The birth of any child is a cause of celebration in any family. (Well, it should be a cause for celebration and joy. The realities of our culture of death have so hardened the hearts of some that the birth of a child is considered to a cause of inconvenience and economic hardship.) A newborn child is a wonder to behold. He comes out of his mother's womb after a period of nine months of development (in most cases). He has his own distinctive features and his own unique personality. He has his own immortal soul, made in the image and likeness of the Triune God. His innocence and his purity remind us of the infinite perfection of God Himself. And the newborn child reminds us that we were once newborns who were totally dependent upon our parents for our sustenance and very survival.
The birth of a child changes a family forever. Even if a child dies a short time after his birth, the child has lived. His life, no matter how short, makes an impact upon the family into which he was born and died. The soul of a baptized infant goes straight to Heaven if such an infant dies in infancy. He is a saint upon whom his family members can rely to help them in their spiritual and temporal needs. Yes, the life of every child changes a family, even in the case of those children who do not live very long after birth.
Most children, thank God, live long lives after birth. They grow physically by leaps and bounds. Their physical needs require attention from their parents. Their spiritual needs require attention from their parents and from their Godparents. A husband and wife can never live as they had before the birth of their first child. Upon their own immortal souls rest the responsibility for the spiritual formation of the child begotten as the fruit of their own conjugal love. Their time can no longer be for themselves. The child conceived as the fruit of their mutual love requires them to center their lives around their responsibility as parents, a responsibility that they have until the day they die. Parents remain parents no matter how old they get, no matter how independent and successful their children became as they grow into adulthood themselves. Parents always have the responsibility to provide sound spiritual advice to their children, to pray constantly for the salvation of their immortal souls. A parent can never live as a carefree single person after the birth of his child. Even a parent who finds himself with the task of raising children on his own is not truly "single." His very identity is defined by his parenthood.
Not every person is called to be a parent. Some people do not have the temperament to provide the patience and selflessness required of a parent, who must do without sleep and many other conveniences in the early years of a child's life. Those people are called to remain in the single state, where they can serve God in other ways, trying to beget souls for Christ and His true Church by means of the work they take unto themselves as befits their particular vocation. But not even a single person is truly "free." Our Lord expects such people to devote the time that would otherwise be devoted to the care of a spouse and a family to prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Indeed, a single person may be able to help married couples and their children mystically by their attentiveness to prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, providing spiritually for the needs of those whose responsibilities make it difficult to attend Daily Mass, no less get out as a family for a regular period of Adoration.
Yet others, obviously, have forsaken parenthood altogether in order to be the spiritual father of souls as priests. A priest takes upon himself voluntarily the celibacy of each member of the Holy Family. He makes himself available to all those entrusted to his pastoral care, espousing himself to Christ's Mystical Bride, the Church. He is meant to be spiritually fruitful in begetting souls for Christ and His true Church, especially by his fidelity to the reverent and devout administration of the sacraments. For it is a priest who makes possible the nourishment of souls in the Eucharist. It is a priest who brings souls to birth in the baptismal font. It is a priest who brings souls back from the dead in the Sacrament of Penance. It is a priest who administers extreme unction to those who are about to pass physically from this life to the point of their own Particular Judgment. His very priesthood is meant to be fruitful, although a different sort of fruitfulness than that which is the essence of the married life.
The Child Who Shapes All Lives
Saint Joseph is the Patron of the Universal Church. He is also the patron of fathers. He embraced voluntary celibacy in order to permit his own life to be shaped around the birth of a Child he did not father. He did this because of his love for God. Although a sinner who was not immaculately conceived, Saint Joseph was a just man who sought to please God. His love for Our Lady was quite real and very profound. However, he loved God more than he loved our Lady. And it was because of his love for God that he was willing to take our Lady as the spouse whose virginity he would never violate. He was willing to change his life forever in order to be the foster-father of the Child conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. His selflessness and patience equipped him with the tools to forsake self-interest in the service of his chaste spouse and foster-Child.
