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Unexpected Christmas gifts

We spend a lot of time and energy preparing for Christmas, but beyond the marketing and noise there is a simple and unexpected mystery we are called to enter into.

Mysteries are often this way. It seems that the impossible has happened. The Son of God was born in obscurity, in a manger that housed animals and with the company of Mary, Joseph and a few lowly shepherds.

The paradox of Jesus’ birth is that the Creator of the Universe, God who is all-powerful, came to us in such a humble, quiet way and offered us an unexpected gift.

In his first Christmas homily, Pope Francis pointed out that the shepherds were the first to see the Christ Child because “they were among the last, the outcast” and “they were awake, keeping watch in the night, guarding their flocks.”

During his ministry, Jesus praised God the Father for his humble path, saying, “although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike” (Lk. 10:21).

Jesus did not come as many in Israel expected. The Israelites of Jesus’ time thought that the Messiah would give them political independence, reestablish the Davidic kingdom and bring material prosperity to a people struggling under the weight of poverty.

Instead, as an angel told Joseph in a dream, God’s plan of salvation was different. Pope Benedict XVI reflected on this difference in his book “The Infancy Narratives” where he wrote, “The name Jesus (Jeshua) means ‘YHWH is salvation.’ The divine messenger who spoke to Joseph in the dream explains the nature of this salvation: ‘He will save his people from their sins.’”

This mission is not what people expected, and perhaps not even what St. Joseph expected. In the story of the paralyzed man whose friends lower him through the roof, we are able to see how Jesus lived it out. Christ responds to the implicit plea for healing by telling the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven” (Mk. 2:5).

“This was the last thing anyone was expecting,” Benedict XVI says. “The paralytic needed to be able to walk, not to be delivered from his sins. The scribes criticized the theological presumption of Jesus’ words: the sick man and those around him were disappointed, because Jesus had apparently overlooked the man’s real need.”

Returning to the angel’s explanation of Jesus’ mission to St. Joseph, we see that Christ’s purpose is to heal our deepest wound, that is, the damage inflicted on our relationship with God by our sins. The angel tells Joseph, “She is to have a son and you are to name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” Each one of us needs a Savior, and he is Jesus.

If our first, fundamental relationship with God is disturbed, Benedict XVI explained, then “nothing else can truly be in order.”

Perhaps we do not expect Christ to come this way either. Many people expect God to materially bless them, but we are in need of the much more fundamental blessing of having our relationship with him restored. If Christmas becomes a celebration of presents instead of a celebration of our salvation, then we should not be surprised when the excitement of having something new fades away.

No matter what burdens you carry, no matter what your sins, I urge you to seek the healing that the Christ Child brought into the world and that only he can bestow.

I pray that you may run with haste to Jesus this Christmas, as the shepherds did to see the sign the angels promised them, “a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” He waits for you to approach him, encounter him, receive his healing love and mercy, return his love, and follow him.

May your Christmas and new year be blessed and be assured of my daily prayers for you!

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila
The Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila is the eighth bishop of Denver and its fifth archbishop. His episcopal motto is, "Do whatever he tells you" (Jn 2:5).
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