When the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw the child they repeated what they had been told about him, and everyone who heard it was astonished at what the shepherds had to say. As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds went back glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; it was exactly as they had been told.
Gospel reading – Courtesy of Universalis Publishing Ltd. – www.universalis.com
“God crept in beside us”
by Eunan McDonnell SDB
“Light looked down and saw the darkness.
‘I will go there,’ said light.
Peace looked down and saw war.
‘I will go there,’ said Peace.
Love looked down and saw hatred.
‘I will go there,’ said love.
the Lord of Light,
the Prince of Peace,
the King of Love,
came down and crept in beside us” (John Bell)
This is the wonderful mystery we celebrate today – as John Bell, in the poem I’ve just recited reminds us, the Lord of Light, the Prince of Peace, the King of Love came down and crept in beside us. He crept in beside us. What an entrance! – if you were the all-powerful God – how would you come among your people? Full of glory? Our God chooses the humble path, he chooses to enter our world as a fragile, vulnerable child, an immigrant, born into poverty. There is no fanfare, no fireworks, no Hallelujah Chorus, no turkey dinner – he crept in beside us. He comes unnoticed, unrecognised, without pomp and ceremony. He becomes one of us – one like us – so much so that people reject him when he claims to be the Son of God. Those who lived with him could clearly see that he was human – they could touch him, see him, hear him. Many rejected him: ‘He came among his own and his own received him not’ – there was no room at the inn.
It might come as a surprise to you to know that Christmas is not celebrated everywhere today, the 25th December. When I lived in Ethiopia, Christmas was celebrated on the 6th or 7th January depending on the calendar. Each year as the 25th December would come round I would have an intense nostalgia for home – but it was an ordinary, working day. I never got used to it. However, it did make me think – and I thought to myself, surely this is closer to how the mystery of Christmas actually took place. An ordinary day, an ordinary child – unrecognised and unnoticed except by his own family. So, may be my celebration of Christmas in Ethiopia was closer to the mystery of what actually happened. God crept in beside us.
The mystery of Christmas is not simply something that happened in the past, for God continues to come among his own and is not received, continues to go unrecognised, especially in the poor, and continues to be rejected. When the Son of God becomes flesh and unites himself to our humanity – everything changes. His story and our story become one. Whatever happens to us, happens to him. There is no longer my story and his story. There is only our story.
Jesus was born in history but he lives in us today. How is he present? We have already established that he takes the route of ordinary humanity, humility and poverty. He came in powerlessness and so, he is revealed in situations where people are powerless.
As I reflected on such situations I began to appreciate more deeply his presence.
The drama of Christmas happens every day – when I choose love over hatred; when I don’t hold on to grudges but choose to forgive; when instead of having to be right, I lose the argument so as to choose peace; when I repay with a blessing someone who gossips about me; then, the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Light, the King of Love is born again in our hearts, in our world; once again God has crept in beside us.
May his Peace, his light, his love reign in our hearts – Live Jesus, let Jesus live in us.
by Fr Juan José Bartolomé SDB
Lectio divina on Jn 1, 1-18
Introduction to Lectio Divine
The fourth gospel opens with a hymn. It is a poem inspired by the decision taken by God one day to become man, to get to know man better by knowing him from within. The hymn describes in summary the stages of the “biography” of the Word of God: before, during and with creation, in God. In Jesus of Nazareth, God has become a piece of human history by taking on the body and life of a man. In truth, the Incarnation was nothing other than the historic stage of the existence of the Word. In this stage, the believer was able to see the glory of God and receive the fullness of his grace. God recognises us as his children but this recognition depends on our acceptance of God in his Word. It is significant that this reflection is given in the form of a hymn. Only the poetic language of admiration and gratitude can express the mystery of God’s incarnation.
Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
Instead of ‘narrating’ what happened, today’s gospel ‘contemplates’ the mystery. It does not just speak about the mystery but enters into it. The Incarnation of God is not recorded as something out of sight and over and done with. It is celebrated and accepted in faith as something ongoing. In this hymn, the believer expresses the profound faith which arises from what he or she has heard in the mind and received in the heart. By introducing his gospel with this hymn, the authentic ‘biography’ of the Word Incarnate, John indicates what the fundamental attitude of his readers should be: admiration of an incomprehensible mystery which, however, is understood by those who contemplate it in gratitude.
To suit his gospel account, John modified the original poem by adding some verses of his own. The most obvious addition, easily recognised as such because of its prosaic style, is the description of John the Baptist (1, 6-8.15) who is presented as witness to the Word and therefore subordinate. Less obvious additions are verses 12c-13 which tell how human beings can become children of God (1,12b), and verses 17-18 which speak about the fullness of God’s grace as mentioned in verse 16.
The hymn opens in the absolute beginning, at a threshold without time or distance, reserved to God alone (1, 1-3). The Word existed before all else, and later, everything else exists through the Word. The canticle places the beginning of the story of Jesus in God, before creation, and goes on to contemplate the relationship of the Word with the world of man, the most important part of creation. It was in man and for man that the Word became incarnate (1, 4-5). The work of the Word is placed in a precise historical context (1, 6-8). John the Baptist was not the light but came to bear witness to the light and to the Word. The canticle takes up again the theme of incarnation and mentions acceptance of the Word incarnate on the part of human beings (1, 9-13). In verse 14 the canticle reaches its highest point: the divine Word made flesh, who exists in God, pitched his tent among human beings so that they could see his glory as Son of the Father. There is the express testimony of John the Baptist on his behalf (1,15), and a profession of faith of the community (1,16-18) which affirms the historicity of the manifestation of God in the Incarnate Word, and the saving power that he alone possesses. The summary could not be briefer nor more complete. There are truths that are proclaimed better in prayer than by speculation.
