Friday, December 25, 2009

The Nativity of the Lord

(Isaiah 9:1-6; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14)

Costa Rica is a tourist hot spot. Now would be a good time to visit. The rains have ended, and fresh breezes sweep across the country. Beach water is always warm, and now there is a decent chance of seeing a night-time show of volcano-streaming lava. A distinct attraction of December, which you will not find in tourist guides, is the kiosks found in many commercial areas. The vendors sell locally made crèches with a variety of animals that go well beyond the traditional ox, ass, camel, and sheep. You will find ducks and geese, dogs and others. Animals take prominent place in our imagination of the first Christmas although not one is mentioned in the gospel other than the sheep which the shepherds tend in the fields.

We might ask ourselves then what put these animals in our heads. The answer goes beyond the idea of all creation worshipping its Lord. What conjures the presence of animals at that first Christmas is the insistence of the gospel writer that Jesus was laid in a manger, the farm animals’ feeding trough. The evangelist Luke is certainly sparse with details about Jesus’ birth. He does not give the hour or the weather. Nor does he say that the place of birth was a barn, a stable, or a cave. But he tells us three times within ten verses that Jesus was laid in a manger to remind us of something the prophet Isaiah writes at the beginning of his book.

Appalled by crying orphans and exploited workers, the prophet says, “An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger, but Israel does not know (the Lord).” Isaiah, of course, lived twenty-seven centuries ago, seven hundred years before Jesus was born. Times then, like times now, were both good and bad. There was wealth, but it was unevenly enjoyed. There were armies, but Israel was being menaced by a powerful enemy to the northeast. The people brought offerings to the temple, but God was not impressed because of the lack of righteous living at home. By showing Jesus in a manger at which the shepherds of Israel arrive, Luke suggests that finally the situation has changed. The people now recognize their God just as the ox knows its owner and the ass, its master’s manger.

We also might ask ourselves if things now have reverted to the conditions of the prophet Isaiah’s time. Let’s not try to speak for the whole world or even for the United States. After all, neither claims to be the People of God. But as a church, do we take care of the poor, give God His due, and live righteously? Certainly not one hundred percent, but most of us try to live our faith. Catholics maintain soup kitchens and food pantries. One Catholic organization connects children in the third world to families in American parishes in a quasi-adoption relationship. This year in our diocese, as happens in many others, seven thousand Catholics are taking part in faith-sharing groups in order to know God better.

Yet we grumble. In one parish the people are upset with the pastor because their names acknowledging contributions for a new organ were posted too high on a wall for others to notice. Many of us seem unable to leave a conversation until we have added a critical remark. And some of us are even prone to curse the elderly driver moving cautiously in front of us. Jesus has come again to prune away these faults. He does it today just by showing himself to us as a baby whose image we might kiss and whisper words of affection to. These intimacies pledge our adherence to the demanding road of holiness he sets for us as an adult.

Put all the animals you find in Costa Rican kiosks at the Nativity scene. Add others – wolves, lions, and cobras -- to create another chapter of the same prophet Isaiah. When Immanuel – God-with-us – has come, “...the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” He’s here now to accompany us beyond the critical remarks of enemies. He’s here now to enable us to assist crying orphans and exploited workers. He’s here now so that we might know God better.

December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve

(II Samuel 7:1-5.8b-12.14a.16; Luke 1:67-79)

The children of a mountain village in Honduras are too poor to expect anything for Christmas other than tamales on the table. As Christmas gifts they promise the infant Jesus to pray harder and to do their chores more willingly. These children may be closer to the meaning of Christmas than counterparts in wealthy country who cry if they do not receive the play station that they have had an eye on. However, all of us should be careful to note that the original Christmas gift is not something humans do for God or for one another. Rather, it is God’s initiative to send His son to us.

The first reading expresses the paradoxical gift. David wants to build a house for God. Astuteness more than piety may be his motive. David knows that if the Ark of the Covenant were kept in a shrine in Jerusalem, all Israel would come to his city, In telling David what He will do for him, God is reminding him that the people are His -- God’s -- not the king’s. He shall give David present rest from his enemies, and a future descendant who will rule forever.

We recognize this descendant as Jesus, the Christ. Zechariah sees his arrival as imminent. He compares the coming Christ to the sun giving light and warmth without which a life of grace would be impossible.