"Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Judeans"- this is how our Lord's last days ended before His death on the cross. After His death and burial, Jesus arose from the dead as He had said. His resurrected presence during forty days terminated with His ascension into heaven. This is how our Lord's earthly life was concluded.
Let us go back to the earthly beginning of our Lord's human life. When was this beginning? In the Roman Catholic Church, the date of Christ's birth is December 25. Much of the confusion surrounding the exact date when Jesus was born was due to the erroneous calculation of the Scythian monk, Denis the Little, which was introduced in the sixth century. He mistakenly identified the year 754 of the Roman era with the first year of Christ's life, calling it 1 A.D. in spite of the fact that Herod died in the spring of 750 of the Roman era which corresponds with 4 B.C.
The Nativity occurred more than eighteen months earlier and its latest date would correspond with 6 B.C. (September). More probably, Christ's birth occurred even some months earlier, and if the season favorable for the taking of a census is considered, October or November of 7 B.C. would be proper.
The liturgical feast of the Savior's Birth has been observed on December 25 from the fourth century. Some would argue that this day, December 25, was chosen to counteract, or supplant, the pagan celebration of the "birth of the sun". Whether this is a valid argument remains to be seen. It may just as well be a question of false logic: "Post hoc, ergo, propter hoc". This very common error in logical thinking will never die! This is called the "fallacy of false cause."
It is just as valid to see in the pagan celebration of the "birth of the sun" a remnant of the distorted belief in the anticipated birth of the Son of God. If we keep in mind that "paganism" is not the same as atheism, we might more easily conclude that the "pagan" is the victim of that age-old error of fallen nature: to confuse the spiritual with the material; to worship the symbol rather than the Reality for which the symbol stands.
Historical realities are just as valid as indicators of spiritual realities and values as anything else. That this is true may be seen in the words of St. Paul to the Romans: "For the creation of the world his invisible attributes are clearly seen _ his everlasting power also and his divinity _ being understood through the things that are made" (Romans 1,20). It is man's wickedness that blinds him to the truth of even those visible things in creation.
For this reason, asserts St. Paul: "And so they have no excuse"(Ibid.1,20).
Just as those who lived in the time when Jesus walked the earth had no excuse to ignore that which they had been awaiting, namely, the birth of the Savior, so also the people of our day have even less excuse for not accepting Jesus.
Like the people of our Lord's day, our times are not much different: Man has not matured spiritually! This is even true of those who would have us believe that they are `Catholic'.
The reason for this is that the only true maturity lies in the practice of virtue. And, among the most important virtues are those that are called the "theological virtues" _ Faith, Hope and Charity. The people _ even believers _ were just as superficial then as they are now. This may sound like a terrible indictment and unwarranted judgment. Yet, that this is painfully true may be seen by the number of genuine and loyal Roman Catholics left in the world.
And even among these the spiritual truths and lessons behind the visible expressions symbolized in the physical birth of our Redeemer and Savior are too often lost.
There are even some who give themselves the name "Christian" who indulge in the most fantastic explanations of the virgin birth if for no other purpose than to oppose the clear teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and to establish themselves as some kind of quasi-infallible authority.
On all these and many more, the entire import of the Incarnation has been lost. And what is the `message' that the physical facts wish to convey? What is God, actually, trying to tell us by taking upon Himself the most humble status when entering the dimension of creation?
Exactly that: God is telling us what the true values of human existence are and not what fallen nature would have us believe.
The true message of God has been constantly distorted and twisted by those spirits we call "fallen angels" or "devils" to the point where those unaided by grace accept falsehood for truth, and of necessity condemn truth as falsehood.
How much more could God do for us that He has not done? Short of violating His Justice, God could do no more. His mercy excuses the repentant sinner; but it also requires restitution.
The mystery of the Incarnation is a lesson in humility. And wonder of wonders, when God first announced this historical fact of the birth of Christ, it was announced to the most unpretentious of men: shepherds!
These were men who were really "down to earth" _ They had very little of this world's goods; their prized possession and source of livelihood were the sheep they pastured in the hills of Bethlehem. Even the very town of Bethlehem was too common and ordinary that the Prophet even had to foretell the place with somewhat apologetic terms: "And thou, Bethlehem, of the land of Juda, art by no means least among the princes of Juda; for from thee shall come forth a leader who shall rule my people Israel"(Mich.5,2).
