Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Humble Heart You Will Not Spurn

Christmas Night - 2008 - Rosary Monastery


            The first verses in one of the Advent responsorials (taken from Psalm 25 and Zechariah 7:9) goes to the heart of that essential exchange between us and God. It goes like this:

            “The Lord leads the humble to justice; he teaches the meek his ways.

-Mercy and truth are the Lord’s ways, his witness to all who seek him.”

When we speak about Christ’s birth in a stable at Bethlehem, we’re used to speaking about His (namely Jesus’) humility, that the Almighty and Eternal God emptied Himself to come among us as a man, and a poor man at that. This notion is key, but it is no less essential for us to recognize that the other side of that coin is the importance of our own humility as we go to meet the Lord Who comes, as we make our way to the stable in Bethlehem. If we want to know the Lord’s ways, if we want to be His children above all else, then we have to be humble.

            “The Lord leads the humble to justice; he teaches the meek his ways.

-Mercy and truth are the Lord’s ways, his witness to all who seek him.”

The author of the spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ, offers us a powerful insight into this virtue (humility) not only in terms of how it can help us to appreciate the great mystery of Christmas but for how essential being humble is to living in God’s love the whole year through:

            “God protects and frees a humble man; he loves and consoles a humble man; he favors a humble man; he showers him with graces; then, after his suffering, God raises him up to glory. He reveals his secrets to a humble man and in his kindness invitingly draws that man to himself. When a humble man is brought to confusion, he experiences peace, because he stands firm in God and not in this world. Do not think that you have made any progress unless you feel that you are the lowest of all men.”

            He reveals his secrets to a humble man…” The shepherds outside of Bethlehem on this holy night were certainly humble from a social standpoint. If they hadn’t been, the angel might not have spoken to them or if he had, they might not have heard his voice. It’s not that the shepherds had cultivated a life of prayer which opened them up to this experience, but rather that they were men without pretense, men who had no demands or expectations they could put on anyone else. That is what made them the most eligible to receive a visit from the angel of the Lord later to be joined by the heavenly host. On this night the shepherds really got a shock; you might say they must have had the original or the biggest “Hey, you! Who? Me?” experience of all time as the angel of the Lord spoke to them and they recognized who it was who was speaking to them.

            “In the countryside close by there were shepherds who lived in the fields and took it in turns to watch their flocks during the night. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them. They were terrified…”

            Singled out they were, those shepherds, to receive a one time and for all times message: “Do not be afraid. Listen, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord.”

            Many times it seems as though the world has changed so much that I’d be afraid to presume a child of today has the same perception of things around him as I did as a child. Most of us as children would have been innocent to the plight of those shepherds and most pleased to receive a visit from the angel of the Lord. We were affirmed and loved enough perhaps that the angel’s appearing would have been awe-inspiring, yes, but no great shock should we have been singled out by God to hear first the glad tidings of great joy. Our home environment may not have been perfect, but thanks to our Baptism and life within the community of the Church, we certainly lived in God’s Universe and had every reason to believe that an angel might just come calling with some renewed expression of God’s love for us, His dear children.

            I’d like to believe that’s how children today as well perceive the account from Luke’s Gospel of the birth of the savior and the announcement in the night to the shepherds of this most blessed of all events in history. It came, however, as a real shock for the shepherds and a real fright: they were on the fringe of society, nobodies so to speak, who were not accustomed to being spoken to by the better half of society let alone by heavenly emissaries. These coarse, most likely totally unschooled men and boys, disregarded by everyone but perhaps the dogs who helped them watch the sheep, were on this night caught up in something cosmic: “And suddenly with the angel there was a great throng of the heavenly host, praising God and singing: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to men who enjoy his favor’.”

            St. Paul tells Titus and us in tonight’s Second Reading: “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race… our great God and savior Christ Jesus… He sacrificed himself for us in order to set us free from all wickedness and to purify a people so that it could be his very own and would have no ambition except to do good.” We can always speculate on why the angel of the Lord was sent to the shepherds and why they were singled out for the shock of being the first outside of the Holy Family to know of God’s love for his people expressed in such an extraordinary way. The point is that they the shepherds were chosen; no doubt God chose them as the humblest of all the people in that area; they the least of God’s people were singled out to hear the message of an angel. “No ambition except to do good” St. Paul says: maybe you have to be down and out like a shepherd to be able to set your hopes on God in that radical kind of way: “No ambition except to do good”.

