Returning to the first Christmas in 2020

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: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”