Faith Has to Become Flesh

At Christmas we celebrate the fact of the Word Becoming Flesh. God’s love for us is not just some theory or idea. It is a flesh and blood reality that can actually be seen, heard and touched. But the challenge of the Christmas season is for us to allow the same thing to happen to our faith. The Word of God and our faith cannot simply remain on the pages of  a book or the recesses of our intellect. They have to become flesh in our life. Our faith has to leap off the pages of the Bible and Catechism and become flesh in the very way we live our lives, the decisions we make, the very way we use our body, mind, intellect and will.

Consider a passage from the liturgy of the Christmas Octave from the First Letter of John. I would like to produce an excerpt and then make a few comments.

The way we may be sure that we know Jesus is to keep his commandments. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him. This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked.  (1 John 2:3ff)

  1. Faith is incarnational – Note first of all what a practical man John is. Faith is not an abstraction, it is not about theories and words on a page. It is not about slogans. It is about a transformed life, it is about the actual love of God and his Commandments. It is about the actual love of of my neighbor. True faith is incarnational, it takes on flesh in my very “body-person.” Remember, we human beings are not pure spirit, we are not intellect and will only, we are also flesh and blood. And what we are cannot remain merely immaterial. What we most are must be reflected in our bodies, what we actually, physically do as well. Too many people often repeat the phrase, “I’ll be with you in spirit.” Perhaps an occasional absence is understandable but after a while the phrase rings hollow. Actually showing up and actually doing what we say is an essential demonstration of our sincerity. We are body persons and our faith must have a physical, flesh and blood dimension. Our faith is to be reflected in our actual behavior and the physical conduct of our life.
  2. A sure sign – John says that The way we may be sure that we know Jesus is to keep his commandments. Now be careful of the logic here. The keeping of the commandments is not the cause of faith, it is the fruit of it. It is not the cause of love, it is the fruit of it. Note this too, in the Scriptures, to “know” is always more than a mere intellectual knowing. To “know” in the Scriptures means, “deep intimate personal experience of the thing or person known.” It is one thing to know about God, it is another thing to “know the Lord.” So, what John is saying here is that to be sure we authentically have deep intimate personal experience of God is to observe the fact that this changes the way we live. An authentic faith, an authentic knowing of the Lord will change our actual behavior in such a way that we keep the commandments as a fruit of that authentic faith and relationship with the Lord. It means that our faith becomes flesh in us. It changes the way we live and move and have our being. For a human being who is a body-person faith cannot be an abstraction, it has to become flesh and blood if it is authentic. John also uses the image of walking: This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked.  Now walking is a very physical thing. It is also a very symbolic thing. The very place we take our body is both physical and indicative of what we value, what we think.
  3. Liar? – John goes on to say Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar. John uses strong language here. Either we believe and keep the commandments or we fail to keep the commandments and thus lie about knowing the Lord. But all of us struggle to keep the commandments fully!  John seems so “all or nothing.” But his math is clear. To know the Lord fully, is never to sin (cf 1 John 3:9). To know him imperfectly is still to experience sin. Hence, the more we know him (remember the definition of know from above!) the less we sin. If we still sin it is a sign that we do not know him enough. It is not really John who speaks too absolutely. It is really we who do so. We say, “I have faith, I am a believer, I love the Lord, I know the the Lord!”  We speak so absolutely. Perhaps we could better say, I am growing in faith, I am striving to be a better believer, I’m learning to love and know the Lord better and better. Otherwise we risk lying. Faith is something we grow in. Many Protestants have a bad habit of reducing faith to an event such as answering an altar call, or accepting the Lord  as “personal Lord and savior.” But we Catholics do it too. Many think all they have to do is be baptized but they never attend Mass faithfully later. Others claim to be “loyal” even “devout” Catholics  but they dissent from important Church teachings. Faith is about more than membership. It is about the way we walk, the decisions we actually make. Without this harmony between faith and our actual walk we live a lie. We lie to ourselves and to others. Bottom line: Come to know the Lord more an more perfectly and, if this knowing is real knowing,  we will grow in holiness, keep the commandments be of the mind of Christ. We will walk just as Jesus walked.
  4. Uh Oh! Is this salvation by works? Of course not. The keeping of the commandments is not the cause of saving and real faith it is the result of it. The keeping of the commandments is the necessary evidence of saving faith but it does not cause us to be saved, it only indicates that the Lord is saving us from sin and its effects. But here too certain Protestants have a nasty habit of dividing faith and works. The cry went up in the 16th Century by the Protestants that we are saved by faith “alone.”  Careful. Faith is never alone. It always brings effects with it. Our big brains can get in the way here and we think that just because we can distinguish or divide something in our mind we can divide it in reality. This is arrogant and silly. Consider for a moment a candle flame. Now the flame has two qualities: heat and light. In our mind we can separate the two but not in reality. I could never take a knife and divide the heat of the flame and the light. They are so together as to be one reality. Yes, heat and light in a candle flame are separate theoretically but they are always together in reality. This is how it is with faith and works. We are not saved by works but as John here teaches to know the Lord is always accompanied by the evidence of keeping the commandments and walking as Jesus did.

Faith is real. It is incarnational. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, really and physically. So too our own faith must become flesh in us, really, physically in our actual behavior in our very body-person.

