“When Mary and Joseph had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”
My Dear Friends in Christ,
“Family” is one of those words that usually elicit a strong reaction, either positive or negative. If you had a family like mine, it’s usually positive. For many, the positive reaction comes only when one thinks of a family of choice, rather than of blood.
Certainly, we were not (are not) perfect but being a Jaskot, a member of my particular family has been a true blessing of my life. Indeed each member, all members, of my family have been a blessing. Most by their coming into my life and by their presence and some… well… you get the picture. It’s not easy to get us all together, especially this year, but I still love to sit around the kitchen table to hear and tell stories of days gone by, of funny things that happened, remembered often very differently by each person involved. My extended family (my Dad was one of six and my mom was one of four) have also been a blessing and sometimes offers the reference point for dating events and activities. When asked about the date of anything in the family, my Mom would invariably start the process (as scientifically accurate as carbon dating!) with a reference to her Uncle Tom…”Well, let’s see…Tom died in ’79, so…)
These memories point to an important truth that we celebrate on this great feast. We use the theological term, Incarnation, to reference the coming of God as human. God emptied everything that was Divine and took on our humanity with all of the limits and lacks and need. The omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God became a little baby who did not know how to feed himself, could not change his own diaper, and was limited to once place at once. God took such a drastic step out of love for us. Pope Benedict put it beautifully in his 2006 Christmas homily:
We have just heard in the Gospel the message given by the angels to the shepherds during that Holy Night, a message which the Church now proclaims to us: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:11-12). Nothing miraculous, nothing extraordinary, nothing magnificent is given to the shepherds as a sign. All they will see is a child wrapped in swaddling clothes, one who, like all children, needs a mother’s care; a child born in a stable, who therefore lies not in a cradle but in a manger. God ’s sign is the baby in need of help and in poverty. Only in their hearts will the shepherds be able to see that this baby fulfils the promise of the prophet Isaiah, which we heard in the first reading: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder” (Is 9:5). Exactly the same sign has been given to us. We, too, are invited by the angel of God, through the message of the Gospel, to set out in our hearts to see the child lying in the manger. God’s sign is simplicity. God’s sign is the baby. God’s sign is that he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendor. He comes as a baby – defenseless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with his strength. He takes away our fear of his greatness. He asks for our love: so he makes himself a child. He wants nothing other from us than our love, through which we spontaneously learn to enter into his feelings, his thoughts and his will – we learn to live with him and to practice with him that humility of renunciation that belongs to the very essence of love. God made himself small so that we could understand him, welcome him, and love him. The Fathers of the Church, in their Greek translation of the Old Testament, found a passage from the prophet Isaiah that Paul also quotes in order to show how God’s new ways had already been foretold in the Old Testament. There we read: “God made his Word short, he abbreviated it” (Is 10:23; Rom 9:28). The Fathers interpreted this in two ways. The Son himself is the Word, the Logos; the eternal Word became small – small enough to fit into a manger. He became a child, so that the Word could be grasped by us. In this way God teaches us to love the little ones. In this way he teaches us to love the weak. In this way he teaches us respect for children. The child of Bethlehem directs our gaze towards all children who suffer and are abused in the world, the born and the unborn. Towards children who are placed as soldiers in a violent world; towards children who have to beg; towards children who suffer deprivation and hunger; towards children who are unloved. In all of these it is the Child of Bethlehem who is crying out to us; it is the God who has become small who appeals to us. Let us pray this night that the brightness of God’s love may enfold all these children. Let us ask God to help us do our part so that the dignity of children may be respected. May they all experience the light of love, which mankind needs so much more than the material necessities of life.
Pope Benedict XVI
December 24, 2006 Christmas Midnight Mass
Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Rome
God’s littleness is our humanity, and, in Jesus, God takes on our needs. One of the most profound needs we have is that of a family. The essential nature of the family comes not only in the physical provision for a child of food and shelter although these are necessary. The essence of family comes in what we hear at the end our Gospel today: the child grew and became strong filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. The essence of family comes in the provision of space (literal and figurative) where a child can grow, become strong, be filled with wisdom, and, last but not least, come to know and share the favor of God.
Let’s take them in order. For me, growth represents the physical aspect of human growth. Yes, the basics of food and shelter but also other aspects that accompany human growth: touch and human contact, safety, security, nutrition, stimulation, education, challenge. All of these allow a child to grow in body and mind. All are
necessary to a healthy adult. Secondly, “become strong” speaks to me of a moral character born of an awareness of one’s identity, a child who is comfortable in his or her own skin, who has learned to respect others because he or she has been loved and cherished. To become strong is not physical might, but a strength of character that looks for the good in all people, beginning with the self. To be “filled with wisdom” is to know and understand a bigger picture, God’s picture, a picture that includes all other people, that excludes no one and certainly not on the basis of human distinction, to seek out and to find God’s plan for one’s life, rather than one’s own.
And last, because it creates the primary identity and undergirds all of the other essential characteristics of family, is the favor of God. Family provides an opportunity for a child to know his or her primary identity as a child of God, known, beloved, cherished, and delighted in by God. The favor of God is God’s love for us and we come to know it most often first and foremost in our parents. Jesus learned who God our Father is by spending time with Joseph, not only learning a craft but the safety and security that comes from one who provides. Jesus learned who God our Mother is when he saw Mary, not only learning how and what to eat but the identity and resolve that comes from one who is cared for. Jesus learned a gentle, munificent, magnificent God from Mary and Joseph, a God who knew Him and cared for him and provided for him and delighted in him. This is the favor of God and the love of God that Jesus came to bring and calls us to share in service and sacrifice.
The good family, the holy family does all of this, even in poverty, even in struggle. And, yes, it takes a whole village to help good parents, holy parents. Elders like Simeon and Anna, relatives like Zechariah and Elizabeth, teachers like those teaching Jesus in the temple, friends like the family of the couple that got married in Cana. And it does not always come in our blood families. Sometimes it is a given family such as a parish or workplace. Other times it has to come from a family of choice. Families come in all shapes and sizes with a whole host of combinations. But in their essence, they allow a child to grow, become strong, be filled with wisdom and know and share the favor of God.
Pray for those who are working to create such families as I pray for all of our families, of blood and of choice. I also ask you, especially today and during this Christmas season to pray for all children who are not blessed with a family like this, who have to struggle on their own, who do not know they are loved, or worse yet, are in fact ignored or discarded. Pray for any child struggling to come to appreciate who God created him or her to be. And know of my prayers for you.