Year C – Christmas Reflection

On the Sign of the Manger

[Is.52:7-10; Heb.1:1-6; Jn.1:1-18]

Merry Christmas!  What a happy day this is!  Now, have you noticed our crib?  St Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene on Christmas Eve back in 1223, three years before he died.

After visiting Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem, he recreated the scene in a cave in Greccio, Italy.  He set up an empty manger and added an ox and a donkey.  Then he invited everyone to come and see how poor and humble Jesus and his family were.

Mary and Joseph slept in that stable because there was nowhere else for them to stay.  It had a manger, which is a food trough made of wood or stone that’s used to feed cows, horses or donkeys.  (The word manger comes from the Latin ‘manducare’ which means ‘to eat’.) 

Mary didn’t want to put baby Jesus on that cold hard floor, so she used the manger to cradle him.  It was off the ground, the hay was soft and the sides kept Jesus safe.

Now, Luke’s Gospel mentions that manger three times, so it must be significant (Lk.2:7; 2:12; 2:16).  Indeed, nothing happens to God by accident, so we can be sure that he deliberately chose it as a sign. 

What then can we learn from the manger?

Well, as the Son of God, Jesus could have chosen to live anywhere at all.  But instead of glamour and comfort he chose absolute poverty and simplicity, making himself available to everyone, even the lowliest of shepherds (Phil.2:6-8).  So through the manger Jesus is showing us that he’s always open and available to us, and especially to the poor. 

That stable was also dirty and messy, and by his presence there Jesus is signalling that he’s happy to be with us wherever we are, even in the middle of our own dirty and messy lives.  And his manger tells us that there’s light to be found even in the darkest of places, because Jesus is the Light of the World (Jn.8:12).

Wealth, status and prestige mean absolutely nothing to Jesus, and by choosing to live so humbly he’s saying something about the way we live our own lives. He’s showing us that love, mercy, humility and forgiveness are far more important.

And did you know that Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’?  And combined with the symbol of the manger, Jesus is clearly offering himself to us as spiritual food.  He’s the Bread of Life, the cure for our spiritual hunger (Jn.6:35), and the manger reminds us of the Feeding of the 5,000 where Jesus nourished his eager followers (Mt.14:13-21).

Jesus is offering himself to us as spiritual food.

But it also points to the Last Supper where Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist.  That’s where he said, ‘Take and eat it, for this is my body’ (Mt.26:26) and ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day’ (Jn.6:53-57).

Jesus is the food for eternal life, and we can see that the manger mirrors our altar, the table of God, where we all come to share in the Bread of Life, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, in the Holy Eucharist.

Something else that the manger points to is Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Luke tells us that after Jesus was born, Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes and placed him in the manger (Lk.2:7).  These swaddling clothes were long strips of fabric, similar to the linen bandages that were wrapped around his body when he was placed in his tomb (Jn.19:40).

So, when you think about Christmas, you must also remember his death and resurrection at Easter.  These events are linked.

And finally, Jesus slept in that manger because he was homeless.  Even as an adult, Jesus says, ‘Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Lk.9:57-58).  On Christmas Day – his birthday – Jesus is still homeless. 

Will you take Jesus home with you today? 

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, 
The little lord Jesus laid down his sweet head. 
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay, 
The little lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, 
But little lord Jesus no crying he makes. 
I love thee, lord Jesus! Look down from the sky, 
And stay by my side until morning is nigh.

Be near me, lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay 
Close by me for ever and love me, I pray. 
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, 
And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

Year C – 4th Sunday in Advent

On the Lord of Dance

[Mic.5:1-4; Heb.10:5-10; Lk.1:39-44]

As Christmas approaches, I wonder – have you been singing The Twelve Days of Christmas? ‘On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me, ten lords a-leaping …’

Yes, I wonder too about these leaping lords. They remind me of the Maasai people of East Africa. Have you seen their traditional jumping dance, the adamu? The men form a circle, one enters the middle and he starts jumping up and down as high and as elegantly as possible.

It looks strange, but this dance is rich with meaning and purpose. It’s used to mark the rite of passage of a person from one stage of life to another, such as when a young man becomes a warrior or when he’s ready to get married.

I remember wanting to leap with joy at key moments in my life, too, like when I fell in love and got married, when we had children and when I was ordained.

But who are these leaping lords that ‘my true love gave to me’? Some say The Twelve Days of Christmas was written to teach children the Catholic catechism, at a time when our faith was illegal in England. The 10 lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments, and the ‘true love’ is God himself.

Jesus says we can summarise these Ten Commandments by loving God and loving each other (Mt.22:37-40). It’s really quite exciting when we discover that God truly loves us; it feels almost too good to be true. For so many of us, that’s the moment when our lives change and we really do feel like leaping for joy (Rom.5:9-11).