I put this video together with a lesser known carol (possibly by Praetorius). The translation is as follows:

  • Verbum Caro Factum Est (The Word was made flesh)
  • Habitavit in Nobis (And dwelt among us)
  • Alleluia
  • Notum fecti Dominus (The Lord has made known)
  • Salutare suum (His Salvation)
  • Alleluia
  • Prope invocavit me: (Near is he who calls me: )
  • Frater meus est tu!”” (“You are my brother!”)
  • Alleluia

The Threefold Sign of Christmas

  • And  this will be a sign for you.
  • You will find an infant,
  • wrapped in swaddling clothes,
  • and lying in a manger.
  1. An infant – here we have show for us the humility of our God. The infinite, becomes an infant. The voice that summoned the universe into existence is now heard as the crying of an infant. The hand from which galaxies tumbled into existence now grips the finger of his mother. He who holds all creation together in himself, is now held by his mother. He who looks down on all creation now looks up from a manger. Alpha et O, matris in gremio (Alpha et Omega is sitting in Mommy’s lap).  The humility of our God, who humbles himself so that we will not fear to approach. This is the first sign.
  2. Wrapped in swaddling clothes – Women in the ancient world “swaddled” their newborn children. That is to say they wrapped them in linens that were rather tight and constricted the the movement of their arms and legs. It was thought that the newborn infant might injure himself by jerky motions of the limbs so newly freed from the tight confines of the womb. The wrappings kept such motions to a minimum for the first days after birth. The sign here of the infant Jesus being wrapped in linens in a foreshadowing of the wrapping (same verb) of his body after it was taken down from the cross. The binding of the limbs too reminds us of his limbs being nailed to a cross some thirty years later.
  3. Lying in a manger – A manger is a feeding trough for animals. Jesus would later speak of himself as our food in John 6. He who was born in Bethlehem (a name which means  House of bread) and laid in a feeding trough would one declare himself to be the Bread of Life and that his flesh was real food and his blood real drink (John 6).

Alright Christian, have you beheld the threefold sign of Christmas? Our God humbles himself for us in his birth, would die for us, and feed on with his very flesh and blood. Behold our God, Behold the Lamb of God.

Which Was the Son Of


On Christmas Eve, in the Office of the Liturgy of the Hours, the genealogy of Jesus is read from Luke 5. This passage which is difficult enough to read aloud was set to music by the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Part, whose inspiration for many of his classical pieces comes from Gregorian chant.

It is a beautiful song that for me brings alive the unfolding of the story of salvation as seen in the mind of God. The song is called “Which was the son of.” It is a perfect reflection for the eve of Christmas.

Open Luke 5 to verse 23 and read along as the choir sings

May you have a happy and holy Christmas.




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.

Happy Holidays?– Forget you! It’s Merry Christmas!

I got the title of this post from a comedy show I was watching on TV. One character wished the second character “Happy Holidays.” The second character replied, “I have been wanting to say this for a while but; Forget you! It’s Merry Christmas.” The audience erupted into applause.

This debate has been raging in recent years and frankly, I fall on the “Merry Christmas” side. I am not shy about saying “Merry Christmas” and I try to buy Christmas cards that in some way celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord. However, I had to pause and think, “Have I ever been on the other side?”

Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, etc.

At my school, I have a Jewish teacher who celebrates all of the Jewish holidays. Furthermore, she has a remarkable way of sharing the joy of her faith with us without in anyway offending us or diminishing our Catholic identity. During Rosh Hashanah, it is natural for me to wish her a Happy New Year. During Yom Kippur it is common for the rest of the faculty to include her in our prayers for atonement. She gives gifts during the appropriate holidays and I rather enjoy her gestures.

At the same time, she is part of the congregation at our school Masses, she attends the faculty Christmas party and never responds to a wish of, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Easter” with a “Forget you, I am Jewish.” She says “Thank you” and reciprocates the greeting.

It occurred to me, what is wrong with my colleague and me wishing that one another has a nice day and grows closer to God in the process.? Whether that day be Christmas, Easter or Yom Kippur, no one should be offended if someone else is sincerely expressing wishes of goodwill.

The Holiday is Christmas!

In summary, I am not going to stop saying Merry Christmas for fear of offending anyone. It is Christmas, not a generic holiday.  No one should be offended by my “Merry Christmas.”  My expression of goodwill should be accepted and appreciated, whether you are Christian or not.  Furthermore, most of the time when I initiate a “Merry Christmas”, I get a “Merry Christmas” in return.  Even if you are not Christian, what is wrong with me hoping that December 25th is a nice day for you?  There is really nothing wrong with that.  I mean well.

They will know we are Christians by our love

I think most people say, “Happy Holidays” because they fear offending. My fellow Christians, let us not be part of the fear. Don’t get offended by “Happy Holidays” and please, don’t get angry.  Simply reply with a “Merry Christmas” and they will know we are Christians by our love.  However, if someone does gets offended by your kind gesture, in that rare case, forget him! It’s Christmas.

Merry Christmas everyone!

A Light in the Darkness

christmas lights

I am a huge fan of Christmas lights. I love the warmth they bring to cold, dark afternoons and evenings. Putting lights on the tree in my front yard is usually how I begin decorating for Christmas (alas the picture is not my tree!).


I came across a reflection today from Pope Benedict XVI that captures perfectly how appropriate lights are as Christmas decorations. In a General Audience, Pope Benedict said, “Let us remember…as we look at the streets and squares of the cities decorated with dazzling lights, that these lights refer us to another light, invisible to the eyes, but not to the heart.”