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January 3, 2011

Christmas revisited: Looking beyond the pretty pictures to discover what the incarnation has to do with real life's uncomfortable challenges

1. A light for the darknesses of real life.
2. Relating incarnate peace to life's chaos and conflict.
3. Beyond the pretty pictures: Mary, Joseph and the census.
4. Mary's story: uncertainty, dislocation, discomfort and faith.
5. Current quotes to ponder:
a) No room at the inn;
b) Success, Christian-style.
6. The incarnation: God is neither distant nor a stranger.

1. A Light for the Darknesses of Real Life

A number of church leaders in messages for Christmas 2010 took care to situate the incarnation's meaning squarely in the context of the real-life difficulties and challenges people encounter in light of the recession and the many other struggles of daily life.

"Christmas is about a light coming into the darkness of the world," Bishop Declan Lang of Clifton, England, wrote. Thus, he made clear, Christmas is about a great "light," but it is a light that knows full well the reality of "darkness."

"The light is Christ, and he comes into the reality of our lives, not into a pretend world," Bishop Lang said. He described "the real world" as "a place both of joy and sadness, of light and darkness."

Furthermore, the bishop indicated that while "sometimes we are frightened by life and feel overburdened by it," that makes the message of Christmas all the more urgent. Courage, a positive outlook and the ability to value life highly are not necessarily crushed by painful realities, he suggested. Bishop Lang wrote:

"I know a man, a father of a family, for whom this will probably be his last Christmas. Though only in his late 40s he is suffering from cancer of the liver. He and his family are facing up to the reality of the situation.

"I know another family where the teenage son is suffering from a major mental health problem. A talented musician with a bright future, this young man's life suddenly collapsed. He has been unable to speak for a couple of months. Once again this family is facing up to the reality of a changed life for them all."

Bishop Lang said that, "understandably, both families could feel hard done by and regard life as very unfair. They could have a sense of despondence and feel sorry for themselves, but in fact they are facing their problems in a positive and courageous way. They are living life, not just existing. They value life more now that previously."

For the families he mentioned, "life can be dark," the bishop said. These families "seem sometimes to live their lives in the shadows." However, "their faith in God makes a difference."

Bishop Lang described them as families that "can understand the words of the prophet Isaiah, who wrote centuries ago: 'The people who walked in darkness has seen a great light; on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone.'"

2. Relating Incarnate Peace to Life's Chaos and Conflict

"Peace" was the theme of a message for Christmas by Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio, Texas - "a peace that doesn't wipe away all the tears, but instead allows them to cleanse your aching soul." This was his first Christmas as San Antonio's archbishop.

"I know that today people are seeking answers to heal their broken hearts and darkened dreams," the archbishop wrote. His intent was to speak about "a peace that embodies both life's journey and its goal." He warned, though, that while this peace "strengthens you," it "doesn't guarantee all the answers."

The peace Jesus offers "is more than pointless or passive tranquility," Archbishop Garcia-Siller said. Rather, it is "a peace that calls us to action" and in which "we are empowered to love each other, changing hearts, breaking down barriers and building bridges."

The archbishop's personal experience of life in a large family lent perspective to his thoughts about peace. "When there are 15 children in a family, as there were in mine, seeking a peaceful moment or a place of peace might seem an impossible task, especially for my mom and dad. My family is where I first learned what peace really is and where the first seeds of peace were planted in my heart," the archbishop wrote. He said:

"As I look back I realize my parents weren't just seeking a peace of passive silence, for they understood that peace could occur even in the chaos of a crowded kitchen or the conflict that comes from generations rubbing so closely together."

The peace Jesus brought into the world "was more than a technique to turn off the noise. His peace is not one that only heals the moment, it is a peace that heals a life," said the archbishop. He added that "the authentic peace" of Christmas, "as one writer tells us, 'does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. Peace means to be in the midst of all those things and still be calm in your heart.'"

It was not because "there was nothing to be afraid of" that Jesus told people not to be afraid, according to Archbishop Garcia-Siller. What Jesus meant was "that his peace was all we would need not to simply calm the rough waters of life, but that when his peace fills our hearts we can actually navigate through the storm of uncertainty raging around us."

The peace of Christmas does not "wipe away all the tears," but it does "cleanse your aching soul," the archbishop commented. This peace, he said, "guides you through the pain, not avoiding it, but understanding it."

3. Beyond All the Pretty Pictures: Mary, Joseph and the Census

"From all human perspective Jesus could not have been born at a worse time," Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans commented in a Dec. 17 video message for the final week of Advent 2010.

Reflecting on the great discomfort Mary and Joseph must have experienced as they made their way to Bethlehem for a mandatory census at a time when she was about to give birth to Jesus, the archbishop encouraged listeners to reflect on the points of great discomfort in their own lives and the times they, like Mary and Joseph, feel that events are transpiring at the worst of times or in ways that seem tragic.

The customary, beautiful pictures depicting Mary, Joseph and their donkey traveling to Bethlehem do not capture the reality of their experience, Archbishop Aymond proposed. For them, the census could not have come at a worse time, "yet they went." The archbishop suggested that Mary stayed on the donkey and kept moving forward.

