By Bishop James Conley
The book of Genesis, the very first book in the Bible, tells us the story of creation, which reminds us that we are made in the image and likeness of God. This means that we, as human beings, are created with profound dignity—dignity that can never be taken away. However, because of the incarnation—God becoming man—the Christian disciple understands that dignity in an even deeper way. Not only has God created us in his image and likeness, but he has become like us, by taking on our human nature.
St. Pope Leo the Great, the courageous 5th century Roman pontiff, who among other accomplishments fended off the ravenous Attila the Hun from sacking Rome, said in a Christmas homily: “Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition…do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God’s kingdom.”
In the celebration of Christmas, we celebrate how light came into the world in the subtlest, most unimaginable, and yet most perfect way. God became a man, but not immediately as a grown man. He humbled himself to become a tiny embryo, a little child developing in his mother Mary’s womb.
He became a vulnerable infant, completely dependent upon Mary, Joseph, and all those around him. God’s entrance into the world would not have happened without the love and faith of a family—the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—who gave the necessary human love to the newborn Prince of Peace. God lowered himself to become a part of the human family so that we might be a part of the family of God for all eternity.
Jesus entered our world approximately 2,000 years ago, and it was not a world at peace. He was born in Bethlehem in the land of Palestine, under the rule of the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus. Even though our Lord entered into the world during a time period of the Roman Empire that was known as the Pax Romana, or the “Roman Peace,” the world was still full of strife, and there was not yet peace in the hearts of the world’s inhabitants.
Jesus came into the world at a time of noise and anxiety. The Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph had to make a long, arduous trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem, in order to be enrolled in a census at the request of Caesar Augustus, most likely for purposes of taxation. When they arrived at Bethlehem, due to the large number of people in the little town, there was no place for the Holy Family to stay, and the King and Creator of the Universe was born in a simple manger, alongside barnyard animals.
The announcement of a newborn king caused alarm among the leading men of Jerusalem, including the local leader, the murderous King Herod. Herod feigned wonder and admiration for this newborn king, saying that he desired to do him homage, but in his heart he only wanted to murder him, as Jesus was an affront to Herod’s power. In his jealousy and wrath, Herod frantically decreed that all boys in Bethlehem 2 years old and under should be killed. Due to this slaughter of the innocents by Herod, the Holy Family was forced to flee to Egypt in haste and remain there until the death of Herod.
The infant Jesus entered into a world of noise and strife, a world that had plenty of problems, a world that lacked peace. This is why He came down among us, to restore our dignity and to bring us peace.
Since the time of Christ to the present day, there is still plenty of noise, plenty of problems, and too little peace in our hearts. Even the season of Advent, where we prepare for the coming of Christ into our world, is often filled with noise: shopping, parties, gift exchanges, etc. These things are not evil, in fact, used for the good, they can truly be the joyful sounds of Christmas, joyful sounds that lift our hearts.
Nevertheless, without reference back to the Christ-child, these joyful sounds of Christmas can lose their meaning and overwhelm us. Jesus is the savior of the world. Jesus is the one who gives us purpose in our lives. And Jesus, as the Prince of Peace, is the only one who gives us true peace.
Everything that the Christ-child represents is exactly what the world was missing. It was missing innocence, simplicity, and love. And in this child, lies the depth and wonder of Christmas.
The Christmas season gives us an annual opportunity for our hope to be renewed and strengthened; perhaps for some, hope needs to be restored.
During the past year, great pain has been felt throughout the Universal Church, caused by the scandal of priests and bishops. I know that this has caused great pain among the lay faithful of our own diocese. I remain committed to do all in my power to ensure that the parishes, schools, and institutions of our diocese are safe places. And yet, I am also aware that this scandal has fractured the trust of the faithful. And I want to do all that I can to repair that trust.
The thought that anyone’s hope in the Risen Lord and in salvation has been lost due to this scandal pains me gravely. Any victim of abuse by the clergy or Church personnel should be welcomed to come forward to tell their story, if they so desire. We should all pray for victims of abuse, especially during this season of Christmas, that their hope may be restored and renewed.
Most Catholic households have the tradition of placing a Nativity scene in their homes. It’s believed that this tradition has its roots in the devotion that St. Francis of Assisi had to the Child Jesus. St. Francis traveled on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and visited the historical place of Jesus’ birth. When he came back to his native land of Italy, he set up a manger in a cave with a living ox and donkey, trying to re-create the first Christmas night, seeing how Christ came into the world with such poverty, humility and simplicity.
During this Christmas season, I invite you to spend some time, either at home or at your parish, praying before the infant Jesus laying in his crib. Allow for this to be a time of silence and solitude, unseen by others, to encounter the wonder of the Christ-child.
Our Lord aggressively broke into an imperfect world filled with sin, division, and strife, but he did it in a tender, most innocent and most perfect of ways—as a little child. Likewise, Jesus wants to break humbly into the little world of our own hearts, despite the pains, sorrow, and even despair that may be present within us. Jesus is the source of true healing.
May the Christ-child bring you much peace and the assurance of the merciful love of our Father in heaven. Please be assured of my prayers for you during this Christmas season.