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Why We Celebrate Christmas

thenativity%20600%20x%20300After hearing the Christmas story over and over, year after year, its true meaning and impact may fade against the backdrop of today’s culture.  Yet, if we think about it, God’s willingness to become one of us is the greatest acts of humility and love in all of human history.  “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” John 1:14

Here we have God, the Father, creator of all that exists, creator of the millions of galaxies and the billions of stars whose distance is measured in light years; this God who created the atom and the molecule whose size is measured in nanometers – that’s one billionth of a meter; this God who created the human person with a body, soul, and mind, became one of his created in order to free each of us from our sins and the world from its bondage to sin – to reconcile us to him and one another.

Father William Barry, in his book, A Friendship Like No Other, says, “God took humanity seriously enough to become one of us, and we do God no service if we downplay what God has done in becoming human.”

God in Jesus was a real human being, born of Mary in the humblest of circumstances in a cave or stable with animals nearby.  He had to be toilet trained, learn a language and be raised from childhood to an adult just as we all have been.   His family was forced into exile to Egypt to escape the sword of Herod. He evidently followed his earthly father, Joseph, in the trade of being a carpenter, for the people of Nazareth were later to ask, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mark 6:3)

After assuming his public ministry, the leaders of his own religion handed him over to the Romans to die a horrible death.  God is no stranger to suffering.  God in Jesus knows what human life is like from the inside.  His desire for friendship, to dwell with us and in us knows no bounds.

A cobbler does not become a shoe, a cabinet maker does not become a cabinet, but God the Father and creator of all that exists became one of us.  Little wonder that history’s calendar is measured in terms of before and after this event.

“For what greater grace could God have made to dawn on us than to make his only Son become the son of man, so that a son of man might in his turn become son of God.”       (St. Augustine)

Let us celebrate the birth of Jesus for what it is – the greatest act of humility and love in all of history.

Wheat and Chaff

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”  (Luke 3:16, 17)

These are the words of John the Baptist describing Jesus who will come after him.  Like a lot of scripture, these words can have multiple interpretations.  As in the parable of the Last Judgment with its separation of the sheep and the goats, here we have the separation of the wheat and the chaff.  Both references point to a separation of the good and the bad, with the potential consequence of determining our eternal destination.

John’s reference to the wheat and chaff likely relate to our present condition since he is talking about what Jesus will do for us – he will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  If we accept Jesus’ baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit, he will separate the wheat from the chaff in our lives.  He will preserve the wheat and destroy the chaff.

Because of our fallen human nature, we all have chaff in our lives.  Jesus invites us to accept his winnowing fork — God’s grace — to separate and remove the chaff.  For most of us this is a life-long process. 

The chaff can represent the more obvious sins such as those that violate the Ten Commandments, or the more subtle forms, such as failures to love as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, or failures to reflect the Beatitudes in Mt. 5:1-12.

In our preparations to celebrate God becoming one of us in the birth of Jesus, perhaps we could spend some of the same energy seeking Jesus’s help in removing the chaff from our lives, as we do in buying presents, decorating our houses and preparing the Christmas meal.  

Some questions I am asking myself this week:

  • Am I patient and kind with store clerks when shopping?
  • At holiday parties, do I listen more than I talk, or am I self-seeking, boastful and proud?
  • Do I keep my anger in check when I feel I am being slighted, willing to forgive and let go?
  • Am I willing to adjust my plans for the day when someone needs help?
  • Is my generosity to those in need whom I do not know equal to what I am willing to spend on those whom I do know?
  • Am I spending time with Jesus as well as with family and friends?

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  (Isaiah 9: 6)

The Great Multiplier

Have you ever felt inadequate for a task you were facing? 

Certainly the disciples felt this way when Jesus told them to feed a crowd of five thousand who had gathered to hear him preach and heal those who needed healing.

“You give them something to eat,” Jesus told them, but they protested, “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish.” They complained about how much it would cost to feed so many.  Then Jesus instructed them to have the crowd sit down in groups of fifty.  He took the five loaves and two fish, gave thanks, broke them and gave them to the disciples to distribute to the crowd.  Luke reports, “They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.” (Luke 9:10-17)

Jesus took what was insufficient and made it sufficient to serve his purposes.  He does the same thing with us.  He takes our resources and talents that are usually insufficient for the task of taking care of God’s creation and building his kingdom, and makes them sufficient. 

When my wife and I were first married in our early 20’s, I was silently apprehensive about whether I could be a good father when we had children.  I felt grossly inadequate for the task.  I had trouble imagining myself as a father doing all the things that would be necessary and appropriate to raise children in a Christian home.

