The Christmas Crib, as we know it, was designed by Saint Francis of Assisi. He wanted to remind the people who saw the crib, that the Lord Jesus, as well as being truly divine, was also truly human, and not some divine being just pretending to be human.
Too many people get caught up in celebrating a ‘sentimental’ Christmas, with lots of frills and expectations of warm feelings. The Season of Advent, which begins today, should certainly prepare us for a joyful, warm Christmas, but somewhere along the way we should recognise the fact that God humbled himself and became a man, and in this way, he identified with the human race. And so all our humanity, both the joys and the sorrows, are blessed and redeemed by the God who became man. And by turning our lives over to God’s values, we acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the One Lord of all.
I may have told you that in my first parish there was an eccentric lady who cycled through the town each day, dressed in her Sunday best, handing out ‘heavenly messages’ – little scrolls of parchment containing words of wisdom. When I opened my little scroll it asked: “If you were arrested and charged with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” In today’s Gospel, Our Lord warns his disciples that the coming of God’s Kingdom will be a serious business. To be a Christian is not just to pay lip service to Advent or Christmas, or indeed anything else Christian. To be a Christian is not to succumb to the gospel of consumerism that tells us we are worth as much as we own. Christian commitment should make a difference in how we live, and people should notice that in us.
Advent is a good time to re-examine our lives and our life-styles. Unlike Lent, Advent is not so much a penitential season, but a season of preparation. And so, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas this year have we perhaps allowed ourselves to slip quietly into consumerism? Have we gone the way of the world and started ‘celebrating’ Christmas a month before it really begins? Will we use Advent to spend every penny we possess on gifts, or will we allow God to call us and enrich our lives with prayer? Perhaps we need to re-discover what Christmas is really all about.
Now, the secular celebrations of the Christmas season are not bad in themselves, even if they do start in early November. Some of you may be considered something of a Scrooge if you didn’t celebrate with your family and friends as Christmas approaches. But the challenge for a Christian is to keep our preparations centred on faith, hope and love, not the shopping list.
It goes without saying that to be a Christian means that we must change our lives fundamentally. In the second reading, Saint Paul tells us “to throw off the works of darkness”. Our salvation is nearer than we thought. Saint Augustine speaks of how God’s grace heals us and makes us whole. God is constantly drawing us closer to himself, especially through the Sacraments. When we receive the Sacraments, we receive God’s grace in such a way that it nourishes us to live the Christian lives we profess so readily with our lips.
And so during Advent, God calls us to make the crooked path straight. Through the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, we have the opportunity, and the offering of grace, to do just that.
If we are to announce God’s Kingdom, as Our Lord expects us to, then we must bring God’s saving message to the society in which we live, here in our own place, among the people we know.
We need to realise that “The time is now!” The theme that the gospels announce repeatedly in the coming weeks is the urgency of the moment. The time for God’s justice is NOW, not tomorrow or the next day or next year, but right NOW. Christ our King is reigning over all creation even as we speak, calling everyone to honour God’s ways.
The coming of God as an infant in poverty reminds us that, in God’s system, little things and little people are most important.
The birth of Our Lord takes on a greater meaning when we see it leading up to the rest of his life: his healing ministry, his suffering and death, his resurrection and ascension into heaven. Everything about Christ is important, because Christ is God, the Creator and Lord of all things visible and invisible. Christmas takes on greater meaning when we see it as the first act of God’s saving drama. The season of Advent is the joyful and rousing overture.
It’s interesting to note that within a year of Saint Francis constructing the first nativity scene in such a dramatic fashion, he also experienced the stigmata. This should remind us of how closely the birth of Christ is related to the rest of his life, and especially his suffering and death. Our Lord’s Nativity is cause for great joy. But it’s a joy that knows the fullness of life, the difficult as well as the easy. During Advent we seek to bring this joy and peace to every aspect of our lives. There is no better way to prepare for Christmas, as well as the final coming of God’s Kingdom.