In my 15 years being a Catholic priest, there have been numerous occasions when I have been asked to visit a new born baby and the mother in the hospital. Each time when I visit, I cannot help but notice the joy on the face of the mother (no matter how long she had been in labour) and also the father especially if it is their first born. The joy does not only remain with the new parents but it is somewhat shared with all the other members of the family and those who visit. This is expressed when you hear statements like “Oh the baby is so cute” or “Wow the baby looks just like you.” What fills the hearts and minds are not the memory of morning sickness, the cravings, the mood swings…not even the pain of surgery or labour. All that seems like a distant past and what fills the heart now is pure joy, and maybe a sense of relief.
We gather in Churches with a similar sense of joy. There is no memory of the hardships that Mary and Joseph had undergone… no remembrance of the pain of rejection & humiliation that the parents of Jesus had experienced prior to His birth. All that fills our heart is the sense of joy that Jesus has been born. This joy is expressed in the way we are dressed tonight, the fact that we stay up so late to celebrate the Eucharist on Christmas eve and (for some) the thought that when we go home there are presents waiting under the tree… all these bear witness that our hearts are filled with joy!
In the midst of this joy, there is a question that we need to reflect on – a question that we hardly ask in our lived experience especially when a child is born. Why was this child born? Why did God choose this way to enter into human history when He did not have to? He could have entered in a glorious way…..He is God after all! It was a way that no one expected even though the prophecies of the Old Testament did give some hint of a child who would liberate the people. But they must have thought that those “hints” would refer to some great prophet like Moses, Elijah or Isaiah.
This is a question that has been theologically discussed and debated over centuries. But today I would like to reflect it from a perspective that can help us appreciate and celebrate the birth of Jesus in a more meaningful and practical way and not to take you on an intellectual ride… that we shall leave for another day since most of us are here to celebrate Jesus and not have an intellectual discourse. I would like to offer three (3) points for our reflection:
(1) God chooses to enter into human history so that He can be part of our human existence and experience. In the Old Testament, there are many references to indicate that God “lived” in a distant place. That place is so sacred that often the public did not have access to it…. Only those who are chosen may enter. The Incarnation of Jesus seems to break that idea that God is not accessible to all. During His days of public ministry, Jesus made Himself available to all especially to those who thought that God had distanced Himself from them because of their way of life…the tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, sick, poor, etc. God wanted to communicate with His people that He is neither far off nor inaccessible. He is the Emmanuel – God with us!
(2) God sends His only Son into the world so that we could learn from Jesus what it means to be a disciple. In the Old Testament, it was all about obeying laws. The centrality of the Old Testament was based on the covenant and the 10 commandments became the code of life. That is why Jesus took on disciples so that He could instruct them and show them what it means to be a disciple. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus clearly states that He has not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. In other words, Jesus came to show how to live the 10 commandments and not just obey it in a scrupulous way and miss the point of being transformed by it. There were many occasions where Jesus was angry with the religious teachers of His time because they were so strict in observing the laws that they had lost sight of the spirit of the law. That is also another reason why the religious leaders were angry with Jesus when He did something that the spirit of the law allows.
(3) Finally, God sends Jesus into the world to show how much He loves us. In John 3:16, it is clearly stated that “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son into the world…” This is probably the clearest indication that we have in the Bible of God’s intention to be incarnated. Love is not an abstract concept…. love is a verb (action word) which means it has to be shown in concrete actions. Love is something that you cannot just talk about. We can say to someone “I love you” a million times but not substantiate it with concrete actions, the words mean nothing. God had to show His love in concrete action and there is no other way than for Him to come down and live amongst us and show in a human way how much He loves us so that our human mind can comprehend what it means when we say God is love.
What does this all mean to our celebration? In fact, it actually adds to the joy of our celebration. Firstly, we are assured that God is with us. He lives right in our midst…it is we who often fail to recognise Him maybe because we are engrossed with life that we forget that 2000 years ago Jesus came to live amongst us and did not leave us. Secondly, by showing us how to live as a disciple, He took away the fear of obedience and replaced it with the joy of following…. God is not to be feared but He is to be loved. And thirdly, God loves us unconditionally and He shows this by allowing Jesus to die on the cross. No matter what “defects” or “imperfections” we carry in us… nothing can separate us from the love of God (cf. Romans 8:39).
What we celebrate is not just an event of the past…. not just remembering a birthday. What we are celebrating is a life changing event – an event that has brought us access to God, direction in life, and the consolation of knowing that no matter what, God loves you.
If God has taken the first initiative (made the first move) then there must be a response. It’s similar to Newton’s 3rd law of motion: for every action, there is a reaction. So if God has made the primary move, then we must surely reciprocate the action. What can I do?
(1) Just as God made us all in His image and likeness, Jesus is the perfection of that image. In other words, the image and likeness that we carry in us (despite our imperfections) manifests that God dwells in each one of us. And if God dwells in us, then we need to RESPECT one another as being created by the one and same God. Whether one is a saint or sinner, the dignity of being made in the image and likeness of God that we carry in ourselves compels us to learn how to respect and appreciate one another…..and not just to tolerate.
(2) Through the disciples, we have come to know Jesus and what is required of us. The requirement is not motivated by fear but rather calls for a loving RESPONSE and following of Christ. In the old way it would have been based on obligations, but the incarnation is about conviction. I love God not because I fear him but because I love him with all my heart, my soul, and my mind (cf. Matthew 22:37).
(3) Love is what Jesus came to make flesh. By his thoughts, words, and action, Jesus was overflowing with love. I cannot say I love God or that I have faith in God and yet choose not to take an active part in the life of the Church (cf. James 2:14). Faith and love are not self-serving entities. They can only be seen in the context of a RELATIONSHIP…with God and one another.
To sum it all, for Christmas to become truly incarnated, we need to learn to respect, respond, and relate…not just with God but in a concrete way with our fellow beings. It is only then can we truly say… and the Word becomes flesh and He is dwelling amongst us!
– The Nativity of the Lord, 25 December 2012