That’s what happens to old Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is so mean that he makes Bob Cratchit work in the cold on Christmas Eve. When Scrooge gets home, the ghost of his business partner warns him that his life needs to change.

The Ghost of Christmas Past then reminds him of his childhood and how he loved money more than his fiancée. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows him how his meanness is hurting others, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come terrifies him with visions of his death.

On Christmas morning Scrooge wakes up and he’s delighted to find that he still has time to change his ways. He laughs and dances around the room and says he feels as ‘giddy as a drunken man’.

He’s still got time to change his ways. He laughs and dances around the room.

He buys a turkey for the Cratchits, he donates money to the poor, he goes to church and to his nephew’s party. He’s transformed into a generous and kind-hearted person, and the change makes him want to leap with joy.

In Luke’s Gospel today, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, near Jerusalem. Mary is pregnant with Jesus, and Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist. As soon as Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, John leaps in her womb.

Why does he do that? It’s because he feels the powerful presence of God. He’s not even born yet, but already he senses his life’s work: to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus Christ. So he leaps with excitement.
But Mary’s heart leaps with joy, too. She realises what God has done for her, and she breaks into her famous song of praise, the Magnificat (Lk.1:46-55).

These leaps mark the arrival of the Kingdom of God and they announce the start of a new way of life for us all.

When we dance, the boundaries between our body and soul disappear and we begin expressing what’s often much too deep to say in words. St Ambrose said that dance lifts the body above the earth into the heavens.

St Francis of Assisi often leaped about with joy at unexpected moments, simply because he loved God so much.

And when the Ark of the Covenant, containing the Ten Commandments, was brought into Jerusalem, King David was so overjoyed that he started dancing (2Sam.6:14-22).

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I’ve told you this so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete (Jn.15:11).

That’s what happens when we’re touched by the hand of God; when we realise just how much he loves us. A new stage of life begins and we feel like leaping … dancing … with joy.

So, as Christmas approaches, we sing:

Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the dance, said he
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

[1] https://www.godtube.com/popular-hymns/lord-of-the-dance/

Year C – 3rd Sunday in Advent

On Great Balls of Fire

[Zeph.3:14-18; Phil.4:4-7; Lk.3:1-18]

Today is the third Sunday of Advent and Gaudete Sunday.  Pope Francis calls this ‘the Sunday of Joy’.  Why? It’s because Gaudete means ‘rejoice’. 

We rejoice because we’re halfway through Advent and Jesus is on his way.  We rejoice because God is in our lives and a holy fire is burning in our hearts. 

That’s what the prophet Zephaniah’s saying in our first reading, when he tells us to ‘shout for joy and exult with all your heart, for the Lord your God is in your midst’.

To emphasise our joy, we wear rose-coloured vestments today.  This comes from Isaiah who said ‘the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose’ (Is.35:1-6,10). [i]

One important element of joy is laughter.  The French writer Nicholas Chamfort said that the most wasted of days is one without laughter.  When you laugh, your brain produces natural chemicals that lift your mood and relieve your pain and suffering.  It can transform your emotions, cure illnesses and change the way you see the world.

St Philip Neri (1515-95) knew that laughter is good medicine, and that’s why he’s the patron saint of joy.  He spent most of his life in Rome and was ordained a priest at 35.  He used to encourage people’s faith in unusual ways, including by making them laugh.

He once sent a friend to get a bottle of wine, and insisted that he sample every wine in the shop before buying it.  Sometimes St Philip shaved off half his beard and did funny dances to make people laugh.  And sometimes he set penances for young men that required them to make fools of themselves in public.

Why did he do this?  It’s said that he needed these jokes more badly than anyone else, because his love for God was so intense.  He sometimes needed laughter to distract him and help him focus on what he had to do.

But joy isn’t just laughter.  Pope Francis says that Christians breathe joy, but joy doesn’t mean living from laugh to laugh.  It’s much deeper than that.

Joy isn’t just laughter. It’s much deeper than that.

‘Joy isn’t entertainment,’ he says.  Rather, ‘Christian joy is peace, peace that’s deeply rooted… in the heart, the peace that only God can give.’

But fostering Christian joy isn’t easy.  Pope Francis says that Christians must remember what God has done for us, and in that remembering be rejuvenated.  In today’s culture, he says, people often seem to be satisfied by mere fragments of pleasure, but that pleasure isn’t truly satisfying or lasting. It leaves people restless and uneasy. [ii]

CS Lewis wrote that true joy is the ache we feel in our hearts for something beyond this world.  It’s not a satisfied desire but an unsatisfied desire; a deep longing for God, a hungry pursuit of God’s heart that never ends.  And the Holy Spirit uses this restlessness to awaken our spiritual hunger.  

