We usually celebrate Christmas around the time of the Winter Solstice, which marks the shortest day of the year. Following the solstice, the days begin to get longer. Even before the time of Jesus, the ancient peoples celebrated the longer light with Winter Solstice Festivals. Now, Jesus is referred to as the Light of the World and thus lights are important symbols of Christmas.
Light reveals things to us. The ancient peoples recognized that there is a Creator of our world by studying Nature. They understood that God is powerful and intelligent. They experienced Him as their Provider as they harvested food from the earth.
However, when Jesus came as one of us, he revealed other qualities of God. Since he often referred to his Father, his disciples were anxious to see him and even asked Jesus to show them the Father. The response of Jesus was that when they looked at Jesus, they saw the Father, since the Father and Jesus were one.
If Jesus had not come to us in human form, we would not have understood that God is compassionate, yet just. For example, in a world where women were considered less than men, Jesus related to them in a respectful and loving manner. We have a deeper understanding of God because of how Jesus lived. Jesus entered this world of darkness to bring us the light of life.
We also learn a lot about the light of faith from Mary and Joseph. As a very young woman, Mary trusted God enough to say "Yes" to the virginal conception of Jesus and all the suffering that would entail. How could she explain to Joseph that she had been faithful to him when she was already pregnant without their having consummated their marriage?
What confusion and hurt Joseph must have felt when he realized Mary's pregnancy? His love was so strong that he chose to treat her with kindness, even before an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said to him,
"Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife into your home, for it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins." (Matt 1:20)
Both Mary and Joseph showed deep faith and obedience to the will of God, in spite of all the suffering they had to endure. One of my favorite memories is the witnessing of a posada when I was teaching at St. Catherine Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The word posada means "inn" or "shelter." Our community always included people of other cultures. One year, a Spanish brother and sister were chosen from our school to represent Mary and Joseph in a posada. I had never even heard of a posada before that time.
A posada is an important Mexican Christmas tradition that is practiced in some parts of the United States now. The posada reenacts the story of Mary and Joseph's attempt to find shelter in Bethlehem after their long trip to comply with Caesar Augustus' order to return to the town of their family origin for a census. Since Joseph was of the house and family David, that meant a difficult travel by donkey and on foot at a time when Mary was near the time to give birth.
Because of the census, Bethlehem was crowded with people returning to the place of their family origin. The posada recalls the difficulties of Mary and Joseph experienced finding shelter as Mary is about to give birth. In the posada, either people or images representing Mary and Joseph traveling from place to place are followed by a candlelight procession of people singing Christmas Carols. Joseph dramatizes the requesting of a place to stay and another person, representing an innkeeper, responds that there is no room for them.
Finally, one person takes pity on them and offers them a place in a cave used for an animal shelter. It is there that the King of the Universe and Light of the World is to be born. The people in the procession are invited into a home or building and there is much celebration. It is a beautiful reminder of the importance of opening our hearts for Jesus to be born again in us so that his light can shine in our world today.
Reflection Question: How can I make room in my heart so that Jesus can be born again in me and bring light and love into our world today?
Stephanie Morris, ASBS, Ph.D Historian, Certified Archivist, Emerita
Is my heart a rough-hewn manger or a soft crib, waiting for the Infant Savior? Angry or hurtful memories are harsh and rough; prayers and kind acts can soften these. Praying for those with whom we are angry or doing quiet acts of kindness can line the crib of our heart with soft pieces of straw. We don’t have to do great deeds; any ordinary action “extraordinarily well done” for the love of God will cushion our hearts to provide a welcoming crib for the Infant Jesus.
Pat Chiaffa, ASBS
It was almost Christmas, but I wasn’t feeling “holiday-ish.” It snowed overnight and the next morning as I drove to the office I was in awe of the beauty of the freshly fallen snow covering the trees and vast grassy areas. There was a sense of stillness and peace on the Interstate Highway. As I was taking in this incredible scenery, the song “Christmas Shoes” started playing on the radio. It’s about the love of an impoverished young boy for his terminally ill mother and a man who was very much trapped in the chains of success and attainment. Through this young boy’s desire to make his dying mother look beautiful to meet Jesus on that Christmas Eve, by wearing the red shoes he wanted to buy for her, this distracted man awakened to the Presence of God in Christmas. Tears poured from my eyes. In the sacred space of my car during the “holy hour” of my commute, I encountered the true Spirit of Christmas in the message of that song. At the same time, I felt deeply saddened at how the focus on the birth of Christ has become, in general, such a minor part of Christmas.
Prior to reading your blog, I was not familiar with a Posada. I really like the practice because it draws our attention to the difficulties that Joseph and Mary encountered on their “census pilgrimage” to Bethlehem. Exhausted after their forced journey of over 100 miles, there was no room at the inn for them to rest. Joseph’s heart must have been wrenched with disappointment at not being able to provide comfort and warmth for Mary. Yet, we celebrate their journey with illumined festivity. In reality, it was a very dark and dangerous walk. The fear resulting from the political unrest that gripped Bethlehem, and the smell of the manger have been obscured by sentimentality and commercialism.
This time of the year is very painful for many people. Strained finances, fragile relationships, unrealized hopes and expectations are acutely felt even though the “air” is filled with bright lights, shiny tinsel and Holiday music. We will never find the enduring happiness for which we yearn in the world no matter how festively it is packaged and how elegantly it is served up.
The wholeness, the oneness, the peace, the connection to the Christ child that many of us seek will be found in simplification and quiet reflection on the mystery of the incarnation. For some individuals, finding the way to the Christ child might include the willingness to accompany Joseph and Mary on the road to Bethlehem by examining the rough terrain that remains in one’s heart –remnants of resentment, anger, selfishness - and doing the work to release them so there will be room in our heart to receive Jesus. He came to heal and comfort the weak and the vulnerable – where else need we look but to the Baby in the manger to restore us to grace, peace and the reclaiming of our identity as the child of God that we are.
With an uncluttered, open heart, we can invite the Christ Child to be born anew within us, to illuminate His light in us and fill us with His Love. This renewal is the true miracle of Christmas. Having received these divine gifts, not only can we rejoice; we will radiate His light and love in the world.