East of the Palestinian city of Bethlehem lies the mostly Christian suburb of Beit Sahur. It is believed that somewhere in the area of this town is the site where the hosts of angels appeared to the shepherds on Christmas morning (Lk 2: 8-20). In a large open space one can visit ruins of Byzantine monasteries and churches doing back to the 4th Century. An Orthodox Church and a nearby Catholic Church commemorate the event. This place, known as Shepherd’s Field, is beautiful, located on a high point looking into a barren valley that is believed to once have been the field where Boaz and Ruth first met, surrounded by hills dotted with modern Israeli settlements in the distance. It is certainly a good vantage point from which to see heavenly things on a starry night.
Grottoes can be visited, where the ancient shepherds once kept their animals, and where artifacts from the 1st Century have been found, In these grottoes Franciscan priests celebrate the Mass with pilgrims all day long. One place that caught my attention and devotion was the “Chapel of the Angels”, designed by Antonio Barluzzi in the early 1950’s. It has a strange dodecagonal ( twelve-sided)shape, with a steep dome, supposed to resemble a shepherd’s tent. Inside it is graceful, peaceful, and filled with light from the many star-like openings in the dome. There are three semicircular chapels, each with a painted mural telling the story of the shepherds on Christmas morning. I have tried everywhere to find the name of the artist but I have not been able to. Our guide said that if we look carefully at the murals we can see the different reactions that persons of different ages can have in the presence of the Divine.
In the first mural one can see that their initial reaction was one of dread and awe as “the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were struck with great fear.”(v 9b) The young shepherd looks shocked, but still dares to look up at the angel. There is even a sort of smile on his face, showing the child-like wonderment that a young person can still feel. The adult shepherd cannot even get up. He looks scared and puts up his hand to shield himself from the Light (don’t we do that too!), but still he peeks through! The old man (to whom I relate the most), cannot even look up. Is it reverence, or a sense of guilt and unworthiness before such a Holy Presence?
The angel reassures them: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”(v 10) Then the angel sends them on a mission (“You will find an infant …”). So many times in our own lives our loving God soothes our fears and doubts, and then inspires us to action.
In the second mural their mission takes place: “They went in haste and found Mary and Joseph and the infant lying on the manger.”(v 16) The mural depicts a scene of light and peace. Time seems to almost stand still. The young man kneels relaxed, but respectful, transfixed. He holds the little lamb with care, as if holding a baby. The adult shepherd, no longer afraid, is inspired to activity, to play a lullaby to the child Jesus. He seems moved by tenderness (God is Love!). The old man genuflects with open hands, in reverence , worship, invitation. He no longer shows fear. Instead he seems peaceful. He dares to look, smiles, loves, fells gratitude in the comfort of God’s benign presence. St. Joseph has an expression of contentment, maybe even a father’s pride. Mary, who is our greatest example of the Christian life, seems thoughtful, in meditation: “Mary kept all these things reflecting on them in her heart.”(v 19) All this happens in the light of the Divine Presence of the Newborn King: a sweet little baby!
In the third mural we see the shepherds returning to their hill, still being showered by Grace, displaying the fruits of such intense contact with God. The youth is full of wild, delirious joy. He dances and sings. The adult channels this energy in a creative way, making a music that calms the sheep. The old man displays incredible joy in his eyes. We see such gratitude and love as he touches his heart and looks up to heaven. “Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them .”(LK 2:20)
Dear Sisters and Brothers. I pray that your Christmas experiences in 2019 leave you with some of the grace, wonder, and glory that the shepherds found on that Christmas morning at Beit Sahur.
I seem to go back to that familiar carol every Christmas. Maybe it’s because wonder is a Christmas word. Wonder is a reaction to something beyond what we expect, beyond our experience, so big it leaves us lost for words. And so we wonder.
The gospel story from St. Luke says that: the
‘In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled.” Caesar Augustus, the ruler of the world orders a census.. “Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Quirinius , Caesar’s enforcer for Palestine, orders his jurisdiction to be counted. The big people have spoken.
But the big people, the important people don’t impress Luke. Rather, his eyes are drawn to a couple in the crowd being enrolled, from a little town in Galilee called Nazareth– Joseph and his betrothed wife Mary, who was with child. On their way to Bethlehem.
“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.”o
Luke gospel goes on to tell about this child born in Bethlehem. He grows up in Nazareth,and begins to preach and work marvels in Galilee, and draws followers and goes up to Jerusalem where he’s arrested, sentenced to death, crucified, then raised from the dead. Luke goes on further to describe the followers of Jesus who take his message to the ends of the earth, until finally his message comes down us today.
