I am currently reading Fr. James Martin’s Jesus, A Pilgrimage. The book describes his self-created pilgrimage through the places where Jesus lived and worked, indeed where He was born. Beyond a mere description of the places visited, it includes his spiritual experiences and the lessons he learned at each step on the way. He includes reflections based on the scripture passages associated with each place he visited.
I hoped his words about Bethlehem and the shrine that commemorates Jesus’ birth would give me help with my homily. He was actually disappointed. And so was I, at first. He was disappointed with the actions of the others who were visiting the shrine. In addition to the pushing and shoving of the large crowds he noted more of a tourist environment than one in which people were marveling to be at the place where Jesus was born. While trying not to judge people’s hearts, he expected to witness a more reflective environment.
I returned to the table of contents to look for another pilgrimage location that may have been more inspiring. I found it in the chapter on his visit to the place of Jesus’ resurrection. The control and order imposed by those responsible for the shrine helped. Only several people at a time were allowed to the little space within the church identified as the burial and therefore resurrection spot. The sound of monastic chanting filled the church. Fr. Martin described a much more profound religious experience at this shrine. During his brief time at the place of resurrection he closed his eyes and had a vivid image of Jesus rising to sit upright upon the stone slab. He was moved to tears. After exiting into the main church he found a place for a two hour period of prayer.
So what do I think is at play here? The image of child born I Bethlehem is simple, it is peaceful and in itself is not too challenging. There is a challenging depth when we remind ourselves that this is almighty God in human flesh come to us an infant. The picture itself does not demand that. Infants are not all that demanding in general. Oh, yes, they need to be cared for. They need food, but they don’t have fussy tastes. They need clothing, but clean and warm is enough, there are no concerns about fashion or finery. They like to be held, but will not pass judgment on the holder. They respond to soothing voices, but not with rejection or argument. All of that comes later.
In contrast the image associated with the resurrection is more challenging. The picture of a man risen from the death, still showing the wounds that remind one of his previous suffering points to power and divinity. The inference of that divinity and power directs us to the challenge of taking seriously all that He said and did, especially why He died and rose.
This year we are gifting every family who comes to Christmas Mass with the Rediscover Jesus book. It is an invitation and a tool to rediscover Jesus in whatever way we can. It is an invitation to rediscover the Jesus of the peaceful and quiet scene of Bethlehem as well as the Jesus resurrected and glorious, in divinity and power. It is a rediscovery of the Jesus of everything that happened in between, especially the three years of Jesus public ministry. For many of us our relationship with Jesus began when we were perhaps at the age of the child pictured in the nativity crèche in our baptism. And like the young life depicted in the creche, our relationship with Jesus needs to grow through continuous efforts that nurture that relationship.
The book contains 40 short chapters. It is meant to be used for daily prayer and reflection. Beyond reading a few pages it disposes one to reflect and speak and listen to Jesus. The forty chapters will fit well with the upcoming Lenten season. And we will use this book as the basis of Lenten small groups. But one does not need to wait until Lent.
A couple of weeks ago we began the special holy year of mercy called by Pope Francis. And some concerted effort to grow in our knowledge of and relationship with Jesus is appropriate for the year of mercy. Mercy is at the heart of the person and ministry of Jesus. He offers us mercy and he expects us to be merciful to others.
This takes me back to Fr. Martin’s visit to Bethlehem. He did note the impact of having to crawl through the small entry into the church which houses of the shrine of the nativity. It struck him as a gesture of humility and so it reminded him of the extraordinary act of humility on the part of God to come into the world not just in human flesh but in the dependent and vulnerable state of an infant.
Humility, the willingness to realistically adjust our opinion of ourselves, is a necessary ingredient for all three elements of mercy. First is forgiveness of sin. As a familiar carol reminds us God sent His Son to save us all from Satan’s power when we have gone astray. We must be humble enough to acknowledge that we do go astray. It takes humility when someone may offend us and we choose to replace just reaction with silence, forgiveness and moving on. Finally, it takes humility to look on others in spiritual and material need and assist them rather than judge them or dismiss them as someone else’s problem.
As we move on to our Christmas celebrations with family and friends, grateful for God’s merciful treatment of us, may we be patient and calm about in response to what others may say and do. And being reminded of our material bounty, may we still find ways to reach to assist those in need.