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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

  • The blog header depicts an important and yet mis-understood New Testament scene, Jesus flogging the money-changers out of the temple. I selected it because the faith that gives us consolation can also make us very uncomfortable. Both Divine Mercy and Divine Justice meet in Jesus. Priests are ministers of reconciliation, but never at the cost of truth. In or out of season, we must be courageous in preaching and living out the Gospel of Life. The title of my blog is a play on words, not Flogger Priest but Blogger Priest.

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Eternal Christmas & Christ: The Meaning of It All

The feast of Christmas is very important in preserving an authentic understanding of the identity of Jesus. It is for this reason that the Knights of Columbus each year promote their loyal “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaign with essay and poster contests. Of course, it has been argued that the abbreviation “X-mas” still preserves something of the truth in that the “X” is an ancient symbol for the Cross and thus, by association, for Christ, himself. Those who malign the celebration of Christmas as a religious holiday, more so than not, minimize the mission and identity of the Lord. There is a minister, nationally televised throughout the nation on Sunday mornings, who annually assaults the meaning of Christmas. He actually claims that the Jesus who walked on earth was a different individual from God’s eternal Son in heaven. Jehovah Witnesses reduce Jesus to an important prophet but sidestep the dilemma that unless he is God then the charges of the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin stick. Only God can forgive sins. Only God could save us. Another evangelist bewails the fact that at Christmas even the most sanitized Protestant worship space looks like a Catholic church with the various “idolatrous” statues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. This is peculiar in that many of these same churches will return to repudiating such graven images come December 26 and argue that Catholicism has stripped the corresponding commandment from the Decalogue. Our view is not all that complex, although it is perfectly reasonable: the incarnation of Christ alters forever the economy of images. Jesus is the revelation of the Father and God with us. Now, the image of the creature can convey something of the dignity of God and his involvement in salvation history. Representations of Christ, the Virgin Mary and other saints are not worshipped in themselves but constitute a language in pictures that moves the mind and heart to the truth of the Gospel. A crucified figure on the Cross or any baby in a manger is recognized immediately, even by a child, as Jesus. One of the most heated debates on Internet message boards is between hard-line Seventh-Day Adventists and mainline believers over the correct Sabbath and the so-called pagan origins of Christmas. Protestant Christians are ridiculed for following Catholic institutions not mandated by the Bible. The Mormons often have very elaborate and beautiful commemorations for Christmas; however, they deny that Jesus is the unique or only Son of God the Father. This difference is critical because a denial of monotheism separates them from classical Christianity as well as from Islam and Judaism.

Technically speaking, God had already entered the human family when the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary. However, although the proof of his existence as well as the personhood of John the Baptizer is validated in the visitation between Mary and Elizabeth; human convention places much gravity upon the moment of birth. Except for a few early episodes, we will not hear more about Jesus until he enters upon his public ministry. The life of Jesus is one of progressive revelation through significant steps. Jesus is present in the womb; then he is born and placed in a manger; later he is brought to the temple for his presentation; as a boy he is discovered teaching the teachers; many years later, he begins his public ministry and is baptized by John in the Jordan (the two meeting once more in a new beginning); and ultimately, he is fully revealed in his Paschal Mystery (passion, death and resurrection).

Looking to the date for Christmas, December 25, not all the ancient authorities were in agreement about it. Clement of Alexandria knew no certain tradition about it, asserting that some thought that either April or May 20 might be the day. St. Epiphanius and Cassian offered the Egyptian reckoning as January 6. The Greek churches did not celebrate Christmas for some time and when they did they linked it to the Epiphany. Preaching on Christmas in the year 386, St. Chrysostom told the Antiocheans, “It is not ten years since this day [December 25] was clearly known to us, but it has been familiar from the beginning to those who dwell in the West. The Romans, who have celebrated it for a long time, and from ancient tradition, have transmitted the knowledge of it to us.” St. Augustine confirmed that this was the practice of the Church in the West. Thus, we can conclude that even by the fourth century that dating was well established in earlier antiquity. [Source: The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1917.]