Meditate: apply what the text says to life
To help us understand the mystery of Christmas, the gospel gives us one of the best known, and at the same time, one of the most difficult passages of the whole New Testament. It may seem strange that on a day like this, instead of relating once more the circumstances of the birth of Jesus, the liturgy proclaims an ancient hymn that the early Christians used to express their wonder and praise at the Incarnation. By doing so the Church invites us to concentrate on the essential. It does not want us to get lost in the details of what happened at Bethlehem. In any case, these are already well known, and are now often trivialized by the customs surrounding them in our society. Instead, the Church wants us to realize that there is no better way to approach the mystery of Christmas than by expressing wonder and awe at God who one day, on Christmas Day, decided he could no longer remain God without enjoying the experience of being man in Jesus of Nazareth. God is so interested in us that he could not bear to remain God without becoming a man like us!
From that first Christmas, there is nothing in man that is genuinely human that has not been willed by God, and – even more surprisingly – assumed by God. No human vicissitude is alien to God. God knows our life, not just because he created it from the beginning of time, but because he himself lived our life for a definite period of time. God knows our heart, not just because he once created it, but because he felt it beat in his breast for the whole of his life. God knows our joys and our sorrows because he himself experienced them. God had a home and a family like ours. He had friends and enemies, disciples and opponents, people who showed no interest in him because they thought he was not important, and people who followed him closely because he meant a lot to them. We will never understand the reasons that led God to come so close to us, to become fully human, one of us.
Surprise and gratitude are the only possible response to so great a mystery of love. Thank God, we have a place in our hearts for what our minds cannot comprehend. God has made it hard for us to understand him or to know him well, but he lets us know that we are understood and loved by him. In the human heart, the same heart that he himself had, we can be moved by God-made-man to love him with the same love that he had for us. We can feel close to him. No joy can compare with ours when we celebrate the mystery of Christmas. It is a joy that no one can take from us, because it is given to us by God. We are the envy of all who behold our happiness and joy, not because we are more fortunate than others, but because we are privileged to know that God has become like us.
We know and today we celebrate the fact that God has become man for us, and there are bound to be consequences! We have a duty to proclaim with joy that God has become man. It is not enough to fall in love with a God who once became a child like us. If we fail to recognize that there is something of God in every newborn child, then there is something lacking in our gratitude to God who was born of the Virgin Mary. It is not enough simply to admire a God who had to learn, during infancy and adolescence, to become human like all of us. If we do not accompany the young people around us who are growing up, showing them understanding and helping them to become human in a hostile world, then we fail to appreciate how it must have been for the Son of God to grow through adolescence to human maturity. It is not enough to ask what it is in every human person that has so fascinated God. If we do not recognise the image of God in every human person, we will never be able to recognise the face of God in the face of Jesus.
Celebrating Christmas, then, should make us more human, more sensitive towards all the people of our day who think and feel, who love and suffer. On that first Christmas Day, God was born of Mary and became human. From that day, man can come to God only if he does not turn his back on his fellow human being. From the day that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, every human person has become a way to God. This is the good news we are celebrating, the reason for our feast and the cause of our joy. Since God came to us as the man, Jesus of Nazareth, every human person and everything in the human person is capable of drawing us nearer to God.
It is not enough, however, that God has come to us in Jesus, a man like us. Not all those who met him during his life on earth found God. ”He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” Even today, it is all too easy, unfortunately, far easier than in previous times, to fail to recognise Jesus and to fail to find God. It all depends on whether or not we decide, once and for all, to make room for God in our lives. It will be of little use continuing to celebrate his birth, as so many people do, if we refuse him a place in our lives and in our hearts. His wanting to come to us will be of little benefit if we do not have the will and take the time to find him. If we are believers, our Christmas cannot become just a family feast, even if we celebrate it with great love and affection. If we do not accept him today, his coming will have been in vain.
Now as in the past, receiving God means accepting Jesus. Only those who accept him allow him to give them power to become children of God. If we accept Jesus into our lives, we can live as children of God, and it should not be too difficult to accept a God-man and make him part of our family. By becoming man, God has done his part. He has come to us. Now it is up to us to do our part. We must follow his way. This is our opportunity. And since God, from the moment he became man, speaks our language, the language of human hands and human hearts, it remains for us to become truly human, like Jesus of Nazareth. It should not be difficult for us to make room for the God who was born at Bethlehem, if all it demands of us is to become better human beings. The more human we become, the nearer we draw to the God-man.
This is the lesson God taught us at the first Christmas. Today is Christmas for us, if we want to learn the lesson God has given us. What good will our celebration of Christmas be if it does not draw us nearer to God, so that God can become one of us? All that it requires of us is that we become better persons, more human. Our Christmas joy will lead us to faith only if we take seriously the real reason for Christmas: God invites us to become better human beings, so that he can become God-with-us.
our human nature is the wonderful work of your hands,
made still more wonderful by your work of redemption.
Your Son took to himself our manhood:
grant us a share in the godhead of Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God for ever and ever.