subbasement of the Church of the Nativity and, sure enough, it is a cave.  But consider the awful discomfort that this must have caused. We romanticize it but let us be honest, it was damp or dusty (depending on the time of year)  and it was smelly. Joseph must have been devastated that he could find nothing better for his wife and newborn Son. Luke hints at the Passion when he tells us that Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes, using the same verb that would later be used to describe how Jesus body was wrapped in linen cloths at his burial. This was no pleasant Hallmark moment for any of the them. It was a difficult time, away from family and the comforts of home, in an unfriendly, unwelcoming and run down city, giving birth in a smelly animal pen. An old Latin song says, O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum ut animalia viderunt Dominum natum, jacentem in praesepio!  (O great mystery and wondrous sign that animals would see the newborn Lord lying in a feed box).
  5. Strange Visitors! We think of numerous visitors that night  but it was probably only  the shepherds that first night. Now shepherds were the cowboys of their day. They tended to be a rough sort of crowd. Once again we tend to clean things up a bit. But it is sort of a strange fit that these rough and tumble cowboys of their day should be the ones summoned by the angels to be the first visitors of the Lord of Glory. The magi from the East surely came but not likely that first night for Matthew describes them as finding Jesus and Mary in a “house.” Perhaps the next day or some days later Joseph was able to find lodging and that is where the Magi found them in Bethlehem.
  6. Flee for your Life!  Not long after the birth word comes to Joseph that he must flee to Egypt at once for Herod is seeking to kill the Child. They flee into the night to make the Journey of 150 miles into Egypt.

Well I hope you can see that the first Christmas was anything but idyllic, anything but perfect, anything but comfortable. I do not deny that there is a place for sentimentality but, truth be told, our sentimentality often sets us up for disappointment. We want Christmas to be Hallmark perfect. And then Uncle Joe shows up at Christmas dinner drunk, and son Ben is away in Iraq, Mom died last June, and instead of snow, it is warm. But guess what. Jesus wasn’t found in a perfect Christmas either. If you’re looking for a perfect Christmas, Jesus is not there. He is in the imperfect one. He’s in your actual Christmas not your imagined Christmas. Find him there.

Beyond the Rhetoric: Why Not Mary?

Most of us who are Catholics eventually get asked, “Why do you Catholics worship Mary?” More often than not the question is not a real question it is a rhetorical question. For a few of you who might not know what is meant by the expression “rhetorical question,”  it refers to a “question” whose purpose is not to seek an answer, but, rather, to make a (usually hostile) point. For example the expression “Who do you think you are!?” is in the form of a question but it does not seek an answer. Instead it is meant as a rebuke. And so it usually is when we Catholics get asked the “question” Why do you worship Mary?” we’re usually aware that it is not a sincere question seeking a sincere answer. However, for those cases where an answer really is sought I might propose the following approach:

“Well, of course we don’t worship Mary since that would be a terrible sin. Worship belongs to God alone. We DO honor her though. Afterall, she is Jesus’ mother. But let me ask you a question. Why in your church, do you NOT honor Mary at all? Doesn’t scripture say Every generation will call [Mary] blessed because God who is mighty has done great things for [her]? (Luke 1:48-49) It seems to me that we Catholics are fulfilling scripture but that in your denomination you are not fulfilling or following it. So why don’t you honor her at all? Why don’t you call her blessed as the Bible says?”

Now stop there and wait for an answer. Don’t keep going. Just stop and wait.  Have them answer for a change. We Catholics are always on the defensive, always in answer mode. But we ought to ask a few questions too. And try to avoid a merely rhetorical or hostile tone. Try to allow this question to be genuine, respectful, one meant to provoke thought. It is possible that many Protestants have never been asked this question or pondered an answer. Now it is also possible that your interlocutor will try to change the subject or evade an answer by piling on about Catholics but just repeat the question respectfully and ask for an answer. Remember your point is not to argue, be hostile or win an argument. Your point is to provoke thought and get a real answer. And even if the conversation ends badly or with no answer, you’ve planted a seed, a question that they will ponder even if they don’t admit it. Jesus often asked questions to proke thought and conversion. I will be doing a post on this next week.

A final thought on Mary. Another way to explain out devotion and love for Mary is that we are imitating Jesus. We love, honor, respect and entrust ourselves to her care because Jesus did all these things and we want to be just like Jesus. Consider that the very Son of God, dwelled in Mary’s womb, nursed at her breasts, was held in her arms, sat on her lap and entrusted himself to her care. Our Lord could have chosen to enter our world in other ways. Perhaps He could simply have entered the world as a full grown man. The fact is that He freely chose Mary to be his mother and he was truly her Son. As her son he loved and honored her as any good son must and as her son he entrusted himself to her care. All of this serves to highlight Mary’s dignity and to show us how devotion to her is in perfect imitation of Jesus himself.

