A week ago, I went to Papar, in Sabah, to visit a Mill Hill candidate, who is in training at the Vocational School there, run by the De Montfort Brothers. While I was there, they asked me to say Mass for them and, as I sat in their lovely chapel preparing for Mass, I noticed that they had already erected their Christmas Crib and that all the shepherds and kings were already in place, visiting with Jesus, Mary and Joseph. It was rather early in the calendar for a full-blown crib to be on view, but the Montfort students were going home a few days later and the Brothers wanted to celebrate Christmas with them before they went.
Christmas is always such a busy time that I usually have no opportunity just to sit and look at the crib, but on that morning in Papar I had time to contemplate the Bethlehem scene and as I did so, I began to see things I had never seen before. I realise now, that, in the past, my gaze had always been on the Christ Child – God coming among us – and this thought had always so occupied me that I if I thought of the others at the crib, Mary, Joseph etc., I saw them rather as bystanders, who, like me, were looking with wonder at God made man. That morning, in Papar, however, I suddenly realised that they weren’t bystanders at all, but were an intimate and integral part of the revelation of God that we see pictured in the Christmas crib.
We Christians believe that God is One, but also Three: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This truth is usually presented to us in a rather cold doctrinal formula, but its deeper meaning is that God is “Family” and a family we are invited to become part of – which is what we are referring to when we speak of “salvation”. In church, that morning, I suddenly saw that the crib reveals God to us, not however, just in the Christ-child, but also in the “family” that the new born Jesus was a part of, a family which includes not just Mary and Joseph, but also the shepherds and the kings – and even the animals that are usually present in a crib – and I saw that if I want to come to worship the Christ-child, then I had also to come with gifts of love and service for all those portrayed by the figures in the crib.
We Catholics are brought up to have a great love and affection for Mary and Joseph. We have their pictures in our homes and often carry medals reminding us of them – but what of the shepherds? Today, at least in the West, shepherds are usually respected members of the community, but that was not so at the time of Christ’s birth. At that time, they were on the fringes of society, the lowest of the low, but they were the ones, who were called to Bethlehem, and we see them as part of the family that we are invited to join. So to join this family means that we may make no distinction between classes of people – to want to embrace God means I have to embrace the poorest of the poor as well.
Then, I looked at the kings and realised that by calling them “kings” I had missed who they actually represent, for who would not enjoy having kings come offerings rich gifts! The significance of their being in the crib scene lies not with their rank or wealth, but in the fact that they are foreigners and pagans. They did not belong, they were outsiders – outside of the boundaries we usually build round our communities of family and faith, respecting those inside the boundaries and rejecting those outside – and yet these outsiders were also called to Bethlehem; they are part of the revelation of who God is! The meaning is obvious – to serve the God revealed at Bethlehem means to serve him also in all those outside of our family, community and Church, for the love of God can know no boundaries.
Then, there are the animals, for even though Pope Benedict, in his latest book, throws doubt on whether there were animals there, our Tradition has always included them and for a reason, I believe – for to love and serve God means also to love and care for his creation. We cannot show due honour and respect to the Creator if we despoil and abuse his creation in the name of making money. In other words, the invitation of Bethlehem is the invitation to make of the Earth a home for all people, not just those we love and honour, but also those of whatever status in society and those of whatever race or religion – and also a home where birds and animals, trees and fish may flourish and give praise to God by their living.
Such a vision I find overwhelming and am tempted to draw back from, saying this is too much for me – and indeed, for the present moment it is – but then we need to see one more thing about the Bethlehem scene – apart from the animals, all those there had been on a journey – for “journey” is an essential part of the Bethlehem story. Jesus, Mary and Joseph had made the difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem; the shepherds had made the journey down from the hills and where the kings had come from, we do not know, except that it was a long way away. So also with us – when we become aware that God is calling us to become a part of the Bethlehem family, we need to realise that we are setting out on a journey – the journey of becoming truly part of that family but a journey that will take as long as we live.
Most of us have been taught to understand the Christian life as a series of rules that we must obey – and then we berate ourselves when we fail. Underneath this understanding in the idea that we are capable of obeying these rules if we want to, but this is not true. The Bethlehem “journey” shows us that we are slowly being moulded into the likeness of Christ and this means that we are not there yet, but most of us cannot appreciate that – we are only aware that we have failed. Sometimes, my own heart fails at what I see in my life and I raise my voice to the Lord, “I can’t do this”, but then something happens which leads me to start again and I remember the words of my confessor: the fact you never give us, but always begin again is the sign of Christ’s finger with you. There is something happening deep within me, which will one day be revealed, but which is hidden from me at the moment. Now, all I have is my faith, my trust that Christ will not let me down and this trust is like the star which led the three kings. I will get there one day, led by the grace of God and accompanied by the hidden Christ – but at the moment I am only journeying towards it. As Julian of Norwich says, “In our eyes we do not stand, but in God’s eyes we have not fallen, for we were never standing in the first place”.
The last thing I saw before the crib at Papar was a teaching about true worship. I looked and saw that the new born child was poor, he had nothing, not even a home to be born in and yet, I suddenly realised, that when I come before him in prayer, I usually come with requests for this and for that. I come asking for things from the child who has “no thing” to give, but then I looked at the others at the crib – Mary and Joseph and also the shepherds and kings – and I saw that they did not come to Christ asking for things; they came bringing gifts, they came to share what they had with the child born in poverty and, in doing so, they received the greatest of all gifts – love and compassion – and they started on the journey, which would make them, one day, fully sons and daughters of the Most High.
Someone sent me a comment on my last diary entry, where I wrote that I was trying to grow African violets, but they had died – maybe, I said, because I gave them too much fertiliser. My correspondent wrote: “maybe that is why God only feeds us with our fertiliser a little bit at a time”. Well said!
I have been chatting online with a young Filipino Mill Hill Father who works in Pakistan and I asked him about his parish, because I know that he works with the tribal people – the poorest of the poor in Pakistan and the most downtrodden. He told me that he had inherited a primary health care project from an Irish Sister, who used to work there. He is trying to provide basic needs for the physically and mentally disabled among his people and also trying to provide a goat or a buffalo for poor families, especially widows, so that they may have milk to drink. I asked him how much these animals cost and he told me they are rather expensive. A goat costs about £100 sterling or RM500 , and a buffalo costs about two and a half times that much – at which I whistled “Wowee!” Thinking about it, I don’t think I can manage to offer a buffalo, but I could manage a goat, then, at least I will have something to take with me when I visit the crib this Christmas!
The College is closed now till after Chinese New Year and the students have all gone home. So, I can put aside my 5am alarm clock for a while and enjoy a longer sleep in the morning. However, I noticed that I was awake at 5am this morning and probably will be tomorrow. I shall probably just get into the habit of sleeping later by the time that Chinese New Year comes – and my 5am regime begins again!
I shall be leaving Kuching on Sunday 23rd for Bali, which I shall spend Christmas, visiting friends, both inside and outside of prison. I shall be there for a week and will come back to Kuching on 31st Dec. So to you all, wherever you may be:
All happiness and blessings on you this Christmas
and in the coming year the joy of the Lord.