Archbishop: Jesus comes to us in simplicity and humility – at the first Christmas and today

By Archbishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone

A glance back at Christmas one year ago, and a careful scrutiny of where we are now in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic – this is the atmosphere in which we find ourselves this month. Things continue to “open up” and life is more normal than one year ago, but we are cautioned to be prudent and maintain our vigilance. We are all like people walking on a frozen lake, gingerly touching the surface at each step before putting our full weight down. We long for less “virtual” encounters, more human, three-dimensional interactions. And yet we must keep our guard up.

And suddenly, penetrating our defenses, Someone appears in our fractious, worried human scene to bring us peace and hope: “Emmanuel, God with us.” Not virtually, not metaphorically, no projection in a “metaverse”: the Eternal Son of God is born in time, completely sharing our human condition in all things but sin. Flesh and blood. How did He slip through? The Son of God came, not in power and pomp, but in simplicity and humility. Yes, there were angels on the first Christmas, but their glory was seen only by a few poor shepherds. The great “sign” was not a choir of the heavenly host, but a newborn baby wrapped in cheap shreds of cloth and shivering in a manger, a trough for feeding animals.

Understated, hidden approach

This understated, hidden approach marked the whole career of Jesus. His life was short, just over 30 years, almost all of them spent in a backwater village. What drew Him to us was His desire just to be with us, to let us grow accustomed to Him. We want to accomplish something, make a splash, make a difference; He was content for most of His life just to be the neighbor down the street. He performed miracles, but these were not so much displays of power as acts of mercy drawn from His compassionate Heart. And, as stunning as they were, they were relatively few: if Christ’s purpose was simply to make this world a better place, He devoted very little of His precious time and energy to healing the sick.

This hidden, subtle manner was most evident in His death. Challenged to show His power and come down from the Cross, Jesus chose instead to hang there impotent, powerless to heal, hardly able to speak. He was driven out of the holy city, socially distanced to the limit, figuratively and literally “cancelled.” His ignominious death should give us all pause: wherever we draw a line, Christ takes His place on the other side of it. Even His resurrection was experienced by a small group. Having – as they thought – settled the matter of Jesus, important people continued to go about important business, unaware that through the divine power of the Holy Spirit the risen Lord was quietly knitting back together the torn and shredded fabric of the human family.

The way that God sneaked into the world on the first Christmas set the pattern for His whole life: simplicity, humility, without fanfare. The message of Christmas is God’s ardent desire just to be with us, to be present to us in our joys and sorrows in the most ordinary ways, giving infinite meaning to our lives which might seem so insignificant to others and so fruitless to ourselves.

Each year we tell our children the Christmas story, set out the figures of our family creche, “virtually” make a pilgrimage to Bethlehem. But perhaps we envy those shepherds who could actually walk to the stable and see the newborn Child Himself with their own eyes. We should not envy them, for our privilege is greater than theirs. True, they could see and touch the Word made flesh, hold in their arms that weak Infant who was the fulfillment of all God’s promises, and indeed of blessings that the human mind had not imagined until that night. But when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we do not only behold Christ, we receive His very Body and Blood, which transforms our flesh into His.

Christ comes today as he did 2,000 years ago

Christ comes today as He did 2,000 years ago, in humility and hiddenness. The sign is now not an Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, but the bread and wine that God’s power transforms into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. His birthplace is now not a cave in one small town a few miles from Jerusalem, but the altar of our parish church. Overhead we do not behold a star, but the Cross that proclaims His self-giving love unto death, and the power of His Resurrection to overcome the worst we human beings can do. In the Blessed Sacrament we adore Christ as the shepherds did that first Christmas; but we also can receive Him in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.

What did we do to deserve this? St. Bernard gives an answer, profound in its simplicity: “My merit is His mercy.” Our Lord gives us so much, yet He asks so little: simply that we make room for Him, welcome Him, be with Him, and strive to be like Him. Not virtually, but really. As this great feast of salvation approaches, let us ask for the faith that helps us see that every altar is Bethlehem, and every Mass is Christmas.