Even the chief priests and the Scribes knew where Jesus was to be born. For, when the wise men of the Orient came looking for the "king of the Judeans" and King Herod inquired where this "king" was to be born, his advisors told him: "In Bethlehem of Judea.." and they quoted from the Old Testament.
Would you not expect that these intelligent chief priests and Scribes who, knowing that the expected Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, would at least be somewhat curious of the current events?
Why, then, did they not hurry to Bethlehem together with the wise men of the East? It should be obvious that the chief priests and Scribes had a sufficient knowledge of the Scriptures which they claimed to believe. Why did they not believe this part of Scripture? Why did the wise men who were not even Judeans believe more readily than the children of Israel? These and many more practical question can be asked. But, what good would that do? What would change the obstinate and haughty will of these "learned" individuals? It would serve no purpose! For , "A fool convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still."
It was not knowledge that was lacking in these religious and political leaders. What was lacking in them was humility that makes discernment possible. Even though the truth was presented to them, they refused to accept it. This same refusal to accept the truth is to be found in every person who has not learned the blessed liberty and grandeur that are the fruit of genuine humility.
This is the lesson that God sought to teach when He, in the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, entered our created existence. Man would not learn from anyone else; so, God Himself took upon Himself the role of teacher. Not only by word, but especially by example, God gave us the essential lesson whereby the great mysteries of the here and the hereafter are unlocked: humility.
Jesus was born in a stable and placed in a manger not because He could not be born in better surroundings, but because He wished to show even the poorest of the poor that true riches are not to be found in the things of this world, but in being united to God through faith and grace.
This same struggle continues even 2000 years after His Incarnation. The struggle between the values of the world and the values of God. Jesus began His ministry in the broad sense of the word from the moment of His birth in Bethlehem. We seldom see it in this light; because our mind's eye is not focused on the truth. It is more attracted to the sense perception of material things and goes no further.
This is the reason why St. Francis of Assisi, inspired by his deep love for Jesus Christ in His humanity, was responsible for the first Christmas Crib. Francis lived in the early part of the thirteenth century. That is thirteen hundred years from the birth of Christ. The faith and fervor of the people had grown cold. There were the usual excuses presented by historians for this indifference to the faith. Few have had the courage to name the real cause. Perhaps because they themselves suffer from the same malady as the people of Francis' time.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem as a sign. And what is a `sign' if not something easily understood by everyone that directs to something else? Even words are `conventional signs.' We may be amused by `jabberwocky' _ but as a `sign' it falls flat.
If a sign is misread, its original message must necessarily be lost. There is no need to speak of guilt here. The guilt or innocence does not change the fact _ the objective fact _ that the message has not been received or accepted. The message is the message as intended by the Sender. After all, how dumb can anybody be?
Let us examine the circumstances surrounding the announcement of Christ's birth more closely: "And there were shepherds in the same district living in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood by them and the glory of God shone round about them, and they feared exceedingly.
And the angel said to them, `Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which shall be to all the people; for today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you, who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign to you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger'"(Luke 2, 10-12).
The messenger from heaven gave these economically poor, but spiritually rich, shepherds a sign. It was by this sign that they would find the awaited Messiah _ the Redeemer.
They remembered this sign and they went down to Bethlehem. They went into the town. They looked around, searching for the `sign.' How they found it and how long it took to find it, is not told to us simply because it is not important to the fact: The shepherds found the sign!
They found an infant; he was wrapped in swaddling clothes; he was lying in a manger. The Mother, Mary, was there alone with Joseph. No other human beings were there. Oh, yes, there was an ox and an ass. It must have smelled like a stable because it was a stable. It provided little shelter for humans, but was sufficient for animals.
Shepherds understand these things. What they could not understand without the grace of God was how their Creator could choose such an unhealthy environment to be born in. They probably lived much like the stable looked; but, it was still the abode of human beings _ no matter how poor.
The redemption of mankind was already being prepared in Bethlehem: It would be completed when the humble and meek Christ would hang on the Cross and speak His last word: "It is consummated!"
Our redemption began in Bethlehem and ended on Calvary. Now, our salvation begins with the grace of humility and ends with the grace of glory. The two are inseparable.
Our Lord spoke to us while lying in the manger; He spoke to us all during His hidden and public life; He left us all with one profound and salutary message: "Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart, and you shall find rest for your souls."
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