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home : bishop : columns

12/17/2015 9:00:00 AM
BISHOP'S CHRISTMAS MESSAGE
Christmas through Mary's heart
(KATE BLAIN PHOTO)
(KATE BLAIN PHOTO)
BY BISHOP EDWARD B. SCHARFENBERGER


In the twilight of 2016, we are naturally inclined to reflect on what we've lost and what we've gained this year. The adjacent columns and pages of this edition remind us of the triumphs and disappointments we experienced in our own Diocese, in our nation and throughout the world: the tragedies and disasters, the friends no longer with us -- at least in the same way -- but also the new hope that inspires us with remarkable signs of vigor from a Church that is always being renewed.

Pope Francis has just inaugurated a holy Year of Mercy: a sign, in the midst of a year soiled with human inhumanity, that God is forgiving and peace is possible for those who will allow their hearts to be set free from sin.

We wish our readers a long and peaceful Christmastide to ponder and thank God for His blessings, a hush to follow the rush that often exhausts us long before the day arrives. We could even go on celebrating right through Feb. 2! That day is the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, when Mary and Joseph, according to Jewish custom, brought Jesus, as a first-born son, to the temple. Anyone in Rome that day will see the life-sized crèche still up in St. Peter's Square.

There is good reason to prolong the Christmas season. Something happened that day which gives Christmas a deeper focus -- something especially important now, more lasting than the flurry of pre-Christmas shopping, the glittery decorating and the resulting exhaustion by the end of the Christmas octave, if not before. No doubt by New Year's, some will have had enough already. The tree may not last till then, if it is not already dead. By what decree did it have to go up the day after Thanksgiving, or anytime during Advent? That's just the way we seem to do things now, eating our "Christmas" desserts during the Advent season and, like acid reflux, not always digesting them very well for trying to take too much in. Then, all of sudden, it's gone.

This is not the Christmas we would wish on anyone!

The Church understands that the full Christmas message takes time to be digested spiritually. It cannot be force-fed or hurried down. No one knows this better than Mary. No one knows more what Christmas means than she does. She was there, after all!

When Christmas came, the Holy Family had already had a few remarkable encounters with holy messengers from God. The first was the angel Gabriel, visiting Mary with a startling greeting: "Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you!"

What followed was even more perplexing: She would be a mother of an extraordinarily holy and kingly child to whom would belong a kingdom with no end. Nor would she lose her virginity in the process -- something an angel in a dream would have to assure Joseph, who would name the child Jesus.

This was a lot for this young couple to assimilate, despite their undisputed holiness. It becomes more complicated: Joseph would have another dream, not long after the strange visit of the Magi. This time, a heavenly messenger would announce that danger surrounded the Holy Family. Imagine: A poor family with a child at the breast has to take a 300-mile, dirt-road trip to a foreign land? Why? A tyrant, Herod, wants to kill Jesus.

Jesus is barely born and violence is already tracking Him down.

Before the flight into Egypt, Mary already had a warning when Simeon, yet another holy messenger, told her at the time of the Presentation of Jesus (six weeks after His birth), that Jesus was destined to be the rise and fall of many in Israel -- a sign that would be contradicted. Simeon aimed another message directly at Mary: "A sword will pierce your own soul!"

Was Simeon suggesting Joseph would die before the crucifixion? Perhaps. Only Mary was at the foot of the cross. Simeon explained, however, "...so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."

Was that perfectly clear to Mary? Hardly, at least not then. But now we begin to see.

We learn, from following the whole Christmas story that the Scriptures unfold for us during the extended Christmas season, something that simultaneously announces a kingdom of peace and justice which brings great joy (the angels and shepherds were all into this), yet deals with the venom the Evil One exudes even as its head is being crushed.

We think of Genesis 3:15, where, right after the fall, God announces the enmity between the woman and the serpent. It reminds us that Christmas brings peace at a price: the redeeming death on Calvary of Mary's beautiful baby.

This Christmas, as we at once thank God for the gift of His Son, our Savior, and remember those who are imbued with or struck down by violence, we should contemplate what Mary knew: the agony and struggle of the anguished soul crying out for healing, peace and a loving embrace.

As she embraces that soul with a blessed mother's love, she points to her Son, His merciful arms outstretched on the cross -- who, as all mothers understand, would always be her child.

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)





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