When our first daughter was born, much of that apprehension started to melt away.  My first stop upon leaving the hospital was to visit our church and thank God for her birth.  Five adult children and thirteen grandchildren later, I look back and see how God’s grace took my early inadequacies and made them adequate.   Surely there were mistakes, but he took my desires and love and those of my wife, and multiplied them to serve his purposes.   One of his purposes is to build and perpetuate his kingdom through family.

Jesus is the great multiplier.  From the very beginning he took a handful of uneducated fisherman, a despised tax collector and others, and transformed them by the power of his Holy Spirit to lead the most profound revolution the world has ever seen.  He has done the same thing with people throughout the history of his church – many of whom were initially leading sinful lives.

He is doing the same thing today with us.  He takes our inadequate prayer, desires and efforts, and multiplies their effect to enable us to bring his presence to the people and circumstances of our lives.

As we prepare to celebrate God becoming one of us in the person of the baby Jesus, let us remember that he takes us as we are, and by his grace and with our cooperation, multiplies us into what he wants us to be and enables to do what he wants us to do. 

Grateful Witness

When we experience a blessing from God, do we tell other people about it?

The Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus delivering a man named Legion of many demons.  Luke reports, “For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. Many times [the evil spirit] had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains.”  (Luke 8:26-39) Matthew reports that he was so violent that none could pass where he was.

After Jesus had delivered him of many demons, the man begged to go with Jesus, but Jesus said, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.”

Jesus calls us to be a witness to him and his action in our lives. (Acts 1:8)  The psalms and St. Paul encourage us to give thanksgiving in all circumstances. (Psalm 100:4; 1Th. 5:16)  So, how do we tell people what God has done for us without sounding prideful or boastful?

Jesus alluded to this question in his Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector wherein he warned the disciples about being self-righteous.  The Pharisee prayed about what he had done, thanking God that he was not “like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like the tax collector.”  He went on to say, “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”  Jesus then said, “But the tax collector stood at a distance.  He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner.” 

Jesus declared that it was the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home justified before God.  The Pharisee was not thanking God for what God had done in his life, but rather what he, the Pharisee had done – a self-described righteousness. 

As I write this week’s post, I am completing my 79th year and there is so much that “God has done for me” – loving parents who gave me a Christian heritage, a loving wife of 55 years, five children, four of whom are raising Christian families of their own, and a daughter with special needs who has taught us a lot about God’s ways.  God gave me the opportunity to engage in meaningful and rewarding work that hopefully served as a thread in advancing the fabric of his creation.  He has given me various opportunities of ministry to represent his Word and hopefully contribute to his kingdom.

But these are just some of the highlights.  There is so much more.  One of the greatest things God did was reach out to me at a time when my life might have gotten off track, and allowed me to experience his presence in a new and personal way.

He has done all of these things while I am still a sinner, often failing to live up to his message of love and selflessness.  But this is not unique to me.  He offers the blessings of himself to all who invite him into their lives.

So I offer thanks to God for all that he has done for me, not out of pride, but as a grateful witness to his grace, love and care.

Greater than John

John the Baptist is in prison.  He sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the one to come or should they expect another.  Jesus replies, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Luke 7:22)

Then Jesus makes an astounding statement, “I tell you, among those born of women there is none greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28)

Jesus seems to be saying that until this time, John is the greatest prophet and man who ever lived.  Mark’s gospel confirms this when he reports that “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.” 

Imagine the power of John’s words and actions to attract people to travel more than a day’s journey by foot to a remote desert location, making provision for food and sleeping, all to confess their sins and be baptized.  Surely the Holy Spirit had to be acting powerfully in him.  Yet, Jesus is saying that the people who are least in the kingdom of God are greater than John.

Do we realize how privileged we are as Christians to be in the kingdom of God, compared to the people who lived before God became one of us in the person of Jesus and inaugurated his kingdom on earth?

Last Sunday the Church celebrated Christ as king of God’s kingdom.  Next Sunday we will begin preparations to celebrate his human birth conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary – Emmanuel – God is with us.

Yes, God is with us through the person of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus says:

  • “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” (John 15:4)
  • “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
  • “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.  My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:23)
  • “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

While we may accept the idea that we are “least in the kingdom of God,” it is much harder to believe that we are greater than John the Baptist.  Yet, that is what Jesus is saying because we are part of the kingdom of God, and God is with us in a way that he never was before. 