Lewis said that when little moments of life… like the way the light falls on a summer evening… stir you with a deep longing that’s hard to define, don’t look to earthly pursuits to fill the void.  Instead, allow the ache to push you deeper into your relationship with God. Pursue him. Allow that longing for him to become the hottest fire in your heart. [iii]

This is the joy we all long for; the joy that fills us with unimaginable love not only for God himself, but for all his creation, including those around us.

St Philip Neri was often said to have had a heart of fire.  But these weren’t mere words, for people noticed that he was always warm and often flushed.  He often walked about with his cassock unbuttoned at his chest, even in winter.  When he preached or prayed his heart used to beat violently, and some people could hear his heart beating across the room.  No-one knew why, until he was on his deathbed. [iv]

That’s when Philip revealed that on Pentecost Eve in 1544, he’d been praying that God would give him the Holy Spirit.  Then he saw the Spirit approach him as a ball of fire.  It entered his mouth and went straight to his heart, doubling its size and knocking him off his feet.  At his autopsy they found that two of his ribs had been broken and had formed an arch over his enlarged heart. [v]

As St Paul says, when we welcome God into our lives, he opens our eyes to his grace and power and he fills us with joy (Rom.15:13).  

Literally.


[i] Carol Reynolds, Journey through Advent.  Silver Age Music, Bowie Texas. 2015:58.

[ii] https://zenit.org/articles/santa-marta-the-breath-of-joy/

[iii] https://www.bible.com/reading-plans/3253-c-s-lewis-joy/day/1

[iv] http://www.liturgialatina.org/oratorian/bochanski.htm

[v] http://jp2forum.org/2010/05/st-philip-neri-and-gift-of-spirit.html

Year C – 2nd Sunday in Advent

On Waiting in Ice and Heat

[Bar.5:1-9; Phil.1:4-6, 8-11; Lk.3:1-6]

Today’s the second Sunday of Advent, and we’re reminded that it’s time to prepare because Jesus is coming.

Let me tell you a story.

In 1914, the explorer Ernest Shackleton sailed from London on the ship Endurance with 27 men.  He planned to be the first man to cross Antarctica.

But as he and his men approached the frozen continent they were trapped by pack ice.  Ten months later the ice crushed their ship and they had to abandon her.

Taking three lifeboats, they started walking. Six months later they arrived on Elephant Island.  When the ice started breaking up, Shackleton decided to take a chance and get help.  He promised to return, and with five men he sailed 1300 km in a lifeboat to South Georgia.

At the whaling station there he borrowed a boat and tried to return to his men, but the ice stopped him.  He wouldn’t give up, however, because of his promise, and tried another three times.  On his fourth attempt, as he approached Elephant Island the ice briefly opened up.  He took a risk, dashed in and collected his men.  He was in and out of the island in an hour.

As they sailed to safety, Shackleton said to one of them, ‘Well, you were packed and ready, weren’t you?’ 

We never lost hope – we believed you’d come for us.

The man replied, ‘Yes, we never lost hope.  We believed you’d come for us, even though it seemed unlikely.  You’d promised, and we expected you.  Each morning we rolled up our sleeping bags and packed all our equipment, so that we’d be ready’. 

They knew Shackleton would return for them, so they made sure they were ready.  They’d waited for him for 105 days and all were saved.

In our Gospel today, John the Baptist emerges from the desert and tells everyone to get ready, because the Messiah is coming.  He says ‘prepare the way of the Lord, for he is near’.

Now, Jesus is the Messiah, and we know he’s coming.  Not just at Christmas, not just at the end of time, and not just at the end of our lives. 

Jesus wants to come into our hearts right now.  But are we ready for him?

As St Charles Borromeo once put it, Jesus is ready to come again spiritually at any moment.

As Christians, Advent is the time of year when we’re called to prepare ourselves for Jesus’ return.  We know he’s coming for us.  In John 14:1-6, Jesus says: ‘Trust in God still, and trust in me. … I’m now going to prepare a place for you, and after I’ve gone and prepared you a place, I shall return to take you with me; So that where I am you may be, too.’

But will we be ready and waiting for him, like Shackleton’s men?

Even Jesus has his doubts.  In Luke 18:8, he asks, ‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

Yes, what will Jesus find when he comes this Christmas? 

I think he’ll find that Santa and shopping are more important than sainthood.  He’ll find that food and fun are more important than faith.  He’ll find that the hollow words ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ are more popular than the Word of God.  And he’ll find that many adults have abandoned Christmas to their children.

What would Shackleton have thought if his men had not been ready for him?

In our second reading today, St Paul tells the Philippians that he prays that they might learn to value the things that really matter, and that they might come to love each other, just as Jesus loves them.

The season of Advent is a free gift to each of us.  It’s an invitation to take time out, to reflect on the truth of Jesus Christ: his birth and his life, and what that means for us personally.