When you think about it, our Lord could have redeemed us in any way He wanted. He could have come in a clap of thunder, which is pretty much how the Jews of His day expected the Messiah would manifest himself. However, our Lord chose to be conceived in the virginal and immaculate womb of a humble girl from Nazareth, a town held in such disrepute that it was wondered aloud whether anything good could come out of there. He also chose to be known as the son of a carpenter, choosing to take an earthly father unto himself. He did this to demonstrate the importance of the family-and the fact that there is a natural hierarchy which exists in the family, just as there is a hierarchy which exists in the Church herself. For just as our Lord submitted Himself in humility to the authority of His own creatures in Nazareth, He wants us to submit ourselves in humility to the authority of our spiritual father, the Vicar of Christ, on matters of faith and morals (and on matters of fundamental justice). Just as Saint Joseph was willing to change his life to fulfill God's will for him, so must we be willing to change our lives to demonstrate the degree to which we recognize that the Child entrusted to Saint Joseph's fatherly care is meant to permeate every aspect of our own lives.
The birth of our Lord as a newborn babe in Bethlehem took place in a relatively normal manner, save for the fact that our Lady, having been conceived without stain of sin, delivered her first-born painlessly. His conception and birth changed the lives of His Blessed Mother and His foster-father forever. Unlike the birth of any other child, however, the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in Nazareth has changed the life of every person forever. The Incarnation and Nativity of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity as a Man has divided time itself. The simple, declarative statements by our Lord during His Public Ministry are either true or false. If they are true, if He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, then He is the One around Whom we must organize our lives.
The birth of the Christ-child in the stable in the cradle in the cave was no ordinary birth. Angels announced the news to shepherds, who made their way in haste to the cave to see for themselves what had been announced to them. How ironic that shepherds were chosen to hear this news, as our Lord would use the imagery of the shepherd and his flock to teach us that we are the sheep who must listen to His voice and follow Him, the Good Shepherd, through the Sheepfold which is the Church. The homage paid by the rugged shepherds to the newborn Child in Nazareth was symbolic of the fact that those who become shepherds of souls (bishops and priests) must pay homage at all time to the One Who entrusts them with the feeding of the sheep who have been redeemed by the shedding of His Own Most Precious Blood, the Blood of the Paschal Lamb.
The birth of the Christ-child even shook the world, such as it was at the time. King Herod the Great, ever jealous of his own political power, was fearful that the birth of the Christ-child was a threat to his own kingly prerogatives. The potentates of our own day are so fearful of our Lord that they want to eradicate all mention of Him from public view, going so far as to sanction attacks upon His Holy Church as an illegitimate actor in social life, a veritable bulwark of intolerance and bigotry unbefitting a civilized people. And just as Herod the Great ordered the slaughter of the Holy Innocents in his quest to kill the Christ-child, so is it the case today that Herod's ideological descendants seek to kill Christ mystically in the person of unborn children. Every abortion is a direct attack upon the Incarnation of Nativity. Why? Well, our Lord sanctified the womb by spending nine months in our Lady's womb prior to His birth. He is in solidarity with every child in every mother's womb, no matter the condition of the conception or of the child conceived. To kill the innocent unborn now is to simply continue Herod's jealous rage against the Word Who was made Flesh and dwelt amongst us.
Yes, the birth of Christ was meant to change the lives of everyone, from the high-born to the low-born. And His birth was meant to change the lives of all nations. Christmas is not a time to celebrate American consumer materialism. It is a time to remember that the Father sent us the most important gift He could give us: His own Son, co-equal with Him in Heaven from all eternity, in the Flesh to reconcile us to Him on the wood of the Holy Cross in Spirit and in Truth. As this is so, His Holy Name and a representation of the Instrument with which He redeemed us-the Holy Cross-are to the focal points of a nation's existence. No nation is meant to live in the lie of secularism or religious indifferentism. Every nation is meant to live in the shadow of the Cross, which hung over Bethlehem even as our Lord - Who was destined to die on the wood of His Cross - was placed in the wood of the manger after His birth. For it is from the Cross, the new "manger" from which we are fed with the Eucharist, that we ourselves are brought to a spiritual birth and are given the means by which we can choose to build up Christ's Kingdom on earth in preparation for the enjoyment of an unending Easter Sunday of glory in Paradise.
The Nativity in the Life of the Church
This fact is called to mind liturgically during the Christmas season on December 26, the second day in the Octave of Christmas. The Feast of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is placed immediately after Christmas to remind us that our Lord's birth in Bethlehem was meant to lead to Calvary and the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. Saint Stephen was willing to forsake all of the comforts and conveniences of this world in order to challenge the members of the Sanhedrin with the truths of our Blessed Lord and Savior. He did not fear the loss of respect he would suffer as a consequence of his fidelity to the Lord. He did not doubt the efficacy of the graces which had been won for Him by our Lord on the wood of the Holy Cross. He did not worry about being a "failure" in the eyes of the world. He did not worry about the loss of his life, nor did he worry about the particular sort of death he might have to encounter. He knew that the Incarnation, Nativity, Public Ministry, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the God-Man required Him to give of himself generously, just as our Lord had given of Himself totally to the Father atop the dung heap known as Golgotha.
