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December 21, 2014

Understanding Christmas in troublesome times -
The Holy Land this Christmas -
Contrasting Christmas light with the dark siege in Sydney -
A story of Joseph

In this edition:
1. Christmas light and the Sydney siege.
2. Difficult questions after Sydney siege.
3. What Christmas and Hanukkah share.
4. Current quotes for Christmas:
a) Hearing as the shepherds heard.
b) The Holy Land at Christmas.
5. How to understand Christmas.
6. A story of Joseph.
7. The call of Christmas.

1. Christmas Light in a Mixed-up World

"Hell has touched us," Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia, exclaimed Dec. 16 after a 16-hour siege of a Sydney cafe conducted by a lone gunman left the gunman and two hostages dead. Four more of the gunman's 17 hostages were injured.

"We went to bed hoping to wake to good news," Archbishop Fisher said in a homily during a Mass for the siege victims. "But despite patient efforts to maintain calm and negotiate, there were in the early hours of this morning flashes of gunfire, intervention by our police to save lives, merciful escapes, but finally death."

The Sydney gunman claimed to be a Muslim cleric, but officials did not know initially of any connections he might have had with Islamic extremists. He had a history of trouble with the law.

With Christmas just "around the corner," the archbishop noted that Sydney's cathedral already "had a Christmas crib with well-lit Christmas trees and a very beautiful laser light show projected upon the façade of the cathedral every night. But in history the light of Christmas always stood in contrast with a measure of darkness, he suggested.

He remarked that the Lord "comes to people who often lose their way, to a civilization sometimes more comfortable with lies than truth." Christ, he recalled, was "threatened from the moment of his birth" until this world's violence finally caught "up with him on the cross."

Today, the world "is every bit as mixed up as it was at the first Christmas," said the archbishop. He continued:

"There's plenty of talk of human rights, the dignity of the person, equal respect and care. We are replete with resources, technology and know-how to help people through troubled times. Yet innocent people are threatened the world over, and a little bit of what is commonplace in the region of Christ's birth has even come to Martin Place [in Sydney]. Christmas, we think, is supposed to be different -- but in a sense it was always like this."

2. Difficult Questions After the Sydney Siege

Archbishop Fisher called attention in his homily to the effects that a siege like the one in his city could have on people. "We are not used to hearing words like 'siege,' 'terrorist,' 'hostages' and 'security forces' associated with our city." In fact, the archbishop said, "we are used to living in a peaceful, tolerant, secure society in which people may enter a cafe and order a hot chocolate without fear."

When "such ease of living" and "such assumptions of safety" are "radically challenged," the result "can be disorienting and harden our hearts," he feared. "The risk," he said, "is that we become cautious, cynical, suspicious of our neighbors or, worse, that we turn on them," thus undermining a way of life that people love.

Archbishop Fisher challenged his hearers to ask: "Is the joy, love and peace of Christmas really possible? Or do we have to adopt a more 'realistic' posture, more cynical and self-protective? Do we have to buy into the endless cycles of violence and recrimination? Do we have to take our own hostages?"

Responding to these questions, he observed that "the Christ-child proposes peace" and "gives us the wherewithal to be reconciled and live peaceably with our neighbors." However, he added, "in the end we choose whether to live in his kingdom, by his values."

As the archbishop spoke, he noted that spontaneous tributes were appearing at the site of the siege and on the Internet. "Leaders of all religious, political and ethnic backgrounds are calling for calm, for prayer, for support for each other."

In the end, he insisted, "the darkness need not overcome the light. Indeed, the Christmas-Easter-Christian message is: It cannot! There is something greater than hatred and violence."

3. Christmas and Hanukkah in a Troubled World

The nearly overlapping days of Christmas and Hanukkah this December drew remarks from Basilian Father Thomas Rosica on the season's shared call to Christians and Jews. Father Rosica heads the Toronto-based Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation. He said in a reflection posted to the foundation's blog that both Christmas and Hanukkah "invite Christians and Jews to ask the deeper questions: How do we continue to long for the salvation that the Messiah will bring?"