The word “wonder” describes the way to look on this story, because wonder seems to be a cautious word, it’s cautious before something great and unknown. Wonder is a word that questions. Why would God come among us like this? So small and powerless and helpless? Why not come in a more powerful way and make the world a new paradise. In the Advent season, prophets like Isaiah promised the nations would beat their swords into plowshares and the spears into pruning hooks: no one will train for war again. Yet, we seem to be building bigger armies and bigger weapons of mass destruction. The Messiah will make the deserts flower and the created world a feast. Yet, now our creation’s not flowering; it’s endangered; life itself threatened.
All peoples will come to God, the prophets say. Yet, so many turn away from him instead.
I wonder, as I wander out under the sky, why Jesus our Savior was born for to die, for poor, ornery people like you and like I…
God is with us. Immanuel. God reveals himself as God wills, not as we will or think it should be done. Faith doesn’t give us all the answers, but it gives us enough answers to trust in God who is with us. God with us, a humble God, born of Mary, born in a stable. God who lives among us, who knows our hopes and sorrows, who died on a Cross and rose again, and promises a new creation and that we will rise again.
We believe in God Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Some time ago, at dinner, my atheist friend argued : “If God exists, He is so vast and powerful that He really has no time to even think of us, puny human beings . It’s as if the brain were to care about each intestinal bacterium in our gut. Do you even think about them at all?” I thought about this and said, “Our brains are not like the ‘brain’ of God. God actually loves those ‘intestinal bacteria’, each and every one of us individually. That is His power and choice. He even chose to become one of us !’ My friend found that idea so outlandish and untenable. Why would God do this?
Nazareth, Israel, once a tiny mountain village, is now a bustling city. Here, crowds of pilgrims stream into the Basilica of the Annunciation, and jostle each other in uncomfortable lines in order to walk near, and pray before, the reconstructed ruins of an actual home from the 1st Century, in a grotto two stories under the ground. An altar was built there, and, if you look at the picture above, a plaque reads : “Verbum caro hic factum est.” (The Word was made flesh here). The Gospel of Luke tells us that in a chamber like this, perhaps this very one, the Virgin Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel, and, through the power of God the Holy Spirit, the Incarnation took place.
A single human egg cell suddenly existed within the womb of this young, holy woman, with all the genes necessary for the formation, over the next nine months, of Jesus of Nazareth, our Savior. We believe that that developing, fully human child, was also fully Divine, the Logos, the Eternal God, “of one substance with the Father.” Such a mystery for the mind to apprehend! The baby Jesus is truly, 100%, a helpless human baby, and simultaneously and totally, 100%, the All-Powerful God, Creator of everything!
Miles away from Nazareth, in the city of Bethlehem, Palestine, the Church of the Nativity stands. From ancient times it commemorates the place where Jesus was born on Christmas Day. There is a grotto under the altar, where they say this holy event happened. Hundreds of people “line up” in a monstrous, thick queue that runs the length of the huge church, its width, and again its length . For over an hour I stood on this line, fighting my desire to just get off and forget about it, fighting my increasing annoyance at the people that pushed me from all sides and would “cut” in front of me. It did not feel at all like a holy experience. My back and feet were going into cramps as we squeezed our way down into a narrow, low, stone entrance into the Grotto.
The place was dark and crowded, but I was surprised to see how considerate and patient everyone was, as we made a single line to a structure that had a shape somewhat like a fireplace. We waited for each person to kneel for a few seconds inside the low, dark space, and touch or kiss a large silver star-shape bolted onto the marble floor, with a black, worn, flat stone in the center. This was designated as the place where our Lord was born. Strange, the need to have a precise spot, as if to challenge our faith: “Don’t you believe this?”
I took my turn and painfully crawled down to the spot, touched the dark, smooth stone, and closed my eyes. For those few intense seconds I was flooded with what I can only think of as the Power of God! Without any words, Jesus grabbed me and seemed to show me, “This is the Mystery of my Incarnation, I love you!”
I walked back up the steps on the other side as if in a daze. What had I experienced? Thoughts, ideas, things I had heard and read, and felt in prayer had come into my mind at lightning speed: The dance of the Holy Trinity, God’s overwhelming desire to save me, to die for me, to teach me to love, to live within me, to live with me for Eternity, Mary’s fear and then faith, her sufferings, her acceptance, her “Yes,” her woman’s power in participating with God in the creation of new life, a soft tender baby, Joseph trusting in God, the Angels, shepherds, Magi, sheep and cows, the dark yet starry night over Bethlehem, the vastness of the spinning universe, God’s embrace over all, God the fulness of Love…..
