Sr. Martina Braga OSB
The liturgical time of Christmas - which we celebrate during two or three weeks until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord - makes us contemplate in detail the beginning of Jesus' life here on earth. Year after year, we recall the Announcement, the visit to Elizabeth, the angel who speaks to Joseph in dreams, the stable in Bethlehem, the Magi from the East, the escape into Egypt... The Old and New Testament readings speak of prophecies and narratives we have known since childhood. We know exactly what will happen. Our Lady will say yes, St. Joseph will follow the angel's instructions, the shepherds will visit the newborn Baby, the Magi will bring gold, incense and myrrh. And so on.
This recollection of well-known episodes is meant to help us meditate more profoundly on the mystery of God made flesh in order to love Him more and better. And yet, even celebrating these feasts with devotion and faith, we are in danger of taking these facts for granted. It is as if Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth, the shepherds, Herod, and the Magi were part of a theater play, with determined roles, just as we arrange the nativity figures, each in its own place... So often we forget that these figures represent real people with full freedom and reason that could, if they wished, have chosen different paths.
Let us use our fantasy for a moment, with the reverence the subject demands but with the realism and trust of the children of God. Let us imagine that Our Lady, having listened to the angel, gave an answer rather like, 'I need some time to think...' or: 'No, this is too great a thing for me...' or still: 'I want to know the details, what will happen, what I will have to do...' Although conceived without original sin, Mary retained her freedom and could have doubted, rejected, or disregarded the will of God... What would have been of us, as Saint Bernard asks, if she had done so?
Let us consider Joseph. Let us fancy that, on hearing the angel's explanation, he hesitated, and instead of taking Mary as his wife, he decided that it was less risky to wait until the child was born… Or that he rebelled against the order to bring the family to Bethlehem and was eventually arrested by the Romans... Or that he did not believe in Herod's threat and did not flee into Egypt...
Let us think on the shepherds, exhausted from their work, seeking a deserved rest in the cold night. It would be no wonder if, after seeing the choir of angels, they eventually went back to sleep. And who could accuse the Magi if they had got discouraged from looking for the star and stayed in Jerusalem, confused and disappointed? Or old Simeon, if he had given up hope of still seeing the Messiah in his lifetime...?
These conjectures seem absurd to us. We know that it was not so! Yet all of this could well have happened... These historical characters were human beings in everything just like us, with their difficulties, limitations, weaknesses and - with the exception of Our Lady - with their sins. God, in His infinite kindness, almost with humor, wanted to ask and depend on their answer to carry out His plan...
What determines the magnificent worth of these people in Sacred History is therefore not, as we often think, a kind of naïve inertia in the face of divine arbitrariness. No, quite the contrary, each one of them was individually called and invited by God to fulfill their own role in the salvation of humanity. Their holiness consists precisely in having freely and willingly accepted, despite all their flaws and doubts, this trust from God...
At the beginning of each new year the same question presents itself in some way to our consciences. What should I do with my life, under the circumstances that surround me? God is never absent. He still calls us personally to become what He desires for us. To follow Him, even in obscurity and humility, as Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. To say our fiat to His will, even when it disagrees with our own. To trust ultimately in His Word and in His Love. This is the great decision of our lives... This is what can change history, ours and that of others.
St. Augustine said that all that is good, beautiful and just in this world is built upon our personal choice to love God to the point, if necessary, of forgetting ourselves. On the contrary, he asserted, evil is brought into the world by egotistical self-love, by our pride, which reaches the absurdity of forgetting God.
These terms sound perhaps too harsh. St. Augustine was a sinner like us; he knew well how difficult life is, and certainly did not condemn the healthy love of oneself--which is reflection of God's love for us, and necessary for us to love our neighbor. What did he mean then? Simply that true love implies a full, mature self-giving. 'Love and do what you wish', he wrote, because in true love - in the charity that comes from God and reflects itself in the love of neighbor - all the virtues are already contained.
St. Paul also warns us firmly: without this love, without this charity, strictly speaking, nothing that we do has any value. It is this love that moves the saints. Not a fickle feeling, supported by tastes and temperaments, irrational, enthusiastic today, depressed tomorrow. It is a free, firm and persevering disposition of our will. A love that is capable of giving even to enemies and surviving the harshest disappointments. A love that is the picture of the love that Jesus had for us.
Let us go back to the Christmas story. Mary's response to the angel was perfectly conscious, as Pope Benedict XVI tells us in his book about Jesus's childhood. Mary is surprised, she wonders, and then accepts, with the full agreement of her reason and her will. Joseph does not act irrationally either. At all times it is necessary for him to use his discernment, from his reaction to the bride who expects a child, up to finding lodging in Bethlehem, giving the Son of God His name, settling in Galilee and not in Judea upon returning from Egypt, and so forth. The same can be said of the shepherds, the Magi and other characters. They seek, they listen, they think, they act. They are fully human, also in their perplexities, fears and weaknesses.
What distinguishes them from us, perhaps, is the humble readiness of their response. When they realize God's will, even if they do not understand it entirely, they do not hesitate. They overcome their doubts and apprehensions and have the courage to go ahead. The virtues of faith and hope play a fundamental role here - without them, these people could not walk towards an unknown, certainly demanding and uncomfortable, future. But above all, it is the love of God that leads them to this readiness of self-giving. Once all is considered, only love has the strength to make the decision and take the step forward.