In the ice of Shackleton’s Antarctica and in the heat of St John the Baptist’s desert, there are few comforts and few distractions.  The truth is plain to see.

Shackleton’s men knew they had to get ready for his return, and they did.  John the Baptist knew the Messiah was coming, and he warned everyone to get ready.

At the typical Australian Christmas, there’s both ice and heat.  When you see the ice think of Shackleton.  When you feel the heat, think of John the Baptist in the desert.

But whatever you do, make sure you’re ready for Jesus’ return.

For Jesus is coming.

Year C – 1st Sunday in Advent

On the Paradox of Advent

[Jer.33:14-16; Thess.3:12-4:2; Lk.21:25-28,34-36]

Jesus has many names.  He’s the Dayspring (Mal.4:2; Lk.1:78), the dawn of God’s kingdom and light of the world who banishes the darkness.

He’s the Key of David (Is.22:22) who rescues us from hell and unlocks the door of heaven.

He’s the Rod of Jesse (Is.11:1), who springs from a dead stump and frees his people from slavery to sin. 

And he’s Emmanuel (Is.7:14). In Hebrew, ‘immanu’ means ‘with us’ and ‘El’ means God.  So, together Emmanuel means ‘God with us’.

Today marks the beginning of a new liturgical Year C, and a fresh season of Advent.  Advent, of course, is all about preparing our hearts and minds to receive Jesus at Christmas.

Every year at this time we sing ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’.  The English hymn as we know it today dates from the 1850s, but the words are ancient, dating back to 8th Century Gregorian chant.  The tune is from the 15th Century. 

In the original Latin, this hymn had seven verses, each focussing on one of the Old Testament names for Jesus, like the Dayspring, the Key of David and Rod of Jesse.  Together, they summarise the Bible’s prophecies about the coming of Jesus as the Messiah and his work among us.  They tell us how Jesus ransoms us from our captivity to sin and death, and sets us free. [i]

Each year, in the week before Christmas, Benedictine monks used to sing or chant one verse each day to prepare their hearts and minds for Christ’s coming.

One interesting detail in the Latin hymn is that the first letter of each name for Jesus (Sapientia, Adonai, Radix Jesse, Clavis David, Oriens, Rex Gentiem, and Emmanuel) spells SARCORE.  Backwards, this acronym reads ‘Ero Cras’, which means ‘Tomorrow I come’. [ii] 

That’s our focus in Advent: the coming of Jesus Christ. 

There are three comings of Christ. The third is invisible.

St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was a French abbot and Doctor of the Church.  He said that there are three comings of Jesus Christ. [iii]  The third coming, he said, is invisible and lies between the other two, which are visible.

Jesus’ first coming is his birth in Bethlehem.  It’s visible and it’s what we celebrate at Christmas.  But Jesus did so much more than arrive as a baby.  He also died for us on the Cross and rose again to new life.  So we also celebrate him as the Son of God who sacrificed everything to demonstrate his love for us and to show us how to join him in heaven.

Jesus’ second coming is also visible.  It will be at the end of our lives and at the end of all time.  That’s when Jesus will come in his glory and we’ll finally see him face-to-face (2Thess.1:6-7).

And in between is his third coming.  It’s invisible.  It’s the hidden appearance of Jesus that’s already happening right now, but only some of us can see him.  Where do we see him?   We see him in the Word, in the Holy Eucharist, in the Church, in our neighbours and in our personal lives.

But why can’t some of us see him?  It’s because we haven’t opened our eyes, our minds and our hearts to his presence among us.

St Bernard said that because Jesus’ third coming lies between the other two, it’s like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last.  In the first coming, Christ was our redemption.  In the last coming, he’ll appear as our eternal life.  And in between he’s our rest and consolation.

In his first coming, Jesus arrived in our human flesh and in our weakness.  In the middle he comes in spirit and in power.  And in his final coming we’ll see him in all his glory and majesty.

St Peter predicted that some people would ridicule the idea of Jesus coming again.  He was right; many people do just that.  But don’t forget, he says, ‘that the Lord’s patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’  So he gives us time to prepare ourselves.  But the day of the Lord will come ‘like a thief’, Peter says, when we least expect it (2Pet.3:3-10).

So, whenever we sing ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’, we’re not just celebrating the birth of Jesus, our Saviour.  We’re also preparing our hearts for his return, both in this life and in the next.

For at the very heart of Advent is this paradoxical mystery: 

Jesus was … is … and is still to come.


[i] https://aleteia.org/blogs/deacon-greg-kandra/is-o-come-o-come-emmanuel-anti-semitic/

[ii] https://www.professorcarol.com/o-come-emmanuel/

[iii] https://www.discerninghearts.com/catholic-podcasts/three-comings-of-christ-st-bernard/