The crèche and the gap

George Weigel

For the past decade or so, I’ve been assembling a mid-sized Judean village of Fontanini crèche figures, including artisans, herders (with sheep), farmers (with chickens and an ahistorical turkey), vintners, blacksmiths, musicians, weavers, and a fisherman or two (one awake, another sleeping). Like the colossal Neapolitan crèche at the basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Rome, it’s a reminder that the Lord Jesus was born in the midst of humanity and its messy history: the history that the Child has come to set back on its truest course, which is toward God. The messiness of history is a caution against letting sentimentality take over Christmas; so are some challenging truths about Mary, Joseph, and their place in what theologians calls the “economy of salvation.”

Why challenging? Because Mary and Joseph were called to both form their son in the faith of Israel and then give up, even renounce, their human claims on him, so that he might be what God the Father intended and the world needed.

When Luke tells us that Mary kept all that had happened to her and to her boy “in her heart” (Luke 2.52), we may imagine that she was pondering what the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once described as a great detachment: at his birth, Jesus “detached himself from her in order to tread his way back to the Father through the world.” Some will welcome the message he will preach along that messianic pilgrimage; others will be resistant. And that resistance (in which the Evil One will play no small part) will eventually lead to Calvary, where the sword of sorrow promised by ancient Simeon in Luke 2.35 will pierce Mary’s soul. Then, in the tableau at the foot of the Cross, as captured by Michelangelo in the Pietà, Mary will offer the silent affirmation of God’s will to which she once vocal assent at the Annunciation: “Be it done unto me according to your word” (Luke 1.38).

The last recorded words of Mary in the New Testament – “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2.5) – underscore that the role of Mary, who receives the Incarnate Word of God at the Annunciation and gives birth to him in the Nativity, is always to give her Son away: to point beyond herself to him, and to call others to obedience to him. Thus what Balthasar described as a “detachment” applies to Mary as well as to Jesus: Mary detaches herself from whatever her own life-plans might be, and from whatever her maternal instincts to keep her Son close might be, in order to fulfill the vocation planned for her from the beginning – to be the model of all Christian discipleship, which is the abandonment of my will to God’s will for my life.

Then there is Joseph, another model of self-gift and self-renunciation. Hans Urs von Balthasar again: “In the background of this scene of birth there also stands Joseph, who renounces his own fatherhood and assumes the role of foster father assigned to him. He provides a particularly impressive example of Christian obedience, which can be…very difficult…to accept, especially in the physical sphere. For one can be poor by having given everything away once and for all, but one can be chaste only by a daily renunciation of something which is inalienable to man.” And that makes Joseph a model for those who struggle daily to live, by grace, the truths they affirm about human love.

“Mind the gap” is the ubiquitous instruction found on the London Underground, cautioning passengers against stepping between the train and the platform. It’s also a pithy but accurate description of the drama of the Christian life. For we all live, daily, in the “gap” between the person I am and the person I was called to be at baptism. The quotidian effort to minimize that “gap,” which means cooperating with God’s grace, is the warp and woof of the spiritual life. So the complement to the Fontanini characters surrounding our family crèche – each of whom represents a personal and unique “life in the gap” – is a small “Mind the Gap” Christmas ornament on our tree. For the Child born in Bethlehem is the bridge across the gap, and the angels atop the tree announce his birth.

A blessed Christmas to all.

COMING UP: God’s gift of peace in uncertainty

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We are shortly approaching two events that this year stand in contrast to one another – the birth of Jesus at Christmas and the end of 2017. Christmas brings with it the peace and good news of our Savior’s birth, while a review of this past year reveals a time of uncertainty and cultural disarray.

This same reality was present when Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago. Most scholars believe that Jesus was born roughly around the year 4 B.C., which was a particularly turbulent time in the Holy Land.

The ruthless King Herod the Great, who died soon after Jesus was born, contributed significantly to this upheaval. The historian Philip Jenkins described Herod as having “a long career that was bloody and paranoid even by the standards of Hellenistic monarchies. He ruled through tactics of mass terror and widespread surveillance that sometimes sound like a foretaste of the Stalin years.”

In the aftermath of his death, the historian Josephus recounts how various Jewish activists rallied in the streets of Jerusalem and the surrounding parts of Judea. This movement included three separate men being proclaimed kings in different cities by popular approval. One of these upstart kings was Judas, the son of Hezekiah, who took over the town of Sepphoris, which was located a mere four miles from Nazareth. The Roman governor of nearby Syria was alerted and he arrived with two legions, which burned Sepphoris to the ground and enslaved its inhabitants.

As Jenkins points out, “Some four miles away, there would have been living at this time a young couple named Joseph and Mary, who must have heard of these developments with terror. Just possibly, they had a newborn. Did those invading troops plunder Nazareth?” We don’t know if the Holy Family experienced this violent suppression, but we do know that the Prince of Peace was born into a time of upheaval and political tension.

This fact is worth reflecting on as we celebrate Christmas and bring 2017 to a close. This year has been one of political uncertainty, not only in the U.S. but around the world. We have also endured tragedies like the mass shooting in Las Vegas, the war in Syria and the resulting displacement of millions of people, a violent rise in racial tensions, the devastation caused by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and the implementation of assisted suicide in Colorado, just to name some of the major events.

In the humble settings of a stable in Bethlehem, the Son of God brought hope, first to the lowly and then to kings. We live in a time of great spiritual poverty, despite our material wealth, and we need the lasting peace that Jesus brings to the lowly. The peace he offers is the restoration of our relationship with God the Father, the gift of a new identity as his adopted sons and daughters, and the healing of our entire person. This takes place through personally encountering God in the sacraments, in reading his Word, in silent prayer and in others.

No matter what your circumstances are, God the Father longs to bring you, your family and the world back into right relationship with him. And at Christmas he shows us that he always chooses to reach out to us in a humble and hidden way, calling us to himself when we are weak.

Mary and Joseph are perfect examples of God’s way of saving us. He chose an unknown but holy virgin in the small, insignificant town of Nazareth to bring his son into the world.

St. Joseph, a carpenter, was also humble. In his book, Theotokos: Preparing for Christmas with the Mother of God, Father Mark Toups proposes that St. Joseph might have resolved to quietly divorce Mary precisely because he realized she was carrying the Son of God in her womb and he felt unworthy. But God “knew exactly how Joseph felt and said, ‘do not be afraid,’” Father Toups adds. This same message is one that he speaks to us now at Christmas and at any moment we are willing to listen. It is worth repeating: do not be afraid, God is with us.

As we prepare for 2018, I encourage you to open your hearts to receive the peace and healing of Jesus as the firm foundation for your plans. Approach Jesus in prayer and ask him what he is inviting you to do in the coming year to bring his light into our confused and chaotic times. May God bless each one of you in the coming year and give you his peace!