Surprise, Surprise!

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!

So! You better watch out
Oh! You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming
Santa Claus is coming
Santa Claus is coming to town!

Herein lies the difference between Santa and Jesus Christ (apart from the obvious historical facticity of Christ and the fictional nature of jolly Ol’ St. Nick) – Santa demands perfection. “Have you been a good little boy or girl this year?” If so, you WILL be rewarded and basically get exactly what you wanted. Santa (or the concept thereof) exercises his charity and generosity in a conditional fashion. poster4853

While there might be some sort of childish wonder surrounding Santa, any experience of surprise is ultimately non-existent, minimal, or ephemeral. But with Christ – with the fact of Jesus Christ who was conceived in a womb and entered history as we all do, who walked the face of the earth, who claimed to be God, whose death and resurrection became the backbone of early Church preaching, whose very existence and claim stands for us as an either/or (either He is God, or a he was a very bad man) – there exists a perpetual surprise.

It is not surprising that humanity needs a savior. Any self-reflection tinged with even the smallest hint of humility will reveal that with my own devices, I cannot seem to overcome this stain of sin. It is not surprising that a creature who sins against his Creator, who sins against Justice/Piety, sins against the infinite, who in his finitude cannot recover the gap generated by even one sin.

The surprise of Christmas is not Santa or material gifts or even our need for salvation, but the method, the manner in which the God of the universe came to save us:

He emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

coming in human likeness;

and found human in appearance,

he humbled himself,

becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.

(Phil. 2:7-8)

God. The infinite, almighty, creator-of-the-universe God, took flesh.

He was conceived in the womb, born of a virgin in a stable, threatened from the start. He passed through every stage of human development (yes, Jesus Christ was even an adolescent). He assumed a human nature, and though He never sinned, He bore the full weight of sin unto the point of death.

But not only that. He saves us, He loves us even when we are bad little girls and boys. And we are, in fact, wounded, broken, sinful, fallen, girls and boys, men and women. “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

His unconditional, self-emptying love surprises us in the method God chose to save mankind: incarnation.

While we don’t celebrate the incarnation per se at Christmas (see Feast of the Annunciation on Mar. 25), we do celebrate the manifestation of the Son of God in the flesh – the method chosen for the salvation of the world, a method that cannot but surprise us.

“God has shown himself to us in Christ, he has made us see his face and has made himself really close to each one of us. Indeed, God has revealed that his love for man, for each one of us, is boundless: on the Cross, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God made man, shows us in the clearest possible way how far this love reaches, even to the gift of himself, even to the supreme sacrifice…Having faith, then, is meeting this “You,” God, who supports me and grants me the promise of an indestructible love that not only aspires to eternity but gives it; it means entrusting myself to God with the attitude of a child” (Pope Benedict XVI – Oct. 24, 2012). Govert_Flinck_-_Aankondiging_aan_de_herders

How unfortunate it is that we have lost sight of the surprise of the incarnation, and the childlike wonder of encountering the Mystery anew. So hardened in our ways, it is no surprise that we push away the love of God incarnate that even wishes to draw close to us now.

Lord, may this change tonight, this night when a child was born who changed history and mankind forever, and who can change my history and my existence forever.

When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us. So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. (Lk. 2:15-17)

THE Christian EVENT

In yesterday’s post, I touched briefly on a few of the Scriptural connections between the stories of Jesus’ conception, birth, and infancy and the passion, death, and resurrection. In further reflection yesterday, I was struck over and over again by these ties and the fact that they highlight the organic whole of the Christian event, the fact that is Jesus Christ – the wholeness or one-ness of the Jesus story. Let’s take a moment to simply highlight some of these connections between Christ’s birth and death. Many of these are cataloged in Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives and I would not consider this list exhaustive, the references complete, or in perfect chronological order – the events are too mysterious and dynamic to accomplish such a feat. Nevertheless, there is plenty to ponder here:

