Returning to the first Christmas in 2020

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila

This Christmas will be unlike any other in recent memory as we celebrate Jesus’ birth amid the pandemic. And as difficult as this situation has made things, there are some ways our times echo the simplicity and experience of the first Christmas – ways that are worth reflecting on.

Jesus was born at a time of political and religious tension. The Holy Land was occupied by the Romans, who chose Herod to rule as King of Judea. Under King Herod, rivals were ruthlessly killed, as is seen by his reaction to Jesus’ birth with the slaughter of the Holy Innocents.

Jesus came into this tenuous situation as the son of poor parents. Joseph and Mary were obediently traveling to Bethlehem to take part in the census that Caesar Augustus had decreed, but it’s unlikely that they were planning for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. They were from Nazareth and they were only in Bethlehem because Joseph came from that town.  

They surely knew that Mary was close to giving birth, but as any mother or father will tell you, when that happens is rarely predictable. To fulfill the prophecy of Micah, Mary’s labor began in Bethlehem and Joseph had to find a place for them to stay. In a similar way, many of us find ourselves in unforeseen circumstances today, whether it’s being jobless, sick, isolated or mentally distressed. As Christians, we are called to respond to these challenges with faith, as Mary and Joseph did.

After Joseph inquired about lodging at the inn, and presumably every other suitable place that Mary’s condition allowed him to check, Joseph was only able to find a stable for animals on the outskirts of town, certainly a simple place for the creator of the universe to be born. 

God uses the circumstances of our lives to teach us and form us, and he is doing that for each of us now. The first Christmas was simple, and the difficulties that come with Christmas in 2020 offer us an opportunity to return to that simplicity. They present us with a chance to return to and celebrate the fact that God, as powerful and transcendent as he is, chose a feeding trough for a bed. He arrived in our midst as an innocent, poor child.

In an article called “The Senses of Christmas,” the theologian and author Mike Aquilina expresses the simple but revolutionary truth of the Nativity beautifully: “God lived in a family the way we do. He shivered against the cold the way we do. The Word-made-flesh nursed at His mother’s breast like any other human baby. Suddenly, God was not a watchmaker, some remote mechanic who wound up the world and let it go. God was a baby, crying to be picked up.”

This is the simple and profound truth that each of us should focus on during these holy days. No matter what else is happening in the world, God became a human being, “the Word was made flesh” (Jn 1:14). He drew close to us and he remains with us.

There is another lesson in the story of Christmas that we would do well to pray with this year. We hear in Luke’s story of the Nativity that when the shepherds in the fields nearby heard the announcement from the angels that Jesus, the Messiah, was born, they made haste to find him. 

In his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI explains that this quickness to respond is an example for how we should receive the good news of Jesus’ birth today. “The shepherds made haste, partly no doubt from human curiosity, in order to see this great thing that had been announced to them. But surely, too, they were driven by their joy on hearing that now, truly, the Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord had been born, the one so long awaited – and they would be the first to see him. How many Christians make haste today, where the things of God are concerned?” he asks (The Infancy Narratives, p. 79). 

Each of us can ponder in our hearts the question, “Have we received the Good News of Jesus transmitted by the angel to Mary (Lk 1:26-38), to Joseph (Mt 1:18-25), and to the Shepherds
(Lk 2:8-20)?” I encourage you to take 15 minutes in quiet prayer with each one of these passages and open your heart to receive Jesus.

In his 2019 homily at the Christmas Vigil Mass, Pope Francis reminded us, “Let us contemplate the Child and let ourselves be caught up in his tender love. Then we have no further excuse for not letting ourselves be loved by him. Whatever goes wrong in our lives, whatever doesn’t work in the Church, whatever problems there are in the world, will no longer serve as an excuse. It will become secondary, for faced with Jesus’ extravagant love, a love of utter meekness and closeness, we have no excuse.” 

“At Christmas,” the Pope said, “the question is this: ‘Do I allow myself to be loved by God? Do I abandon myself to his love that comes to save me?’” My prayer for you is that this Christmas you answer these questions in your heart of hearts and encounter Jesus and give your heart to him. 

COMING UP: ‘I have seen the Lord’: St. Vincent de Paul’s new adoration chapel honors St. Mary Magdelene’s witness

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“I have seen the Lord.” (John 20:18). 

One couple from St. Vincent de Paul parish took these words to heart with urgency last year during the pandemic and decided to build a Eucharistic Adoration chapel for their fellow faithful to be in the Lord’s presence themselves. 

Mike and Shari Sullivan donated design and construction of the new Eucharistic Adoration Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene adjacent to their parish church to make a space for prayer and adoration that they felt needed to be reinstated, especially during the difficult days of COVID-19. 

The chapel was completed this spring and dedicated during Divine Mercy weekend with a special blessing from Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila. 

“It was invigorating to have the archbishop bless the chapel,” Mike said. “The church has been buzzing.” 

Mike has been a Catholic and a member of St. Vincent de Paul since his baptism, which he jokes was around the time the cornerstone was placed in 1951. The Sullivans’ five children all attended the attached school and had their sacraments completed at St. Vincent de Paul too. 

Archbishop Samuel Aquila dedicated the St. Mary Magdalene adoration chapel with a prayer and blessing at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church on April 9, 2021, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

The 26-by 40-foot chapel is a gift to fellow parishioners of a church that has meant so much to their family for decades, and to all who want to participate in prayer and adoration. 

The architect and contractor are both Catholic, which helped in the design of Catholic structure and the construction crew broke ground in mid-December. The Sullivans wanted to reclaim any Catholic artifacts or structural pieces they could for the new chapel. Some of the most striking features of the chapel are the six stained glass windows Mike was able to secure from a demolished church in New York. 

The windows were created by Franz Xaver Zettler who was among a handful of artists known for the Munich style of stained glass from the 19th century.  The Munich style is accomplished by painting detailed pictures on large pieces of glass unlike other stained-glass methods, which use smaller pieces of colored glass to make an image. 

The two primary stained-glass windows depict St. Augustine and St. Mary Magdalene, the chapel’s namesake, and they frame either side of the altar which holds the tabernacle and monstrance — both reused from St.  Vincent De Paul church.  

The Sullivans wanted to design a cloistered feel for the space and included the traditional grill and archway that opens into the pews and kneelers with woodwork from St. Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana. 

The chapel was generously donated by Mike and Shari Sullivan. The stained glass windows, which depict St. Augustine and St. Mary Magdalene, were created by Franz Xaver Zettler, who was among a handful of artists known for the Munich style of stained glass from the 19th century. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

Shari is a convert to Catholicism and didn’t grow up with the practice of Eucharistic adoration, but St. Vincent de Paul pastor Father John Hilton told her to watch how adoration will transform the parish. She said she knows it will, because of what regular Eucharistic adoration has done for her personally. 

The Sullivans are excited that the teachers at St. Vincent de Paul school plan to bring their classes to the warm and inviting chapel to learn about the practice of adoration and reflect on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. 

The words of St. Mary Magdalene “I have seen the Lord,” have become the motto of the chapel, Mike said, and they are emblazoned on a brass plaque to remind those who enter the holy space of Christ’s presence and the personal transformation offered to those inside.

The St. Vincent de Paul  Church and The Eucharistic Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene is located at 2375 E. Arizona Ave. Denver 80210 on the corner of Arizona and Josephine Street. The chapel is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. Visit https://saintvincents.org/adorationchapel1 for more information about the chapel and to look for updates on expanded hours as they occur.