And, "from all human perspective, what a tragedy!" Mary and Joseph could not even find a place for Jesus to be born. Yet, the archbishop said, "out of that tragedy and uncomfortableness the Messiah of the world was born."

Everyone has "moments like Mary and Joseph" - "family struggles" perhaps or the battles waged with demons in their personal lives, the archbishop said. There are circumstances in their lives that prompt people to exclaim, "How tragic!" or "None of this is happening at the right time!"

In this, people may resemble Mary and Joseph much more than they have been led to think. And in what may feel like the worst of times for them, they, like Mary and Joseph, find they have to "stay on the donkey and to keep moving," in the archbishop's words.

What can people experiencing real struggles learn from Mary and Joseph? Archbishop Aymond said they can learn "perseverance," realizing that "God is faithful, God never abandons us" and that "in the worst of times God is not only there, but very present to us , and when we can't walk, carrying us."

4. Mary's Story: Uncertainty, Dislocation, Discomfort and Faith

Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., seemed in a Jan. 1 blog entry to be thinking in the same mode as New Orleans Archbishop Aymond about the birth of Jesus and the holy family's uncomfortable struggle at that time. Writing for the feast of the Solemnity of Mary, Bishop Lynch said:

"We celebrate [Mary's] solemnity, which is interesting because the only thing one can reasonably glean from the scriptural references these past few weeks is her 'humility.'"

For Mary, the bishop noted, "the joy of successful childbirth preceded by weeks of uncertainty, physical dislocation and discomfort, and giving birth without the known assistance of a midwife or what she might have had available to her in Nazareth, quickly gives way to more uncertainty, physical dislocation, discomfort and outright fear as she, Jesus and Joseph flee Herod's jealousy."

This story is not one that "would play well on 'Entertainment Tonight' or make the cover and front pages of People magazine," Bishop Lynch commented. He said that "the solemnity is to be found in [Mary's] incredible faith and trust in the Lord, in her religious belief and practice, and in her trust." The bishop added: "How I long to comfortably possess in my own life those foundational elements of a person of true faith."

5. Current Quotes to Ponder

No Room at the Inn: "Some people fear that loving God diminishes our capacity to love our family and friends. Actually, quite the opposite is true. The greater our love for God, the more it will enhance our love for others. Certainly the life of Mother Teresa [of Calcutta] is a clear indication of this. As you explain to your children that 'there was no room at the inn,' teach them to have compassion for the poor, the sick and the suffering. Teach them that we need to share what we have received. When we do that, we are giving gifts to the Christ Child himself. It might also be an opportunity to tell our children that success is not measured in money, but in goodness and love." (From the 2010 Christmas message of Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley)

Success, Christian-style: "Willingness to serve while ready to be disappointed and even hurt is part of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Christmas Day is followed by the feast of St. Stephen, a deacon and the first Christian martyr. As a result of the birth of Jesus, the holy innocents were massacred under the order of King Herod. The wonder and joy of Christmas envelop the helplessness of humanity and also the hope that comes from kindness and compassion." (From the Christmas 2010 message of Bishop Pierre Morissette of Saint-Jerome, Quebec, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops)

6. The Incarnation: God Neither Is Distant Nor a Stranger

The message of Christmas is that "God is not distant" and is not a stranger. God "has a face, the face of Jesus," Pope Benedict XVI said in his traditional Christmas Day "Urbi et Orbi" address to the city of Rome and to the world.

This is a recurring point for this pope, a thought punctuating many of his presentations; God's closeness is virtually a theme of this papacy. God is almighty, transcendent, but near at hand -- and love is the reason for God's nearness.

Earlier, at the Midnight Mass for Christmas, the pope's point was similar: With the incarnation, "the infinite distance between God and man is overcome." The pope explained that "God has not only bent down," but truly has "come down"; God "has become one of us in order to draw all of us to himself."

The reason for God's closeness was underlined by Pope Benedict in his "Urbi et Orbi" message. He said:

"How can the eternal and almighty Word become a frail and mortal man? There is only one answer: love. Those who love desire to share with the beloved, they want to be one with the beloved, and sacred Scripture shows us the great love story of God for his people, which culminated in Jesus Christ."

The mystery of the Word who became flesh "is a mystery of love," the pope said.

Does this imply that God has changed? No, the pope said. "He who created the world is the same one who called Abraham and revealed his name to Moses. God does not change; he is love, ever and always." With the incarnation, "the ordering principle of the universe, the Logos, began to exist in the world, in a certain time and space."

The message of Christmas is understood in faith, yet it also constitutes "a light for all peoples, for the collective journey of humanity," Pope Benedict said in his "Urbi et Orbi" message. The incarnation means that "Emmanuel, God-with-us, has come as king of justice and peace."

God's kingdom "is not of this world, and yet it is more important than all the kingdoms of this world," the pope stated. This kingdom, he said, "is like the leaven of humanity." Lacking this leaven, "the impulse to work together for the common good" would "flag."

Faith in "the God who desired to share in our history constantly encourages us in our own commitment to that history," the pope added. He suggested that the incarnation "is a source of hope for everyone whose dignity is offended and violated, since the one born in Bethlehem came to set every man and woman free from the source of all enslavement."