What about the better half of society? Why exclude the wealthy, the powerful, and the successful from this type of exchange? In point of fact, we do not want to exclude anyone, but we do want to look reality straight in the face. By way of illustration, let us look for a moment at the present world economic crisis, which has saddened Christmas for so many this year and has uncovered numerous crimes of greed and deception such as the case of fraud attributed recently to a once very wealthy and successful businessman who seems to have cheated investors out of (some say) as much as US$ 50 billion – that’s more money than all of us together if we worked hard for weeks could ever throw away or burn. I don’t know, let us just say that perhaps wealth and glamour distract too much. Maybe only the lowest on the totem pole can hear angels sing!

            We do not want to exclude the possibility of a “Hey, you! Who? Me?” experience for anyone. The prophet Isaiah in the First Reading speaks about “the jealous love of the Lord of hosts”. How do you get your mind around the depth of God’s love for us, each and every one of us regardless of who we are, Love shining forth from the cave at Bethlehem unless you label His love “jealous”? There is nonetheless the question of whether I, to the extent that I am comfortable in this world, I even really care about God’s love for me. It seems to be true that people’s heads are turned by “baubles, bangles, and beads” (sportscars, Blackberries, and bling – you fill in the blanks). Being terribly vain or really comfortable in this world would seem to put a damper on one’s yearning for heaven. Being of this world, being worldly, seems to be an inoculation or immunization against the things of the world to come, heaven.

But we cannot lose hope! As vain as a child or youth can be, vanity (no matter how old we might be) does not totally exclude the possibility of our loving God taking that heart of ours by surprise with a “Hey, you! Who? Me?” Hence the logic of speaking about: “the jealous love of the Lord of hosts”! I suppose God can touch a person’s heart, speak to a person anywhere, maybe even in a nightclub or at Uncle Scrooge’s accounting desk. When you think about it, more often than not God has sent his angel to people who are to be found most anywhere but between the altar and the sanctuary. Just look at our shepherds! They were almost too humble for religion, you might say. They may not even have been presented in the Temple as children, let alone brought back there for the feast of Passover each year. No, “the jealous love of the Lord of hosts” can take us by surprise, rich and poor alike, most anywhere. Nonetheless, if you live without pretense the odds are better in your favor.

By the same token, I assure you that if you are a regular practicing Catholic, a man, woman or child, who not only goes to Mass every Sunday, but confesses his or her sins regularly, says his or her morning offering, bedtime prayers and grace before meals, that is, if you, as we said before, live in God’s Universe, then your chances are even better. Moreover, I want to share with you an ever stronger longing on my part not only for beautiful liturgy, for sacred worship, but also for maintaining our churches as sacred spaces, as quiet beautiful places of prayer, as room consecrated to God and open for people to come in and visit Him. St. Edith Stein said that what moved her to want to be Catholic was stopping in to look at a Catholic Church (I think it was in downtown Speyer, Germany) on a work day just as a lady coming from the market stopped in to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. All the objections of this young woman agnostic and all her sophistication melted away in a moment as she watched this woman set down her groceries and kneel for a moment of quiet prayer. Edith had her sign, all of a sudden, just like the shepherds had in the baby they found in the manger.

            Although they are only excuses, how is it possible for people to withdraw themselves from worshipping at Mass every Sunday except by ignoring or denying that in the Catholic Church they have been granted entrance to the forecourt of heaven? I’m not talking fireworks and pageantry, but an experience tailored to the likes of those humble shepherds: “And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger”. The Mass is not a gilded or otherwise jewel-encrusted affair, it is not a show or a major production, but as the old farmer told his pastor when the priest asked him what he prayed about in church he said: it’s simply that “I look at him and he looks at me”; it is about presence. Israel had a sense of God’s presence as it wandered through the desert for 40 years; Judah had a sense of God’s presence in His holy Temple in Jerusalem. We’ve got the baby! We’ve got the child, the youth, the man: God, Jesus, one like us in all things but sin, present in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar!

            Rejoice, rejoice, and rejoice at Christmas! Be an angel, if you can, to someone else this Christmas and give to him or to her the only sign they need to understand “the jealous love of the Lord of hosts”. Were those shepherds pious souls? Did they pray? I doubt it. Their world certainly would never have had room for something as stiff-necked as atheism, but by the same token, as I mentioned before, I doubt if they could have imagined a visit from the angel of the Lord. I hope and pray this Christmas that everyone in your family circle, your circle of friends, would be open to the angel’s message and open to an encounter with God in the Person of Jesus, born of Mary the Virgin, born for us at Bethlehem and for us given. We pray that people will get back to basics; we pray that a baby can be a sign for somebody today; we pray for the best of all gifts at Christmas for one and all: a humble heart.    

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