Our Lord become Man to redeem us. His redemptive act reconciled us to the Father from Whom we had been estranged as a result of the Fall from Grace in the Garden of Eden. He forgave us, His executioners, as He underwent His torment on the Cross, suffering in His Sacred Humanity the very antithesis of His Divinity: sin. He had exhorted His followers during His Public Ministry to be agents of forgiveness to each other, telling a number of parables concerning mercy and forgiveness. While he never affirmed a person in his sins, He was always willing to forgive the sins of those who wanted to reform their lives. And He taught that each person has the obligation to forgive others from the bottom of their hearts. A person's sins will not be forgiven him if he does not forgive others from his heart, completely and totally. And he must pray for the eternal salvation of those against him he harbors some grudge for some offense or offenses, whether real or imagined. He must will the good of everyone, including those who he considers to be his enemies. For there is no injustice or injury we can suffer at the hands of another which is the equal of what one of our venial sins did to our Lord in His Sacred Humanity on the wood of the Cross.
Saint Stephen understood this. He prayed for his persecutors as they were stoning him. He prayed for Saul, the fire-breathing hater of Christians who believed he had a duty to extinguish the new religion. It was Saint Stephen's prayers from eternity that helped to convert Saul into Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles. Saint Stephen was not only faithful to the Lord by his courageous proclamation of His Sacred Divinity. He was faithful to Him by the love and mercy he showed the very people who stoned him to death, showing us that we must pray at all times for the conversion of the people who hate us, as well as to take positive, concrete steps to show mercy in our own lives to those who have injured us. A disciple of our Lord is called to give birth to Divine Mercy in his own life, and that means we cannot be petty and treat our brothers and sisters in Christ with contempt because it is what we "feel" like doing at a particular time.
The Feast of Saint John the Evangelist on December 27 reminds us of the work of the only Apostle who was present at the foot of the Cross. The youngest of the Apostles, Saint John, one of the sons of Zebedee, lived to an old age in exile on the island of Patmos. Although there had been efforts to boil him alive in oil, Saint John did not die a martyr's death. He had cared for our Lady until the time of her bodily Assumption. He was used by the Holy Spirit as the human instrument for the writing of the fourth Gospel, his three epistles, and the Book of the Apocalypse. And it is Saint John's Gospel which spells out in careful detail the theological dimensions of the Incarnation, provides us with our Lord's Eucharistic discourse, the imagery of the Good Shepherd, and our Lord's institution of the Sacrament of Penance. Indeed, Saint John's Gospel provides us with one of the proofs used by Catholics to point to the reality of Sacred Tradition as being one of the two sources of Divine Revelation. "If everything Jesus said and did were written down, not even the earth itself would be large enough to contain all of the books necessary to record them."
Saint John respected the authority of Saint Peter. Although Saint Peter had denied our Lord three times during the events of His fearful Passion, the son of Jonah was still nevertheless the had of the Apostles. Saint John outran Saint Peter on Easter Sunday when they raced to see whether our Lord's tomb was indeed empty as had been reported to them by Saint Mary Magdalene. Saint John peered in but did not enter the tomb until Saint Peter had arrived. Just as our Lord submitted Himself in humility to the authority of His creatures in Nazareth, so did the Apostle who was faithful to Him on Good Friday respect the authority of the one who denied the Master, giving us an important lesson to remember as Catholics at a time when the lion's share of our coreligionists do not submit to the authority of the Church.
There are other feasts (Holy Innocents, Holy Family, Holy Name of Jesus) during the Christ season whose significance have been alluded to elsewhere in this reflection. It is important to call to mind, however, that the days of Christmas are the days of our Lady. She gave birth to our Lord in the midst of a world which was looking for a political messiah. She gave birth to us in great pain as she watched the toll our sins took on her Son's Sacred Humanity on Good Friday. She watches over us as our spiritual mother and as the Mother of the Church. She wants us to rely upon her loving, maternal intercession as we attempt to give ourselves totally to the Father through her Son in Spirit and in Truth as members of the Church her Son founded upon the Rock of Peter, the Pope. She wants us to have the same courage and zeal as the Apostles had, always understanding that the birth of her Son in Bethlehem meant to change every aspect of our lives. The Child she bore in her virginal and immaculate womb requires a response from us that is every bit as demanding as the simple physical needs of a newborn child require of his parents. For we must be attentive to the simple truth that our very dignity as redeemed creatures comes from Mary's Son's total giving of Himself to effect our redemption.
