For many the days leading up to Christmas, along with Christmas Eve and Christmas day, is an overwhelming and exhausting experience, which is why we should be grateful that we don’t have to wait too long this year for Lent to start. Right now we can simply enjoy the twelve days of Christmas with a measure of peace that allows us, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, to ponder the great mystery of the Incarnation in our hearts. A preview of Lent, even of Good Friday, is certainly one fruitful way of looking at the witness of Anna, the prophetess, and the devout and righteous Simeon in today’s Gospel. The Feast of the Holy Family gives us the opportunity to put the great mystery we celebrate, and in which we are invited to participate, into broader perspective, which is essential if our faith is to be fruitful in our lives.
What I mean when I mention our faith bearing fruit in our lives is not some Pelagian, or semi-Pelagian insistence, that we now need to set about earning what we can never earn, which is God’s ever-faithful love for us. My friends, on this wonderful day in the Octave of Christmas, let’s not bog ourselves down with a to-do list. I think the vast majority of us are tired of those by now, even as we set about making our New Year’s resolutions. Rather, let’s just try to soak in the great mystery of God-made-man-for-us.
One of the greatest temptations we need to resist is measuring the “success” of the Gospel, whether in our own lives, or in the aggregate, by worldly standards. This is true whether we are talking about stewardship, which, as Bishop Wester often and rightly reminds us, is simply the way of life for a disciple of Jesus Christ, or evangelization, about which we hear and speak so much, especially this thing called “the New Evangelization.”
Author A.N. Wilson, who spent years in the wilderness as an atheist after his largely devout youth before returning to faith several years ago during Holy Week, began an article that appeared in The Telegraph on Christmas day by asking, “Is Christianity a dying religion?” Throughout the rest of his piece he grappled with this question, mustering, on one hand, evidence that rebuts the argument that Christianity is dying, and, on the other, looking at the signs, especially in Western societies, that Christianity, if not exactly dying, is in poor health and getting worse.
In the end, Wilson concluded, rightly, in my view, that none of these measurable indicators (“metrics,” we like to call them in our increasingly instrumentalized world) really tell us anything at all, or least tell us nothing worth knowing. Ruminating on this for the past few days, I recalled an observation made by one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Tom Waits: “We are buried beneath the weight of information, which is being confused with knowledge; quantity is being confused with abundance and wealth with happiness. We are monkeys with money and guns.” My sisters and brothers, the Gospel is precisely the power that can free us from this worldly enslavement.
We all know the well-worn cliché- “Freedom isn’t free,” which is usually employed in a jingoistic manner to justify war-making. Here’s the good news- Jesus Christ came into the world to pay a debt that He did not owe, because you owed a debt you couldn’t pay. In other words, He came, as stated in the Christmas carol, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”- “To save us all from Satan's power/When we were gone astray.” If you don’t believe you’ve gone astray, one might sensibly ask you, “What are you doing here right now?” Perhaps you came for the preaching.
In fact, to look at the world in an instrumentalized, metricized, reductive, manner- a way of looking at reality wholly at odds with being a Christian- amounts to voluntarily putting on blinders in a vain attempt to reduce everything to your own measure in the foolish and false belief that you are in control. If we learn nothing else from Abraham, who is our father because of his faith, it is to trust God, whose ways are mysterious and, at least when viewed from a worldly perspective, often a more than a bit odd.
Wilson nicely summarized the words spoken by Simeon to the Lord’s Blessed Mother and St Joseph, whose quiet faithfulness always shines brightly through the infancy narratives:
The Gospel is hard, and it contains within it, not the fear but the absolute certainty, that persecution and misunderstanding will always follow in its wake. It is based on the idea of dying in order to live; of losing life in order to find it; of taking up the cross, that instrument of torture, and finding therein not merely life but gloryIn his Christmas message to the Church and the world, Pope Francis noted:
Humble people, full of hope in the goodness of God, are those who welcome Jesus and recognize him. And so the Holy Spirit enlightened the shepherds of Bethlehem, who hastened to the grotto and adored the Child. Then the Spirit led the elderly and humble couple Simeon and Anna into the temple of Jerusalem, and they recognized in Jesus the Messiah. “My eyes have seen your salvation”, Simeon exclaimed, “the salvation prepared by God in the sight of all peoples” (Luke 2:30)What does this salvation look like it the here and now? I’ll let Wilson handle this one too:
The paradox is that growing or shrinking numbers do not tell you anything. The Gospel would still be true even if no one believed it. The hopeful thing is that, where it is tried – where it is imperfectly and hesitantly followed – as it was in Northern Ireland during the peace process, as it is in many a Salvation Army hostel this Christmas, as it flickers in countless unseen Christian lives, it works. And its palpable and remarkable power to transform human life takes us to the position of believing that something very wonderful indeed began with the birth of Christ into the world
Simeon with the Christ child, by Rembrandt, 1669
Indeed, Simeon’s words to Mary and Joseph concerning Jesus continue to be proven, to be verified in reality through experience by those who surrender to Him, who dare to revere Him as Lord and not merely accept Him as Savior: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted —and you yourself a sword will pierce— so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).
That's a wrap for 2014. I'll catch you both in the New Year.