Christians and Jews share a "common longing for the fruits of the Messianic kingdom," Father Rosica pointed out. This "invites us, Christians and Jews, to a knowledge of our communion and friendship with one another, and a recognition of the terrible brokenness of the world."

A question continues to arise today both for Christians and Jews, he said. "Why is there still so much sin and suffering and turmoil in the world? Why so much terror, hatred, violence and war, much of it in the name of God?"

Reflecting on the bond linking Christians and Jews at this time of year, Father Rosica made clear that their mission to renew the world remains to be fulfilled. He recounted a story he heard years ago when he was a student at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, saying:

"I heard a story about a certain Rabbi Menahem. When the old sage lived in Israel, a wild man climbed a high mountain, unnoticed, and from the top of the mountain began to blow a trumpet over the city below. There was a great deal of excitement among the people, and a rumor quickly spread: The trumpet is announcing our liberation! When the rumor came to the ears of Rabbi Menahem, he looked at the world outside his window and said gruffly, 'What I see is no renewal.'"

Jesus preached "the daring vision of Israel's God of compassion, mercy, justice and righteousness, a kingdom that involved reforming lives, adhering to the law of love, alleviating the pain and suffering of others, building community, worshiping God in Spirit and truth," Father Rosica observed. But, he added, "there is still much work to be done to realize God's daring vision."

Father Rosica asked, "Where do we begin?" He responded:

"We start by working together as Christians and Jews to protect the most important human values, which are threatened by a world in continual transformation. Christians and Jews have a special affinity for life and must do everything in our power to uphold the dignity of human life, from conception to natural death. We must promote the dignity of the human person.

"At the core of Christian and Jewish life is the sacredness and centrality of the family. Christians and Jews must be known for our efforts in the areas of social justice, peace and freedom for all human beings."

He noted that "the Jewish Kaddish and the Christian Our Father express a common hope: 'Thy kingdom come!'" And he said, "We must utter this prayer more loudly and clearly in these days of darkness for so many in the world, especially for the people of Syria, the Holy Lands of the Middle East that are still struggling for God's justice and peace, and for all those suffering in war, poverty, famine, injustice."

The world's healing -- "its repair, restoration and redemption, including the redemption of Israel -- depends upon us, together," Father Rosica said.

4. Current Quotes for Christmas

Hearing as the Shepherds Heard: "God's words are like electric wires. If current passes through them, if touched, one gets a shock; if no current passes or if one has isolating gloves on, they can be managed as much as one wishes; they do not give a shock. The power and light of the Spirit is always acting, but it depends on us to receive it through faith, desire and prayer. What force, what novelty those words contained: 'Peace on earth among men with whom he is pleased,' when they were pronounced for the first time! We must remake for ourselves a virgin ear, the ear of the shepherds who heard for the first time and 'without delay' went on the road." (From the third Advent homily, given Dec. 20, 2014, to the pope and his aides by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household)

The Holy Land at Christmas: "Some of 'the worst of times' over the [past] year were seen in an intensification of violence and subsequent hostile reactions -- the devastating war and accompanying bloodshed in Gaza being the most shattering of all. In the past six years, Gaza has suffered three consecutive wars, thousands of people have been killed, hundreds of thousands are wounded and an aftermath of destruction and despair [follows]. Great are the responsibilities of political leaders - Israeli and Palestinian -- to find and facilitate a solution. Great too is the responsibility of the international community to help these two parties to help themselves. We condemn the Gaza war and deplore its dramatic consequences: killing and destruction. But at the same time we condemn any category of violence and retaliation against innocent people such as the killing of people praying in a synagogue and attacks against mosques." (From the statement for Christmas by Patriarch Fouad Twal of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem)

5. What Is Needed to Understand Christmas

"We will never understand Christmas, we'll never understand the mystery of the incarnation of the Word, never," if we fail to recognize that "salvation is always in history," and there "is no salvation without history." Pope Francis made this point forcefully in a pre-Christmas homily Dec. 18 during a celebration of the Mass at his residence in the Domus Sanctae Martae.