  • The journey required by Roman custom/law to a place outside of Jerusalem (Lk. 2:1-5; Lk. 23:32-33).
  • Birth and death happen outside of the town/city (Lk. 2:7; Lk. 23:32)
  • The virgin mother is involved in the journey in both cases, and is centrally involved in the action and the theology of both the birth and the death of Jesus, outside of the town/city.
  • The virgin mother wraps the son in swaddling clothes (Lk. 2:7), which resemble in some way the shroud that would cover the dead Lord (Lk. 23:53).
  • He lays in what presumably is a stable (given the reference to a manger in Lk. 2:7), which, according to Benedict XVI, would have been a rocky cave, as was customary in the area around Bethlehem from ancient times. This image is akin to the “rock-hewn tomb” in which his body would rest after his death (Lk. 23:53). In both cases, the virgin mother is central to the process of laying him in the rock-hewn neonatal unit/tomb (Lk. 2:7; Mk. 15:47). federicofioribarocci_thenativity
  • He is laid to rest in/on a manger, customarily made out of wood (Lk. 2:7) and sleeps the sleep of death on the wood of the cross (Lk. 23:32-ff).
  • The reference to “King of the Jews” (Lk. 23:38) is one that is Gentile in nature – the Jews themselves would have referred to the king as King of Israel. The reference to King of the Jews is also used by the wise men in Mt. 2:2 – Gentiles using the same title in reference to his birth as would be noted by Gentiles in his death.
  • The wise men/Gentiles come and pay homage to the Lord (Mt. 2:11) before giving gifts. The Gospels in the passion narratives recount not homage paid to Jesus by the Romans/Gentiles, but mockery. They give Jesus different “gifts” or perhaps anti-gifts in the scourging, the crown, the cross, the vinegar to drink, and the lance to the side. In both cases, kingship is central to the imagery – exalted on one hand, and mocked on the other. The particular gifts provided by the Magi also have ties to his death, particular the myrrh used for preservation and the tribulation of entering the afterlife (which Jesus would not need).

Perhaps we will end this reflection here and we can all continue to ponder the mystery of Jesus Christ, incarnate, crucified, risen, and ascended for the sake of our salvation. The unity of His life, the unity of the Christian event is worth marveling at in silent meditation. Hopefully these next few weeks afford all of us the time to do so.

Room in the Inn?

“She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)

These are familiar words, of course, and could lead to a variety of observations.

Apart from the obvious connections with Jesus’ death and burial – which also happens outside of the town, involved being laid and then raised upon wooden beams, wrapped in burial clothes, and resting in a tomb hewn out of stone (i.e. a cave) like the “stables” commonly found around Bethlehem – and apart from the Eucharistic themes – the Son of David who reigns/is present forever, born in the city of David, Bethlehem (literally “house of bread”) as the true Bread of Life, and laid in a manger (i.e. a feeding trough) – I would like to focus a brief reflection on the lack of room in the inn.

IMG_20141216_084436Is it not the case for most all of us that we don’t often have room for God in our lives as well? Is it not the case that we perhaps prefer him to be at a distance, “safe” on the other side of the door while we are “safe” peering through the peephole at him? Maybe we invite him into the antechamber of our hearts, but certainly not to the inner sanctuary.

Is there room in the inn of your heart for the Christ child this Christmas? Is there room in your life for the surprise “knock on the door” of your heart – a surprise that makes life whole again, that makes life beautiful and true? What internal or external clutter refuses room for Jesus? Let’s take this last week or so of Advent to make room for Jesus, or rather, to invite the Lord to make room within us.

Here are just a couple of thoughts on how you might become more docile in order that the Spirit might move and make room for the Son:

  1. Get to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Nothing says “declutter” like this Sacrament that literally washes away sin – making us right with God and with the Church. It’s time to let go of our sin and our attachment to it and experience mercy and forgiveness. Look up your parish or a local parish online, note the confession times over the next week, and make it happen. Here is a link to a good examination of conscience.
  2. Let go of resentment. How can there be peace on earth if we have no peace in our hearts. From my experience, one of the greatest causes of distress and frustration lies in a hard heart, an unforgiving heart, a heart that resents. Who do you need to forgive this year? Do you need to forgive yourself? What have you been harboring against others? Turn it into a little prayer. “Lord, I forgive ______, for ______. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
  3. Physically de-clutter. We live in an age where most everyone suffers from stuff-itis. We have so much stuff. What is old and broken? Can you part with it? What is extra? Can you give it to someone in need? What is not extra, but perhaps the cause of an inordinate attachment? Will you part ways? Could you even give something away that hurts a bit?

This Christmas, I pray that the classic line from Scripture “no room in the inn” is not true for us, so let’s not waste time in allowing the Spirit to make room in our hearts and let’s be surprised for once instead of clinging to control.

He’s coming regardless…do you want him to rest at a distance, or to transform from the inside out?