The great English martyr, St. Thomas More, is said to have been visited by his eldest daughter in prison while awaiting his execution. More was chancellor of the kingdom, the father of a large family, a man of first social importance and one of the most brilliant minds in the Europe of his time. He was imprisoned for refusing to accept the self-proclamation of the king - his former friend - as head of the church in England. His daughter, who loved him very dearly, tried to convince him to give in to the pressures of politics and used for this purpose the best intellectual arguments. In a memorable scene from the spectacular movie, 'A Man for All Seasons', we see More embracing his daughter fondly and explaining sweetly to her: 'Your arguments are bright and intelligent... but don't you see? Deep down, this is a matter of love... I love the Lord Jesus and I cannot betray Him...'
Gustavo Corção, a Catholic writer who came back into the Catholic Church in his forties, describes his response to faith like this: 'God calls us and helps us, but suddenly we are in an unprecedented situation, because it is up to us to answer. One can almost say that in this incredible moment there is a silence from God. All the saints keep still... We are suddenly alone and free... And we need to do just a little act, a gesture of love, a tiny thing that has the capacity to fill a silence of God.'
The Christmas story, we realize, is at heart a love story... And what about us? What is our answer? Do we have the desire and patience to seek and hear the voice of God that speaks to our hearts? Through the sacraments and prayer, above all, but also through the most ordinary events, through the people around us, through good readings and good advice? When we clearly understand what God expects from us, do we have the courage to say our fiat, even if it means changing our own plans?
Often what hinders us on this path is the misconception that God speaks only through sensational events... Could God be actually speaking to me, a sinner, two thousand years after His birth, in the midst of this modern and frenetic life, in my work, my family or my circle of friends? And yet… were the circumstances much different when God spoke to Mary and Joseph? How hard it must have been for them to believe that the Almighty was addressing them, poor and hard-working people of a modest life of a village lost in the confines of the Roman Empire...? Or the Magi, for that matter, how did thy find time to hear the voice of God amidst their riches and studies? And what about the shepherds, exhausted from their work?
At other times we think that God's will must necessarily be presented to us in some complete and finished plan, in order that we can follow it. And again... did Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the Magi have any idea of what would happen? When old Simeon foretold Mary's future suffering, she was certainly astonished... And Joseph would not even be present on Calvary, by the Cross of the Son he cared for with so much love…
Let us ponder our resolutions for the New Year. It is unlikely that God will ask us for fantastic deeds or great pious adventures. The truth is probably that He will ask us the same thing He already asks: patience and faithfulness in everyday life. That sounds banal, trivial, even dull. And yet it is wonderfully heroic, beautiful and joyful… St. Josemaría Escrivá used to say that the secret of happiness is to live the extraordinary as if it were ordinary and the ordinary as if it were extraordinary.
This is exactly what Mary and Joseph did. There can be nothing more uncomfortable than a stable, nothing more common than a young woman who cradles her newborn child, nothing more ordinary than simple shepherds walking in the middle of the night. To them, who lived these scenes, that all might have seemed an anticlimax... The Messiah awaited for centuries, the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, born in this way...? Can this simple child, even poorer than other children, be the Son of God...? The faith that the nativity characters teach us is robust and solid. They stand firm and fulfill their roles humbly and lovingly. What is actually requested of Mary, the great Mother of God? Just that she takes care of her Son, no more than that... And that's everything.
The English theologian, Cardinal John Henry Newman, recently canonized by Pope Francis, emphasized much this simplicity of soul that leads us to see the things of God in the most commonplace human realities. A man in his mature years and of enormous intellectual fame, he converted to Catholicism and lived the rest of his days as a modest Catholic priest - he never became a bishop and received the honorary title of cardinal already in his old age. When asked how he could settle for so little and distinguish what God wanted from his life, he would reply: 'I do not ask the Lord to show me all the way, but only the next step. Only He can glimpse the complete landscape of my life." Newman died in that same obscure humility, yet no figure has been more important than his to the renewal of English Catholicism in the last two centuries.
This is usually how God shows us His will: He indicates only the next step. If our days change from being a feverish huddle of activity to becoming a unique chance to do what God wants from us, then even the smallest things will turn into wonderful feats of love and joy... We cannot escape the difficulties of life but we can, with the serenity and strength we find in prayer, face them as Mary and Joseph did.
It is up to us to take the next step, here and now, trusting in God's plans. That is the essential. Everything else is relative, comes by addition. By a curious paradox determined by God Himself, great things always start small. It is the leaven of the dough, as in the parable. No plan, however good, can be realized without painstaking care for the small details. It is no wonder that truly beneficial and successful projects such as the Christian-oriented Alcoholics Anonymous are based on a motto such as 'just for today'. No wonder Santa Teresa of Calcutta, when asked how she could help so many people, replied: 'I can't... I can only help this person who is now in front of me.'
Whether the New Year will bring us - as we always wish - success, achievements and health, we do not know. We do not even know if we will be here to see its end. Everything is in God's hands. Still, if we do our best to respond with joy and love to what the Lord asks of us - from a good word, a humble attitude, a willingness to forgive and listen to others, up to the courage to reject sin and to do right - then the year will have been enormously profitable. And instead of the bitter taste of lost opportunities and wasted love, we will feel the infinite joy that burns in the heart of those who humbly, like Mary and Joseph, say yes to God…