Which Was the Son Of

The_Adoration_of_the_Magi_by_Fra_Angelico_and_Filippo_Lippi-763314

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.

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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.”