“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). We hear these words usually on Gaudete Sunday where jubilance is in the air, for “the Lord comes forth from His holy dwelling” Zachariah declares! Oh, we want to rejoice with all our hearts! We want to leap like a stag, see with new eyes, hear joyous stories and melodies we have never heard before!
The images of restoration, unity, and peace experienced on God’s holy mountain becomes vivid, we can almost feel it arising from within our hearts; where “mountains are made into a level plain, valleys are raised up and the hills made low, to prepare the way of the Lord.” (Isaiah 40:4) The coming nativity of Christ gives us hope and restores our dreams for blooming deserts and flowering wastelands! He who comes to bring justice to all peoples and nations. He also comes to bring healing, and reconciliation! How awe-inspiring is this beautiful biblical vision in contrast with the “secular” notion that Christmas is no longer Christ-centered, where materialism runs rampant and supercedes the spiritual meaning of Christmas.
Yet, at the same time, we live in a terribly broken world. There is a palpable tension, a rampant dissonance or a disconnection from the vision of these lofty scriptural images. In our troubled world, we are experiencing economic insecurity, increasing violence, water and food shortages, and a volatile climate that threatens human life on earth.
There are monumental polarities within political and religious traditions. Social scientists would say that we are experiencing a “cognitive dissonance.” On the one hand, we are called to be the living, joyful body of Christ. On the other hand, we know this institution of ours, this Church, this very human and broken Church abounds with abuses and scandals. It is inhabited by many bright and gifted as well as weak and vulnerable people. We, like John the Baptist, cry out in the wilderness for a universal cleansing, a deep metanoia of the heart. We cry out for a transformation into what we only see dimly in our democracy and in our religious, cultural and educational institutions.
When John the Baptist asked Jesus – “Are you He who is to come or shall we look for another?” (Matthew11:3) – he, too, experienced doubts about his ministry in the desert. He, too, experienced a polarity of opposites resulting in cognitive dissonance. He preached a coming wrath where “the ax is lying at the root of the tree” (Matthew 3:10), where the Lord himself will arrive and “clear the threshing floor…and the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:12) John preached this fiery message throughout his ministry. Yet, he hears that Jesus is not acting as one who is to be the political messiah who overthrows the Roman government, who establishes once again a Davidic Kingdom where Israel has its own independence, its own autonomy apart from Roman tyranny. Jesus indeed has power but does not exert it to change political regimes. He does not force his power on anyone. He gently invites and asks people to follow him. God comes in human flesh and acts from the power of humility and love, an inward power that has the capacity to change the world from inside out!
During the season of Advent, we heard from Isaiah that though my hands are feeble and my knees weak, I am not to fear, but BE STRONG! (Isaiah 35:3) The surprising news that Jesus brings is, “Here is your God, lift up your voice and do not be afraid.” (Isaiah 40:9-10) See your God precisely in this confusing, paradoxical, dissonant moment in time, who comes unexpectedly in poverty and humility to serve, to touch, to heal and to forgive! Remember Jacob after wrestling with God in the desert said, “God was in this place but I didn’t know it.” (Genesis 28:16)
So, God often reveals himself in the messiness, the dissonance, in the anxiety and chaos, and brings unexpected gifts in their wake. My spiritual director once gave me a copy of a very short poem that an anonymous person dreamed: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” It is entitled, “The Uses of Sorrow.” It is usually after a period of darkness, sorrow and disintegration that I can learn to see, hear and walk again into a whole new life! Healing does that to us. The trials we endure are as natural as fire that purifies gold, resulting in a faith that is precious and true. (I Peter 1:7)
When we ponder the meaning of Christmas, where Divinity mixes in with our humanity, it means that we are changed forever. It means that God also changes into our humanity and becomes “Emmanuel,” God with us, taking on our human likeness with its inherent trials and joys. The Incarnation of Christ means that God experiences life from within a human body, emptying God-self of heavenly glory all the way down to the agony of the wood of the cross.