Such facts are interesting, but no matter what the true date is, we know for certain he was born and that Christ’s humanity was real. God became a human being so that something of God could now be found in every man and woman. Such is the significance of divine grace. Human nature is not only restored in dignity, but is complemented by the supernatural presence of God. The unity between God and man that was disrupted by sin is bridged in Jesus Christ. Christ’s redemptive work began with the incarnation and was accomplished in his saving works. The Sinless One took upon himself “sinful” flesh that sin might be conquered. The unity between God and humanity was already realized in Jesus Christ personally, even from the womb. His death and resurrection would extend this unity as a saving reality embracing others in the human family.

The Scriptures give sparse details about the daily relationships in the Holy Family. Our natural presumption, given that Jesus is God and that Mary was preserved from sin as the vehicle of the Incarnation, is that it was a peaceful home filled with harmony. Certainly there is much credit to such a view; however, we should be cautious in too quickly identifying their family life with what we hold as ideal. What evidence we do have about the relationship between Jesus and Mary is jarring to polite sensibility. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus was submissive to Joseph and Mary. But, was there the tenderness that we usually associate with them at Christmas? The only polite words that Jesus addressed to his Mother, as understood today, were at the Cross. Mary, the same woman who held him in Bethlehem will hold her dead Son in her arms at Golgotha. Her devotion and faith is clear. But the recorded words of Jesus were often quite pointed and curt. Finding him teaching in the temple, after a three-day search, the boy Jesus speaks to Mary as if she were the child: “Why have you sought me? Did you not know that I had to be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49). His foster father Joseph says nothing. Mary bends her will to Christ’s and Joseph moves aside for the true Father of Jesus, the Father in heaven. As a man, Mary and the brethren (cousins to Christ) followed him and were no doubt concerned for his safety. They call out for him (Matthew 12:46-50). He does not respond. Rather, he tells his listeners, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Then looking to his listening disciples, he adds: “Behold my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is brother and sister and mother to me.” Again, he speaks, not from the normal perspective of a son but as one who cannot be utterly contained in the human dynamic. In other words, his divinity as God’s Son always comes to the fore. Earlier, at the wedding feast of Cana (John 2:1-11), Mary makes the statement to Jesus that they have no more wine. Jesus answers, “Woman, what business is this to me. My time has not yet come.” Despite the tone, he will perform his first miracle all the same. If I spoke that way to my mother, she would probably slap me. Many women are well aware of the tough tone that Jesus takes with Mary. How often have we heard upset mothers say to their sons something like, “You must think you’re Jesus Christ!” What are we to make of this?

First, Jesus was aware, even from the womb and manger, of his identity as the Son of God. He would grow in wisdom and grace but his divine awareness and knowledge was always accessible. It may be, as some theologians suggest, that he shelved while still retaining elements of his divine consciousness so as not to overwhelm his human nature. Second, we cannot interpret in the language alone any animosity or bitterness between Jesus and Mary. Jesus had to make a demarcation between them. While he had been born of Mary, his was ultimately the role of the Creator and her, the creature. In any case, discriminating mothers know by a gentle embrace or even a look, that they are loved. Mary loved Jesus and never doubted his love for her. Full of grace, Mother Mary was always imbued with the presence of her Son. She gave physical birth to him in time, but she was always giving spiritual birth to him in faith and in her immaculate heart. The writer, Francois Mauriac, said of this: “Christ had all eternity in which to glorify his mother in the flesh. Here below, perhaps, he sometimes treated her as he still does his chosen ones whom he has marked for holiness and who, behind their grilles, in their cells, or in the midst of the world, know all the appearances of abandon, of being forsaken, not without keeping the interior certainty of being his elect and beloved” (LIFE OF JESUS, pp. 15-16).

God is on our side in Jesus Christ. God the Son, Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, and eternal Word, has made himself a son of Mary and a brother to all in the human family. The mystery of Christmas signals a new intimacy between heaven and earth. At a time when we give and receive gifts, God has given us the best gift of all.

For more such reflections, contact me about getting my book, CHRISTIAN REFLECTIONS.