What needs to be grasped, he suggested, is that God always walks with his people in history. Christmas reveals that "the Lord still is saving us in history and walking with his people."

As history unfolds for us, he noted, "there are a few bad moments." There are "bad times, dark times, troublesome times" that bring problems. This is not surprising, since the salvation God wants for people "is not an aseptic, manufactured salvation," but "historical."

In general, God's chosen ones went through "dark, painful, bad times," Pope Francis said, though "in the end the Lord comes." The pope added that "when we make mistakes, God corrects history and leads us onward, onward, always walking with us."

In salvation history, said the pope, there are those like Abraham, Moses and Joseph, to whom Mary was betrothed, whose history unfolds in what are difficult, troublesome times for them when they take a "problem upon their shoulders, without understanding."

Mary did not understand what her future held when she uttered her yes to God, the pope said in remarks for the Angelus prayer Dec. 21. She did not know what pains or risks she would have to face. Her faith was to trust God completely and to place herself at the disposal of God's mercy.

In our own life, Pope Francis commented in his Dec. 18 homily, "the Lord bothers us in order to make history. So many times he makes us go on the path that we don't want."

He then told the story that appears below - the story of Joseph, Mary's betrothed, and how history unfolded for him at a difficult, troublesome moment.

6. The Story of Joseph

Pope Francis noted in his homily Dec. 18 at the Domus Sanctae Marthae how history unfolded for St. Joseph when he discovered that Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant; he thought this must be another man's child. The Gospel reading for the Mass that day was from Matthew's Gospel, telling "how the birth of Jesus Christ came about."

The reading says that when Jesus' mother "was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her."

Pope Francis remarked that the main character of this biblical reading is Joseph. "He really loves his bride-to-be, and she goes to help her cousin. And when she comes back the first signs of pregnancy can be seen."

Joseph suffers, the pope said, as he sees the village women "gossiping at the market." In his suffering, he says to himself: "This woman is good, I know her! She is a woman of God. What has she done to me? It isn't possible! But I have to accuse her, and she will be stoned. They will say all sorts of things about her. But I can't lay this weight on her, about something I don't understand, because she isn't capable of infidelity."

Therefore, the pope continued, Joseph decides to "take the problem upon his shoulders and leave." Joseph thought that if he left "the gossipmongers at the market" would say, "Look, he left her with child, and then ran away so he wouldn't have to take responsibility." Joseph preferred "to look like a sinner, like a bad man, in order to avoid casting a shadow on his betrothed, whom he really loves," even though "he doesn't understand."

Pope Francis noted in this story of Joseph that in the end he took his bride with him, saying, "I don't understand a thing, but the Lord told me this, and this one is going to appear as my son!"

7. The Call of Christmas

This year's Nativity scene and 82-foot high Christmas tree in St. Peter's Square in Rome evoked some observations by Pope Francis on the meaning of Christmas, which he appeared to view as a mandate or call for Christians. "The creche and the tree . . . speak of fraternity, intimacy and friendship, calling to people of our time to rediscover the beauty of simplicity, sharing and solidarity," the pope commented Dec. 19, the day of the tree's lighting.

Since the Messiah, by becoming man, brought "divine light to humanity," the call of Christmas is a call "to reflect light and warmth on those who go through moments of difficulty and inner darkness," the pope stressed.

The "festive symbols" of Christmas, like the tree and the crèche, recall the mystery of the incarnation, he said. "They are an invitation to unity, harmony and peace; an invitation to make room in our personal and social life for God, who does not come with arrogance, imposing his power, but instead offers his omnipotent love through the fragile figure of a child."