Christ once dead, now risen, fills everything with God-self and takes it into God-self, so much so that St. Paul writes: “God is all in all.” (I Cor.15:28) This wonderful paradox of the unity of humanity with Divinity reveals a love so great, so powerful, and so effusive that everything and everyone is holy already! Francis of Assisi glimpsed this reality so strongly that the story of him creating a creche scene to re-enact the birth of the Word made flesh in the town of Greccio is famous.
Speaking of dissonance, confusion and chaos, was Jesus born into a neat, sanitized, perfectly ordered castle because He is the Son of God? Did he wear fashionable clothes or ride a BMW donkey or camel? No, he was born in a chaotic set of circumstances with smelly animals who witnessed his birth in a poverty-stricken cave, where no one would desire to stay. In this way, God desired to dwell among us in human flesh, formed by a humble semitic family, who learned the religious culture of Judaism, trained under Joseph’s watchful eye, and tended carefully by a loving protective mother of purest grace.
The seasons of Advent and Christmas elicits for me awe and wonder. Zechariah writes “Silence, all humankind, in the presence of the Lord. For he stirs from his Holy Dwelling.” How does God come? The Gospels tell the familiar and beautiful story of our Mother Mary. Taken by surprise, she is visited by Gabriel and he immediately announces that she is “full of grace.” She possesses great holiness already. Then Gabriel tells her not to be afraid, for she was to become the mother of the Savior of the world, the mother of the Son of God, and the Theotokos, the beautiful God-bearer.
This same Mother, rooted in earth, now enthroned in Heaven, continues in her ministry with her Son, Jesus, the Christ. We celebrated her appearance to Juan Diego in 1531, a simple humble man. She did not choose someone of status or nobility. Juan said to her “I am a nobody, a nothing like a pile of sticks.” Mary was a “nobody,” too, in her 1st century world and she could identify with Juan and with so many of the Mexican people. She remembered that God chose her from among all women, in her lowliness and so she decided to do the same for Juan Diego and gave him a mission that only he could fulfill.
Mary’s message to Juan is so appropriate and timely for all of us today, who celebrate the promises of Christmas yet once more, for there is so much that frightens and afflicts us; climate change, economic instability, the threat and possibility of thermo-nuclear war, to name a few. She said, “Listen, put it into your heart my child, that the things that frighten you, the things that afflict you are Nothing. Do not let them disturb you. Let not your heart be frightened. Do not fear sickness nor anguish. Are you not under my protection? Am I not your mother?” Our Lady of Guadalupe is the mother of the indigenous, the ostracized, the migrant, the refugee, and the poor. Since these brothers and sisters are the ones that Jesus served, as did our father Francis and the early brothers, our new Province will be named precisely to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe; for Mary, our Mother and Queen of the Franciscan Order, knows how to stand with the poor.
Mary in her many apparitions, particularly Fatima and Lourdes, has asked her children to follow the Gospel way, essentially to love each person – the immigrant, those with challenging disabilities, the poor, widow, orphaned, unemployed, homeless, incarcerated, those who are judged “differently” with faces and hearts reflecting stories of pain, joy and hope…and all those who cross our path in our daily life routines. These are the stories of the poor and destitute that Jesus paid preferential attention to in his public ministry. He embraced them with his whole being and so we strive to follow in his footsteps, as did our Mother Mary, the apostles, and disciples of every age.
He desires us, his disciples now and of every time and place, to do the same, so much so that in the words of Pope Francis, we will “smell like the sheep.” Pope Francis exhorts all of Jesus’ followers today to follow the Gospel in new and creative ways.
The Christ who arrives anew at Christmas gives us new dreams, new roads to travel, new contemplative fraternities in mission, and new ministries that will help the new U.S. OFM Guadalupe Province to further realize the holy work of an Incarnation that heals and saves all and is, in the words of St. Augustine, “ever ancient, ever new.”
May every person in every nation discover fulfillment in their own incarnation, in the ancient prophecies of new hope and new life, lovingly lived by the Word made flesh and joyfully declare in unity: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4)