Connecting with experience
Perhaps one of the many appealing characteristics of Pope Francis is his natural and often spontaneous ability to open doors and broaden horizons. Many people have said that he demonstrates a warm humanity that somehow facilitates a deeper appreciation of the Christian mission to proclaim the mercy of a God who desires to be intimately involved in the lives of very ordinary people. Of course, it can be rightly said that he has not defined any new doctrine; rather, it is a matter of approach and perspective. He seems to have the freedom to be able to connect with lived experience and, for those who listen to and observe him, he inspires actions which speak more eloquently than words. He himself would be the first to declare that he is merely a messenger, not the message.
As we journey through the season of Advent and come to the celebration of Christmas we may hear conflicting messages, and we may be confronted with competing demands. It is good to celebrate what is important to us and to demonstrate our affection for those we value. Christmas is traditionally a time of giving and receiving. But is bigger really better? Does the more expensive actually mean more valuable? Do we need to allow clever advertising to condition our choices and decisions – what we offer to others and expect in return? There are many in our society and beyond who may not be able to buy expensive things – refugees, prisoners, the sick, the poor, the vulnerable, children. They can remind us, when we have become easily overwhelmed by the commercialism of the season, that what truly matters is the gift of our loving presence, however ordinary the means of its expression.
The world into which Jesus was born shares some similarities with today’s. Greed and exploitation were commonplace; there were vast inequalities between rich and poor countries, wealthy and struggling people; politicians limped from one catastrophe to another; vested interest covertly influenced local, national and world events; with wars ravaging huge territories, thousands were left homeless and were displaced; children starved, and disease afflicted many people. Sounding familiar? Not the usual romantic image of the first Christmas perhaps! But it is precisely into this messy situation that a message of hope and liberation comes. God speaks and God moves into action… but in the most unexpected of ways.
God’s message is an action that affirms all that is good, beautiful and authentic about humanity. God rejoices when life is lived to the full and when human beings recognise each other as sharers in a divinely-graced dignity, no matter what their creed, colour, nationality, orientation, social status or past record of sin and virtue. After the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph shared the gift they had received by welcoming shepherds. Like the tax collectors and prostitutes of the time, shepherds literally lived on the fringes of their society. The Christmas message of hope and compassion proclaims that in God all are made acceptable, all are given welcome, all can find a home. No matter where we have been, what we have done, God makes space for us… and Christmas invites us to expand the space we make for God.
Led to the vulnerable
Just as the story of the birth of Jesus marks a new beginning for the whole of humanity, so too new possibilities open up for each of us when we gaze deeply into the true meaning of the Incarnation and allow it to give us a new perspective on others and ourselves. Perhaps we are to be like those three pilgrims in the Nativity story who follow a star of enlightenment without being able to name it or fully understand what it is, but find ourselves led into a situation of vulnerable affection and love. As the three seekers were led to an exposed baby in a simple shed in a conflict-torn territory, we too may find ourselves being led to the most vulnerable in our society and world to discover the depths of what it means to love fully and be fully human. It is in simplicity and in the humblest situations that the gift of love can be exchanged… and there is no price that can be placed on that.
Although God’s Word was sent into our world in a specific time and place and became flesh in the person of Jesus, the message of God’s love continues to knock at the doors of people’s hearts, reshaping human horizons. As we allow our personal storms, fears, prejudices and defences to be transformed, maybe God will be given an opening to expand our hearts and re-define our limiting boundaries. As God can see the Christ in us, maybe we might see the Christ who comes to us in disguise in the multitude of vulnerable others as we surrender to the impact of God’s love this Christmas.
Seize the moment
Pope Francis has seized the moment. What are the opportunities that we can identify and develop that will benefit others? How can we continue developing that warm sense of welcoming humanity in our homes, our churches, schools, our neighbourhoods? How will we recognise the summons and touch of God in every encounter? What will strengthen our commitment to a way of authentic prayer that takes us beyond our self-preoccupation to an inclusive outreach to all people? Carpe diem!
Fr Brendan Grady, O.Carm is Chaplain to the National Shrine of Saint Jude.