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: Five tips for reading the Word of God

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!