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The Lessons Of Bethlehem

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

As we know, there are two ways we can pray on the great mysteries of our faith, and surely Christ’s birth is a great mystery. We can either reflect on the mystery, think about it, analyze it and discursively meditate on the meaning of what God revealed, where the faculty we mainly use is our minds; or we can, not so much think about, as look at the mystery by what we call “contemplation”, where it is not so much the mind but rather the heart, the sentiments, that are active. One good way, therefore, of contemplating Christ’s birth at Bethlehem is to try to recapture the mood of Bethlehem and ask, “What was this mood, this atmosphere, of Bethlehem?”

It was first of all an atmosphere of faith. Everything about the events that transpired up to Christ’s actual birth; and then His coming into the world, the appearance of the angels, and the shepherds going to see what had been told them; and finally Mary’s reaction—externally and ostensibly there is nothing so much to marvel at. What was Mary’s faith? All she knew from appearances was that she gave birth to a child. To all intents and purposes He was like any other baby. Yet she believed—and let no smart-aleck exegete rob us of the fact that she believed He was her God!

The angels appeared to the shepherds. Undoubtedly the angels appeared to the shepherds because they were the believing kind. God sends His visitation only to believers; you see God does not want to have what He discloses wasted. They believed. And they believed in such a way as to immediately act on their faith. Luke seems to like the verb “hasten.” He spoke of Mary (and the Greek allows us to say “ran”), telling us that “Mary ran” after the Annunciation to her cousin Elizabeth. The same Luke tells us that the shepherds ran, and—I am not quite sure how sheep behave—did they run after the shepherds, or did the shepherds run after the sheep? You may be sure they took their sheep along. What a sight! It was the speed of faith. Once faith learns something, it puts it into action.

And Joseph, shall we say “poor Joseph?” He hardly gets a mention in all of this, yet quietly and strongly he stands behind it all, the man of faith. Believing in Mary, he knew the child that she gave birth to was not his, but he believed.

Bethlehem, then, is first of all the scene of faith—deep, simple, childlike faith. How we need to recapture that spirit! We are the most learned, the most sophisticated, and as a culture the most unhappy nation of which there is record. We know so much, too much. And all of us can be, and some of us are, infected by this virus of indocility that asks God what we should never dare ask Him, “Why?”

Bethlehem was in the mood of poverty; it seems as though the Almighty wanted to externally symbolize the historic humiliation of God’s becoming man. That is what the Incarnation is, God humiliating Himself. The Greek word, which by now all of us have heard and no doubt learned something about, is “kenosis.” No one really knows what it means. All we know is that God somehow—we don’t know how—“emptied” Himself, hiding who He really was and allowing Himself to be seen and considered as a poor helpless creature. Talk about being impoverished! Talk about dispossession!

Bethlehem, then, reflects the divine impoverishment of God. Bethlehem, of all places. But remember, every inch of the ground that Mary and Joseph walked was measured by the Almighty; every step they took had been planned from eternity. It was no chance that, of all places for the Son of God to be born, it should have been a shepherd’s cave. And Luke, to make sure that we don’t miss what he is trying to convey, uses the word “manger” twice in the same second chapter. Just to reassure myself, I checked the verses—verse seven, and again verse thirteen: “And she wrapped the child in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger;” and then, post factum, the angel telling the shepherds, “And you will find the child in a manger.” “Manger” is poetic for “trough.” The Son of God was born in a trough.

And the ones to whom the angels appeared and first gave the message were poor people. How I like this: they were working. Ah, how I like that word! They were working. That’s the sign of poverty. The rich are the leisure class. The poor work. And it especially pleases me to say that they were working at night. Isn’t that wonderful? Working at night. Those are the kind of people that the Almighty chose to first reveal the mystery of His becoming man.

How we in our stuffed, stodgy, affluent society need to remind ourselves that God loves the poor. You might say He loves everyone. That’s right. He loves the poor more! He prefers the poor. Over the centuries, in the apparitions and visitations that the Church has approved, who have been the people to whom these divine disclosures were made? Weren’t they always the poor? So it was and so it is. We pray and beg and ask God to unfold Himself to us, to reveal the meaning of life, our own life, to us; and we shall learn the secrets of God only if we are truly poor in spirit. Wealth blinds; poverty reveals.

But there is one more feature to this atmosphere of Bethlehem, and in a way it is that which sums up all the rest. When the angel spoke to the shepherds, he told them two strange things, strange because they had never been said before. “I bring you, not merely tidings, but good tidings, good news; and not only of joy, but of great joy.” The atmosphere of Bethlehem is and should be the atmosphere of joy. By now, in our materialistic society, we have so many descriptions of what happiness is supposed to be. No doubt we have all seen cards reading, “Happiness is….” Then, you supply the rest: a bank account, a new suit of clothes, having this or enjoying that, a picture of a beach in Hawaii. “Happiness is….”

No it isn’t. Real joy is the possession of God, and not merely having God, but experiencing the fact that we have Him, because as we know, it is possible for us to have something and not realize what we have. And that is why it is so profoundly important to recall what Luke tells us about the shepherds, “who having the great joy announced to them,” we are told, “They understood.” That’s it; they understood what had been told them. Joy is the realization of God’s blessings.

All of us are too often unaware of the blessings we have, and we fail to realize, fail to appreciate God’s presence when we have Him. So we pity ourselves over this, and complain about that, when all the while we have (thank God we have) Jesus, the same God who came in the flesh on Christmas morning. We have Him with us; we have Him by His grace within us; and when we receive Him, we have Him literally as close to ourselves as He was to His mother during the nine months that she carried Him. That’s our faith!

Is it any wonder that Saint Teresa said, “There can be no sad saints?” How can we be dreary or sad, how can we be anything else but cheerful, when we have our Savior so near us, so close to us, and so constantly showing His love for us?

This joy that was promised to the shepherds is also promised to us. There is a great deal of joy in our lives, and we experience that joy in the direct proportion to which we realize whom we have. But God gives us, and we have a right to experience, consolation only in order to strengthen us (even as He strengthened Mary), that by reflecting on all these wonderful things that God has given to us we might be more firm, more courageous, and more constant in carrying the cross. The reason for joy in the spiritual life is to strengthen us for sorrow.

Let us then ask Our Lady, the one who made Bethlehem possible and the one through whom we have received everything that is good in this life and everything we hope for in the life to come, to help us first of all to be stronger and clearer in our faith: “Mary, help us to understand!” Then ask Our Lady not to bear poverty, not to put up with it, but to love it; and above all ask her, whom we invoke as the Cause of Our Joy, to give us something of her experience of God, because it is in this experience alone that life in this valley of tears is livable. It is this experience which is meant to be a foretaste of that eternal Christmas day, which is my definition of heaven.

Transcription of the Homily
by Father John A. Hardon, S.J. to the:
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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