What more need we say: Jesus our Lord and God honors and loves Mary, and his very scriptures sing her praises; so too His Angel Gabriel and countless saints. When we honor Mary we imitate the very Son of God and fulfill Holy Scripture. Certainly our Lord is pleased that we love and honor his mother.

Here’s a little viseo I recently put together. The Music is from the Daughters of St Paul, “I Am Thine” from the Handmaiden of the Lord Album:

Assumption of Mary into Heaven

To be “assumed” means to be taken up by God bodily into heaven. It happened to Enoch in the Old Testament (Gen. 5:24) and it also happened to Elijah (2 Kings 2:11 ). Some say Moses too was taken up since his grave is not known but the text is not clear as to that fact (cf Dt. 34:6).

Church Tradition and teaching going back as far as we can remember hold that Mary too, at her death was taken up, body and soul, into heaven. There is no earthly tomb containing her body, neither are there relics of her body to be found among the Christian faithful.  She like Enoch and Elijah was taken up bodily to heaven.

It this recorded in Scripture? Yes and no. No the historical event of Mary’s assumption is not recorded. But the Bible does indicate her place in heaven. In Rev. 11 John records his sighting of the Ark of God!

Rev 11:19Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm.

John then goes on to describe the Ark as he sees it and he describes the Ark as none other than Mary for this woman gives birth to a Son who is none other than Jesus:

A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads… The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. 5She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. (Rev 12:1-5)

The Woman is clearly Mary since the child is clearly Jesus. And where is Mary seen? In heaven. Hence Scripture confirms what is taught by the solemn Tradition of the Church that Mary, whose body is the Ark of the New Covenant is in heaven. Mary has been taken up to heaven.

How is Mary our Mother?

We Catholics often call Mary our Mother and rightly so. But how is she in fact our Mother? Granted, Jesus announced her as our Mother when he said to John from the Cross, “Behold your Mother.” (John 19:27) John represents every disciple and hence when Jesus declares Mary to be his Mother, he also speaks to us” Behold your Mother. But still the question of how is she our mother. Jesus does not simply declare her to be so in some arbitrary way, as a sort of nice thought.

As you might suspect there is something more at work here. The most straight forward theological answer is simply this: Mary is our mother because she is the Mother of Jesus and we, by baptism are incorporated into Jesus. Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.  (1 Cor 12:27) . Jesus is the head of the body, the Church. (Col 1:18) But if Mary gave birth to the head of the Body of Christ she also gave birth to the rest of the Body of Christ (us). What mother do you know who ever gave birth to the head of her child but not the rest of that child’s body? So if Mary is the Mother of the head of the Body, she is also mother to the members of the body. Why? Because of Christ is one and we are one in Christ. Hence Mary is Mother of Jesus, we are in Jesus, Mary is thus our Mother. It is not some mere sentimental thing. It is a real motherhood.

Happy Mother’s Day Mary!

Mother’s Day Weekend

What is the best gift you can give your mother on Mother’s Day? Scripture surely gives the best answer: Let her who bore you rejoice. (Proverbs 23:25) In other words the best gift we can give our mothers is to live a life that would make them proud. The Blessed Mother has told us what she wants: Do whatever he (my Son) tells you. (John 2:5) 

 So the flowers may be nice, the dinner, a phone call, all nice but the best gift for our mothers is a beautiful and holy life.

Enjoy this beautiful video which is a tribute to our mothers:

Mary Did You Know?

I have often wondered what it must have been like for the Blessed Mother and also for St. Joseph. They were told remarkable things about their Son Jesus. They were told he would save his people from their sins, that he was destined for the rise and downfall of many, that his name would be great and that he was the Son of God. But for all this, they were given very little detail as to how all this would unfold. Perhaps from time to time they wondered, “Did I really hear all that from the angel?….How will all this come to pass?” In the end Joseph and Mary had to walk by faith, not knowing all the details but just trusting that God had it all worked out.

And isn’t it the same for us? I don’t know exactly what the future hold but I do know Him who holds the future. And I trust him. Isn’t that enough? It has to be because God isn’t going to show me the road map. He is just going to say, I am the Way, follow me. Don’t worry where we are going, just follow me.

Here is a video that meditates on Mary’s walk of faith: Mary Did you know?

One Minute Apologetics

  There is a lot of good apologetics material out there. Apologetics is not the art of apologizing for Catholic teaching but rather is the science of explaing Catholic Teaching and defending it.

One teaching of the Catholic Church that is often attacked is that of the perpetual virginity of Mary, a teaching that goes back as far as we can remember in Catholic Tradition and Dogma. But Scripture does mention “brothers” of Jesus. What are we to do with all this? The following video answers the question. Pay attention it moves quickly but John Martignoni does a pretty good job of tackling the question in just about a minute.