These were only some of the things I sensed as it all turned into a dark, bright maelstrom of mystery. But most of all what I felt was gratitude and love! I had never expected this gift from my Beloved, after so much frustration and physical pain, at such an unexpected moment. I wonder if the other people felt this? Why did God do this?
Mary, the Mother of God, must have “pondered” upon these things during the whole of her Son’s life. Like so many great saints, she might have had moments of questioning all of it. But she was the favored one of God, and faith carried her until that blessed Easter Sunday. She is our wonderful example.
The mind can be like that. A few minutes after my experience at the Grotto, a part of me was wondering if this had just been a fabrication of my mind, desperately longing to “feel something,” to “see God”, to have a “supernatural moment”. I just shook my head, smiled, and said, “ Thank You for the experience, my God. I still love You, but most importantly I know that You love me more than I can ever imagine.”
Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle was a German Jesuit priest who spent most of his life working in Japan, barely survived the Hiroshima bombing, and is actually the first non-Buddhist to achieve the authorization to be called Zen master. When I think of my experience in the grottoes in Israel I think of something he once wrote: “God absconditus cannot be seen. But to see Him in any way at all, one must enter into the darkness, into the night of consciousness and spirit, as into a dark cave.”
Visits, gifts, greeting cards ( now by email) are a good part of the holiday experience. How can we love everyone all at once? I don’t know.
But Luke’s gospel makes visiting a part of the Christmas mystery. Mary goes into the hill country to visit her cousin Elisabeth after she hears the angel’s message. They meet, not just to trade family news and pass the time together, but they share faith.
They’re two believers who reveal to each other the mystery hidden within them in their unborn children. And they rejoice in their common gift.
We gather with others at Christmas time; people of faith, believers in a mystery we do not see. At Christmas, believers meet, believers to a degree.
More than we know, we’re signs to each other, like the bread and wine, sometimes hardly evident. In his commentary today on the gospel of the visitation, St. Ambrose says we’re like Mary and Elizabeth; “Every soul that believes–that soul both conceives and gives birth to the Word of God and recognizes his works.”
We’re reading at Mass in the days before Christmas Luke’s Infancy narrative, chapters 1-2. It begins with the simple statement “In the days of Herod, King of Judea,” but Luke says little about this king. The real news is what happens in a small village north of Judea, Nazareth, where an angel approaches Mary, inviting her to become mother of “the Son of the Most High.”
He’s the real news, not Herod and the politics of the day. Even in the temple in Jerusalem, the priest Zechariah, busy at worship, misses at first the message of an angel. But In Nazareth a woman of great faith immediately accepts what an angel says, though she does not understand it all.
Mary, “full of grace”, says to the angel Gabriel “Be it done to me according to your word”, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
Mary’s faith enables her to see the mystery of God unfold in her Son’s birth, his hidden life, his ministry, his death and resurrection. Her faith prompts her to act. She visits Elizabeth in the hill country to share the mystery announced to her. Faith inspires her to sing a song. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord…The Mighty One has done great things.”
In his infancy narrative Luke writes about faith. His account of the Annunciation offers Mary’s faith to us, a faith that believes without fully seeing, acts generously and spontaneously, and rejoices in the mystery the angel announces.
Beginning his account of the birth of Jesus, Luke will note once again the great figures of the time– Caesar Augustus and the political officials ruling with him. But the real news ( certainly not “fake new”) is what happens in Bethlehem. The shepherds hear it and rejoice, and so should we.
My mother loved to go to wakes and funerals. She would sit in O’Brien’s and Sweeney’s funeral homes in Bayonne, NJ for hours at a wake taking in who came to pay their respects and talking with them.. She told me once she was needed there because she knew all the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and could recite it when the time came. I also remember her complaint when O’Brien’s shortened the hours for visitation.
But the Tree of Jesse reminds me of something else. She had a remarkable memory for relationships and loved to trace peoples’ family connections. She would be at home with Matthew and Luke tracing the ancestry of Jesus in their gospels. She wasn’t a professional genealogist, she plied her gift at wakes and funerals.
I find myself at funerals doing the same thing. Some time ago, I recognized a young man who came from a family friendly with mine from years ago and I told him my mother and father met at his grandmother’s house at a celebration after a baptism–maybe it was his father’s baptism. My mother was washing the dishes.
He was delighted to hear that little story, a connection enlarging his family tree.
The Tree of Jesse, the Christmas Tree, the Family Tree. Connections are important. We need them.