The Sacred Heart of our Blessed Lord was formed out of our Lady's Immaculate Heart. These two hearts are in perfect communion with each other. Thus, our Lady shared completely in the work of her Divine Son. Completely. His sorrows were her sorrows. These twin hearts were free of all stain of sin, which distorts expressions of love and concern even among some of the best-intentioned people. The Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary suffered jointly all of the cruelty and indifference of us ungrateful, recidivist sinners. The aged Simeon prophesied at the Presentation that our Lady's Heart would be pierced by a sword of sorrow. And while she suffered that sorrow once on Good Friday, she suffers it again and again as a result of our sins, which is why she instructed the seers in Fatima to consecrate themselves to her Immaculate Heart. For it is such a consecration (the essence of the life and the work of St. Maximilian Kolbe) which makes it more possible for fallen creatures to follow Mary's Son and to cooperate with the graces He won for them to scale the heights of personal sanctity.
Our Lady's Immaculate Heart stored up many things following the birth of her Son. The visit of the shepherds, the Presentation, the attempt to kill her Son, the flight into Egypt, the return to Nazareth following the exile in Egypt. Among the events stored up in her Immaculate Heart, however, was the Epiphany of her Son to the Kings of the Orient, the Three Wise Men.
The Epiphany is the manifestation of our Lord's Kingly nature to the world. The Kings from the Orient followed the star to find the place where our Lord was resting as an infant. They bowed down in adoration, paying homage to the One who they had been given to understand was the King of Kings. Their lives were never the same again. Their very eyes had beheld God in the flesh. Our Lady watched and stored up all of this in her Immaculate Heart.
We are called to make our Lord manifest in the Lord - and to be conscious of how He manifests Himself in our lives. We must be ever conscious to see with the eyes of Christ, never polluting the windows to our souls with anything that is unworthy of the Divine Redeemer. We must be ever conscious to hear with the ears of Christ, shutting out from our hearing all vain talk and gossip. We must be ever conscious to speak with the lips of Christ, ever aware of the fact that those to whom we speak bear within them the Divine impress. We must think with the mind of Christ, Who wants us to eschew the ways of this world and do our work as apostles without compromise and without delay. And we must love with the Heart of Christ, which means that we must will the good of others, the ultimate expression of which is the salvation of others' immortal souls. We are the means to make our Lord's Epiphany tangible in the pagan world in which we find ourselves.
The Son of Mary continues to make Himself manifest in our world not only through us, the members of His Mystical Body. He makes Himself manifest to us quite tangible in the Eucharist. Every celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass enfleshes our Lord anew under the appearances of bread and wine. The incarnation of the God-Man at the words of Consecration uttered by a priest during Holy Mass is meant to nourish our souls so that we can give birth to Christ again and again in each one of our actions, founded as they must be in assiduous prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and to the Mother God, especially in her Most Holy Rosary. Every Mass takes us from the Annunciation to Bethlehem to Calvary to the Empty Tomb. Every Mass reminds us that our Lord became flesh to dwell among us in order to give Himself continuously to us in the Eucharist so that we could give ourselves as completely to the Father through Him in Spirit and in Truth.
The Christmas season is a time of joy, of true celebration. But the Child Whose image we behold in cribs in our churches and in our homes means for this joy and celebration to lead to a transformation of ourselves and the world in which we live. While we give thanks to our Lord for the gift of Himself as Man in Bethlehem, we must be ever conscious of our need to give of ourselves in the spirit of total self-surrender by which He gave Himself up for us.
May our Lady, who made possible for us the joy of Christmas, help us to see in the Church's commemoration of the 2000th anniversary of the birth of her Divine Son a reminder of our obligation to see to it that we are assiduous in reforming and reorienting our own lives around her Son as a good mother and father are in reorienting themselves following the birth of the fruit of their own married love.
Wishing each of you and your families, a blessed Christmas and spiritually fulfilling New Year of 2003, I thank you for your support of Christ or Chaos. For it is really the case that chaos prevails where the Christ-child is abandoned and mocked and reviled.
Viva Cristo Rey!
Thomas A. Droleskey, Ph.D.