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.” (2 Co.5:17)

Recognizing Jesus

“I know who you are—the Holy one of God!” (Luke 4:34)

These words were addressed to Jesus from an evil spirit who was in possession of a man in a synagogue in Capernaum.  Jesus had come to the synagogue and began to teach the people.  Luke reports that the people “were amazed at his teaching because his message had authority.”  The man with the demon and evil spirit cried out, “Ha! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy one of God!” (Luke 4:31-37)

How ironic!  Most of the Jewish people – the religious leaders, those in authority, even the people from his home town, did not recognize Jesus for who he was—the Son of the living God.  Yet, throughout the gospels, we see reports of evil spirits who recognize Jesus, cower at his presence and beg him not to destroy them. 

We should not be too critical of the people of Jesus’ day in not to recognizing him, for how often have we failed to recognize Jesus’ presence in our lives?

The world and its many attractions, demands and cares often dull our senses to the presence of Jesus.  Our busyness causes us to overlook his work in us and others.  Our low expectations of God obscure his action in our lives.

This past weekend I had the privilege of taking communion to men in a local jail and also to the elderly in a nearby nursing home.  I saw Jesus in the men who were eager to understand Sunday’s gospel readings.  They are searching for the truth in acknowledging their circumstances and in desiring to bring change to their lives.

I saw the face of Jesus in Phyllis, bedridden in the nursing home, but with a big smile she was eager to recite the Lord’s Prayer and receive communion.

It is not uncommon for us to miss the presence of Jesus in our family and those closest to us.  When I take time to reflect, I see Jesus in my wife who recently cooked a meal for a neighbor who is going through chemotherapy for her second bout with ovarian cancer.   I see Jesus in our four adult children who are all raising active families and passing on our heritage of faith to their children.  I see Jesus in our three sons-in-law who live out their faith in their business and professional lives.

I see Jesus in our son and his wife who, through their photography business, capture the beauty, love and sacredness of marriage.

Mother Theresa used to say that one of her motivations for serving the poorest of the poor was that she saw the face of Jesus in every one of them.  How many times have I failed to see the face of Jesus in the homeless person with a sign asking for money at a busy intersection?

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2)

Matthew and the Rich Young Man

“’Follow me,’ Jesus said to him, and Levi [Matthew] got up, left everything and followed him.” (Luke 5:27-28)

What contributed to the difference in the response of Matthew and the rich young man to Jesus’ invitations to follow him?   

Like the rich young man, Matthew was also wealthy, for the gospels describe him as holding a huge banquet for Jesus at his house at which he invited a large crowd of tax collectors and other guests.  Unlike the rich young man, however, Luke says Matthew “left everything and followed” Jesus. 

In contrast to Matthew, when Jesus suggested to the rich young man that he sell his possessions, give to the poor, and then come and follow him, the Gospel reports that he “went away sad, because he had great wealth.” (Mt. 19:16-30)

The rich young man was apparently leading an exemplary life for he said he had kept all the commandments.  Matthew, on the other hand, was a tax collector, one of the most despised classes  among the Jewish people, and considered a sinner.  Yet, Matthew was willing to “leave everything” and follow Jesus, but the rich young man was not. 

When my wife and I were in our 30’s we were practicing Catholics, attempting to live out our faith as best we could.  A friend from our parish started inviting me to events that would supposedly renew and deepen my faith, but I declined her several invitations over a period of about a year.   So then she started inviting my wife who agreed to attend what was referred to as a Week of Renewal in the Holy Spirit.  It was a program involving five evenings in a row of talks and prayer.

Although I also declined invitations from my wife to join her, I observed how each evening she came home from the program with great joy.  I was so struck by her reaction to what she was experiencing night after night, that I decided to join her on the final evening.  On that evening, in spite of all my previous reluctance, I met the Lord Jesus in a new and personal way that I had never previously experienced.

It became a watershed moment in my life which led to a renewal of my faith.  I came to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit in a fuller way, an increased desire to pray and read scripture, and to serve the Lord as best I could in all areas of my life.  Like the rich young man, I previously was not ready to follow Jesus in a deeper way.  I believe the Lord prepared my heart, through my wife and other circumstances, to follow him anew.  

Scripture does not tell us what eventually happened to the rich young man.  Some writers say there is circumstantial evidence to speculate that he was the Barnabas of Acts 4:36 who sold a field that he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Perhaps the lesson is that the Lord is always calling and he is always preparing our hearts to follow him.  Some of us may take longer to answer the call, but the Lord never stops preparing our hearts and continuing the call.