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This is my final contribution to The Criterion’s “Rejoice in the Lord” column. I don’t know about you, but I will miss these weekly opportunities to share with you my reflections on diverse Church teachings as they impact the events of our time. But if there has to be a final column, I’m happy that it is being published just a few days before the wonderful celebration of Christmas.
In this season of joy, we become aware once again that God is closer to us than we dare admit. The immense, all-powerful, all-knowing God who created the universe has become one of us (and one with us) in the incarnation of Jesus, the Word made flesh. God’s most profound intervention in human history—and in the lives of each one of us—shows beyond any doubt how much God cares for us.
The fact that Jesus is born so humbly, in a stable surrounded by his loving family and by social outcasts (shepherds) and domestic animals, is a scandal by any human standard. We are conditioned to look for God among the wealthy and powerful, the “important people” who govern our society, who drive our economy and who control institutions of influence such as the media, our businesses, schools and health care agencies, and, yes, the Church.
But God surprises us. God inverts our values, showing us that the first will be last, the lowly will be raised up, the rich will be sent away empty, and the poor will inherit the Earth and all its treasures.
God’s ways are not our ways. High is low. Rich is poor. Power is service. These are God’s ways, not our ways. Most amazing of all the divine paradoxes is the fact that the all-powerful God comes to us in the absolute vulnerability of a newborn infant, who can do nothing for himself and is completely dependent on the loving care he receives from his mother and his foster father.
Jesus, who is both divine and human, can be held in the arms of his parents, nursed by his mother, and protected from the elements by a mere stable. His life can be threatened by a jealous and cruel despot who slaughters the innocent, and after narrowly escaping and being forced to flee to another country as a homeless refugee, he can return to his native land to “grow in wisdom, age and grace” in a community that nurtures and supports him and his family according to the ancient faith of Israel.
This is a strange story that has become so familiar over the years that we risk losing sight of its power. The Christmas story is so much more than the quiet, domestic tale we have turned it into. Yes, there is plenty of warmth, beauty and hope here. In the dead of winter, when days are short and nights are long, we are right to be comforted by the Christmas story. And in tense and uncertain times such as ours, it is good to be reminded that God does not abandon us or keep us at arm’s length.
But the fact of God’s intimate closeness makes demands on us that are uncomfortable. Do we live the Christmas paradox in our daily lives? What are we doing to care for the poor and homeless? How are we working to transform cultural, political and economic structures that are oppressive and unjust? Do we welcome strangers—especially those who have been cast out of their homeland? Do we insist that the most vulnerable members of our society, including the unborn, the aged and infirm, are protected and cared for in the same way that Mary and Joseph cared for the newborn child entrusted to their care?
Christmas is a season of joy and hope. It’s a time for giving and sharing all that we have ourselves received from God’s abundance. The material gifts that we exchange at Christmas are symbols of the much deeper sharing God invites us to embrace. We are called to follow God’s example, gratefully giving ourselves out of love for God and for the human family.
As I celebrate my last Christmas in central and southern Indiana, I pray for the strength to live the Christmas paradox in my new ministry as Archbishop of Newark, N.J. I am deeply grateful for all that you have shared with me during the past four years. Your love and prayerful support have helped me become a better man and, I hope, a more faithful bishop.
So, with some sadness but even more joy, I wish you, and everyone in our beloved Hoosier state, a Merry Christmas and God’s peace in the New Year! †