This is a very familiar scene in Christian art – the shepherds at
the manger with the Christ child, Mary and Joseph. I see it not only
in churches and chapels, but walking by store windows in Manhattan
when I visit home for the holidays. It is so simple, picturesque and
tranquil looking. But artists through the ages and modern commercial
artists as well, have tamed the truth of the scene. The story notes
that Mary reflected in her heart on the things she heard from the
shepherds. We join in her reflection on the significance of these
What brought about this scene, a child birth away from home and
family support? This Jewish couple was subject, as so many are
families are today, to the decision "from on high." Remember how
Luke’s gospel for Christmas night began, "In those days a decree
went out..." (Luke 2:1), The Roman emperor issues an edict for a
census to collect taxes and a pregnant couple at the outskirts of
the empire has no choice but obey. The couple has become like so
many through the world, displaced for a while (or permanently),
because of state policy, civil war, political persecution, or
economic oppression. They remind us too of our own city streets and
shelters where so many have taken refuge, among them, pregnant
women. We reflect and wonder how national and local economic
policies adversely affect the most vulnerable in our society. Also,
think of the families at our southern border, fleeing gang violence
and domestic abuse in their homeland and parents being forcibly
separated from their children. Matthew’s gospel tells us that the
young family, like modern refugees, will also have to flee to
another country under the threat of violence by the forces of a
crazed king (Mt 2: 13-15).
On this feast of Mary, we realize she stands with the world’s
displaced and vulnerable. The store windows may romanticize this
scene, even make it look attractive – but we can’t. A stable, or
cave is no place for a woman to give birth. A manger for animal food
is not where any mother wants to place her newborn. Imagine what
must have been running through Mary’s mind. Imagine her distress. No
grand entrance for the messiah into our world! Rather, he entered,
with his parents, through the world’s back door where the beggars
and outsiders are huddled.
The previous gospel section gives the account of Jesus’ birth.
One can only imagine Mary’s exhaustion. Now, as the shepherds arrive
and relate the message they received from the angels, Mary enters
into an internal labor, reflecting on the meaning of the events. The
Greek word used here suggests mulling something over, or putting
together pieces of a puzzle to make a "full picture."
Throughout her life Mary will have to contemplate the meaning of
the angels’ message the shepherds bring to her, trying to get a
"full picture" of what God is doing in her and her son’s life. She
will do what we do when things happen that we only partially
understand. We invite Mary to stand with us in prayer as we mull
over certain things in our lives that confuse us, or leave us
puzzled. We ask her to help us remain faithful even when the pieces
don’t come together to make a clear picture. We invite the Spirit
that overshadowed Mary to gift us with understanding, patience and
courage so that we do not give up on what may now befuddle us.
In the first reading from Numbers, God instructs Moses how the
people are to be blessed. The reading shows that God wants just that
for us – a blessing. Our God is not one who wants to lay heavy
burdens on us, test our faith, push us to the limits – or do
whatever hard things we often attribute coming from God. Rather, the
revelation to the Israelites at this key moment in their history,
and to us, is that God is gracious, looks kindly on us and wants to
give us peace. Not exactly the harsh stereotype of the infamous "Old
Testament God" we often hear spouted.
Jesus is the Numbers’ reading made flesh. He is the concrete
manifestation of God’s good inclinations towards us. In Jesus, God
has blessed us and turned a shining face towards us – Jesus is
Gold’s "kindly" look upon us. God has always been on our side and
Jesus is the full assurance of that. Isn’t it awkward to meet
someone we have met before whose name we have forgotten, or gotten
wrong? Or, to be with a person we haven’t met and not be introduced?
In Jesus, God has revealed a name to us, one that assures us we are
on a "first-name basis" with God. ("So shall they invoke my name
upon the Israelites and I will bless them.") We call on that name
and in doing so know that we have a special relationship with God
because of what Jesus has done for humanity.
Perhaps we feel distant from God, or our lives are not going well
and we wonder if God is off on holiday and forgotten about us. Or
worse, we may think that God is punishing us for some past wrong, or
testing us. These states of confusion and fear can compound our
difficulties and leave us overwhelmend. Where is God in our mess?
Well, we have been given a name we can call upon, Jesus, who is
God’s face turned with concern in our direction. In him, God "look(s)
upon you kindly and give(s) you peace." Jesus is the expansion of
Moses’ blessing over the Israelites and we believe that in Jesus,
all people’s have been blessed.
We join Mary as she ponders and reflects in her heart the
wonderful things God has done in Jesus for us. Think of the
consequences of God’s acts on our behalf. God has taken our flesh,
walked our earth and swept us up into loving arms. In Jesus a
blessing has been said over us and a new name given us. We are
outsiders and aliens no more. In Jesus’ name we are blessed, brought
in and called children of God. Many, or most of us, have made new
year’s resolutions about exercise, weight loss, or being kinder,
more patient and loving. Mary’s response to what was happening
around her should encourage us to do the same. Her example invites
us to take a step backwards from the rush of our lives to ponder who
we are; where we are going and how well we are doing on our journey.
