Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
I am writing these words of reflection while I am spending some time with my godparents and cousins in Scottsdale, Ariz. This afternoon I am spending some time with my friends, the “Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit,” who minister to the members of the Pima Native American tribe on the Gila River Reservation, south of Phoenix. It is a beautiful day here, and they have been experiencing some of the same cold and moisture that we have been having in Southern California.
This is still what is called “Christmastide,” reminding us that the Liturgical celebration of the birth of the Lord continues for an “octave” (as the Liturgy proclaims the Gloria for all week), and then Christmas continues until Jan. 6 (The Epiphany), with even more overtones and reminders of the Birth of Christ all through January, until the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, which is Feb. 2. So, we have many opportunities in these days for gatherings of faith and friends to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord.
Reading and reflection during Christmastide brings us many opportunities for prayer, thus deepening our Faith and commitment to living the message of the Birth of Christ, to let, as Pope Francis has said, the Infant in the manger challenge us.
There are many legends associated with the Scriptures of these days, and they all, in one way or another, point back to the beauty and power of the Birth of Christ in our lives. I think, for example, of the story of Artiban, the fourth Wise Man. Or, related to this, the story of “Befana,” from Italy, who goes in search of children to bring gifts. Recently, in reading and decorating my own Christmas tree, I came across “Christmas spider ornaments,” which I had purchased several years ago. I was reminded of the poignant and powerful legend of the “Christmas Spider,” which I believe comes from either the Ukraine or Germany. There are several versions of this story. One is that when the Holy Family was fleeing King Herod and his troops, they hid in a small cave, and a spider quickly spun a web to hide them. When Herod’s troops came by they did not go in the cave, thinking that in fact anyone hiding there would have certainly broken a spider web, so the soldiers did not go in and the Holy Family was saved. Another legend of the Christmas Spider is that a young spider didn’t know what to get the Christ Child for Christmas, so he spend quite a bit of time going up and down a tree in the forest. What he did, then, was to spin a web over all of the tree, so that when the moon came out at night the web shined with great beauty in the light, which was then the spider’s gift to the Christ Child! This, it seems, is the origin of “tinsel,” which we used to place on our Christmas trees.
Celebration of the Birth of Christ is not merely an intellectual exercise or matter of theology, but a response of our lives and our emotions and our memories to the God who has “pitched his tent among us.” Rather than toss such legends aside, they remind us of the power of God in Christ to touch our hearts and souls with a change of heart and lives. The Nativity of the Lord, Christmas, has the power and the ability to bring our past into the present moment to meet the Lord and to experience redemption, grace, and healing once more. It can certainly catch us by surprise!
One of the great writers on this season is none other than Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, in a number of his writings over the years. In a book titled “The Blessing of Christmas,” then-Cardinal Ratzinger says regarding the custom of exchanging of gifts in a section titled: “What are we to bring to you?” (echoing the carol “What can I bring you, poor that I am?”):
“What can we offer you, O Christ? We certainly offer him too little if all we do is to exchange costly presents with one another, gifts that are not the expression of our own selves and of a gratitude that otherwise remains silent. Let us try to offer him our faith and our own selves, even if only in the form of the prayer: ‘I believe, Lord, help my unbelief!’ And on this day let us not forget the many in whom he suffers on earth.”
These reflections on the Nativity of the Lord would be echoed some years later when, then as Pope Benedict XVI, he wrote a third volume on Jesus of Nazareth entitled “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.” He concludes the introduction to this short book by saying: “My hope is that this short book, despite its limitations, will be able to help many people on their path toward and alongside Jesus.”
In the blessing of liturgical time that the octave of Christmas and the entire season is, there are God-given opportunities that await us, that this season offers us, to help us along our path to Jesus, the newborn Christ Child. We go forward to He – who is indeed as the hymn says that “Love that came down at Christmas” who awaits each of us. O COME LET US ADORE HIM, CHRIST THE LORD.
Even as I recommend both of the short and well-written books to all of you in these Christmas days, I thank you for your generosity, sacrifice and care for so many, and your faithful witness of this love of God, shown to us in the Christ Child.
God bless you all in these holy days and safe travels to all.
+ The Most Rev. Kevin W. Vann, Bishop of Orange