This Eucharist might be just the occasion to begin that process of
reflection as we invoke the blessing Jesus’ name brings to us.
The birth of the Messiah was a turning point in the history of
the world. A very important event indeed! So, who showed up for this
momentous event? Where were the presidents, kings, queens, the
"movers and the shakers?" The usual luminaries were preoccupied and
distracted by their important concerns that day. Even the religious
leaders, who should have been attuned to God’s unusual workings,
missed what was happening. People who might have gained from being
there, politicians and local celebrities just didn’t show up. They
never got the invitation. Fame and fortune don’t get you to the
place where new life is found. Instead, your faith invites you and
faith accompanies you there. You make the trip because you have a
need that isn’t met by the usual things that satisfy most people.
Maybe you are weary of a world stained with suffering, war,
depression, fear, greed, torture, terror, sickness and sadness and
you hunger for peace and a light in the darkness. Maybe you are
looking to start all over again, or to energize a lagging faith.
Then, if any of these describe you, receive the invitation and enter
the story. Arrive with the shepherds in haste from the outer
darkness. Look and see the one God sent to us who is God-with-us, in
a babe. Feel quite at home, no matter how inadequate your reputation
or accomplishments. Let the hillside shepherds, still smelling of
sheep and fields and the poor Jewish parents, reassure you – "Here
you are welcome; here is your true home." The most unlikely people
find a home here today. Ponder that with Mary as she reflects on all
these things "in her heart."
for a link to this Sunday’s readings:
What else did the Angel tell you?
While you nurtured his message
And pondered the wild potential
Of a womb, did you envision those
Who would come after, the generations
That would Balkanize your heart,
Stamp your image on their banners
And lead you into battle;
That the wind would carry your name
From a German Soldier’s lips
As he lay dying on the Eastern front,
A Polish captain would wear your medal
Up the heights of Monte Cassino?
Do you grow weary of false sightings
And forced tears, the rote of rosaries,
The bargains of Novenas?
Oh, Lady O Guadalupe,
Madonna of Czestochowa,
Queen of Patriarchs,
Do you sometimes long to cry out
To the complaining Daughters of Eve,
To the rapacious Sons of Adam:
"Stop, Be silent. Listen, Hear me.
I’m Miriam, the Jewish girl from Nazareth
Who said ‘yes’ to life."
By Alice Tarnowski, in The Christian
look on you kindly and gives you peace!"
A new year has arrived and, on this Solemnity of the Holy Mother
of God, Catholics observe a World Day of Peace. Pope Francis urges
families, faith communities, government leaders, and the
international community to practice non-violence and work to build a
just peace. Look for reflections on his World Day of Peace message
WHAT YOU CAN DO: 1. Pray. Use the Prayer for Peace in Our
Communities (below) with your family, school, faith community, or in
2. Learn. Read USCCB’s The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace
(bit.ly/harvestofjustice) especially the section on "Nonviolence:
New Importance." How can Gospel nonviolence challenge each of us
personally, and as a nation? Learn how other communities are working
for peace around the United States (bit.ly/peaceCCHD) and world (bit.ly/CRSpeace).
How might the Holy Spirit be calling our community to respond?
Director of Social
Holy Name of Jesus
Cathedral, Raleigh, NC
Mini-reflections on the Sunday scripture readings designed for
persons on the run. "Faith Book" is also brief enough to be posted
in the Sunday parish bulletins people take home.
From today’s Gospel reading:
Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart."
Mary stands with the world’s displaced and vulnerable. The store
windows may romanticize the nativity scene, even make it look
attractive – but we can’t. A stable, or cave is no place for a woman
to give birth. A manger for animal food is not where any mother
wants to place her newborn. Mary has much to ponder about God’s
surprising and confusing ways!
So we ask ourselves:
- Has this Christmas season helped turn our eyes to the
neediest families among us?
- What can we do to relieve their confusion and distress?
WOMEN ON DEATH ROW
has to strongly affirm that condemnation to the death penalty is an
inhuman measure that humiliates personal dignity, in whatever form
it is carried out."
Inmates on death row are the most forgotten people in the prison
system. Each week I post in this space several inmates’ names and
addresses. I invite you to write a postcard to one or more of them
to let them know we have not forgotten them. If you like, tell them
you heard about them through North Carolina’s, "People of Faith
Against the Death Penalty." If the inmate responds you might
consider becoming pen pals.
[Did you know there are women on death row too? Check below for
the names of three who would appreciate a letter or postcard.]
- Carlette Parker #0311386 (On death row since 4/1/99)
- Blanche T. Moore #0288028 (11/16/90)
- Christian Walters #0626944 (7/6/00)
NC Correctional Institution for Women,
1034 Bragg St, Raleigh, NC 27610
For more information on the Catholic position on the death
penalty go to the Catholic Mobilizing Network:
Also, check the interfaith page for People of Faith Against the
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