The Holiness of Christmas

El Greco Nativity

We commemorate the birth of our Savior. His Nativity makes the long, cold night holy and bright. [Spanish]

The virgin Mary gave birth to the Savior in the humblest of circumstances, with the cattle lowing and the hay on the floor. The quiet humility of the people—the Child, His mother, St. Joseph, and the shepherds—that humility makes the night lovely. The loveliness of their humility begins to draw us into the holiness of the moment. But we have to go deeper into that holiness to identify it correctly. We have to find the path of humility ourselves.

We know that this poor family lives in intimate communion with the God of Israel. Mary and Joseph found themselves in the stable in Bethlehem, with a newborn child, in December, precisely because of their membership in the chosen nation.

They are descendants of king David, children of Abraham; they are praying Jews. Their kinsfolk Elizabeth and Zechariah lived a few miles away, not far from the Temple in Jerusalem. Zechariah ministered as a priest in that Temple, originally built by king David’s son.

Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem in the first place, and had to deal with spending the night of the child’s birth with the animals, because their people lived under the yoke of foreign occupiers. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus would have spent the night comfortably at home, if the children of Abraham were not subject to oppression. That was their nation’s history, beginning in Egypt.

This family’s chosen-ness as humble Israelites, then—that draws us into the holiness of the moment. But still we have to go deeper.

We know that the child born in the stable will become the wisest and gentlest of teachers. He will give His followers a body of doctrine, both classic and new. He will teach about religion, human relationships, justice, mercy, and the meaning of life. He will become the most-profound religious and ethical philosopher the world has ever known.

This fact makes us see the night of Christ’s Nativity as an “enlightenment” of the dark world. Jesus lived His teaching with perfect fidelity, total honesty and consistency. His whole life reflected what He taught. In fact, His consummate lesson was simply His life. He lived what He taught and taught us above all by how He lived.

Temple aroma

This convincing wisdom of the Savior helps us understand the spiritual radiance of the night of His birth. Still, though, we have not reached the heart of Christmas holiness.

The holiness of Christmas fundamentally involves this:

The Savior born on this night went to the cross. He offered Himself to the Father. His whole human existence led to His crucifixion. He died an innocent Lamb. He became a priest, and offered Himself, as a religious sacrifice on behalf of the whole human race, His people.

The sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth saves us because it is both human and divine. For a man—even the noblest of men—to offer himself in death as an innocent victim of injustice—that would inspire us as an act of selflessness. That is precisely the case of the many martyrs that we venerate. But even the noblest self-offering of a human being cannot in itself save the human race from evil.

What happened with our Savior is: God became a human being, and offered His divine holiness, justice, and love, in sacrifice—as one of us. The eternal Word became flesh, and then He gave Himself back to the Father, as a man, for the salvation of all His human brothers and sisters. The unfathomable Trinity opened up to us, and drew us into the Eternal Love of the Father and Son, the Holy Spirit.

That is salvation. That is heaven opening, and grace pouring down upon us. Our salvation involves a divine human being, a human God. The dark, cold night of Christmas shines with radiant holiness because the cooing child is the infinite, incarnate Creator.

The Christmas mystery. The Person Who Jesus is. The mystery of the Incarnation silences the night because God’s grandeur surpasses our capacities of expression, even of thought. The holiness of the moment makes the whole situation perfectly simple. All we can do is worship.

God transcends us. He transcends everything. We know we cannot master God. Therefore, we cannot master Christmas, either. We cannot even fully fathom the word “Savior,” which we use to identify the Child. What we can do is believe. We can believe in the Incarnation precisely because it is God Almighty Who could and would make Himself one of us. We can call Jesus our Savior not because we understand what that means, but because we believe that Almighty God can and will save us.

Therefore, when we draw spiritually near to Bethlehem, we worship. We kneel before God in Christ. All praise, honor, glory, and majesty to Him, the Word of God made flesh for our salvation.

Simple Light

El Greco Nativity

God became one of us, so that we might become His children.

We know that a mysterious light will illuminates the night tonight and will shine tomorrow morning. A light emanates from the baby in the manger, from the stable, from the city of Bethlehem.

Not the kind of light you get from a light bulb. Baby Jesus is not a human flashlight. The mysterious inner light of the newborn Christ illuminates not just one place, but every place. Not just one night or one day, but every night and every day.

The light of communion with God, of true religion, of divine adoption. Christ shines the inner light that unites us with our Creator, with the One Who governs all things for the sake of eternal love.

The other day I was watching a debate between an atheist and a Christian. The atheist said something interesting.

The question is: How did it all begin? And the atheist argued: A reasonable person seeks the simplest possible explanation for everything, including the beginning of the universe. Saying that an “intelligent God” created everything adds complexity. It brings something complicated into an explanation that we ought to try to keep as simple as possible.

Now, there’s something to this. If he thinks that “faith” or “religion” automatically means something impossibly complicated, some kind of lumpy, super-heavy backpack that you have to put on and carry around everywhere, with no hope of ever opening it to see what all the heavy stuff inside is. If “God” is really a complicated web of human ideas.

After all, this little baby grew up to say things like, “Woe to you, Pharisees, you frauds! You abandon the law of God and hold onto human traditions.”

Sermon_on_the_Mount_Fra_Angelico
Sermon on the Mount by Fra Angelico

So we sympathize with the atheist’s idea about keeping things simple. Then we point out to him that he missed the mark, in his attack on our faith in the Creator.

We say: Man, we do not propose to explain How It All Began by some complicated theory of God. Totally the opposite. The light that shines from baby Jesus shows us, by its enchanting simplicity, just how impossibly complicated we are, by comparison. We’re the complicated ones.

God became one of us, so that we could become like Him.

Is Catholicism complicated? I’ll speak for myself and say: This past year, it became a whole lot more complicated than it ever was before! We Catholics have to live in the trackless no-man’s land where we owe our first allegiance to an institution that is compromised to the core. But our faith has not been compromised at all. Rather, the solid truth of the Catholic faith—the light of Christ working in the souls of sex-abuse victims, giving them courage and clarity–has exposed the hidden weakness and dishonesty of the Catholic hierarchy.

Catholicism at the end of 2018:True faith; compromised high priests of the faith. Not an easy place for us to live, at least not for me. But let’s leave the complexities of Catholicism to the side for one moment. After all, Planet Earth is complicated. Human nature: complicated. You’re complicated; I’m complicated.

But not God. Not the mysterious divine light that shines from the crib.

The mystery of our religion, the religion of Jesus; the mystery of being a child of God: it is neither vague nor complicated.

Because He Himself lived that mystery, before the eyes of witnesses. From the moment of His conception in the Virgin’s womb, to the carpenter’s bench and the synagogue, to the Temple, to the cross, to the garden outside the tomb, to the mount from which He ascended into heaven: He Himself, the Creator, showed us human creatures, by His human life, The Way. The way of the child of God.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, the merciful, the peacemakers, and the pure of heart. Love your enemies, and do good to those who wrong you. When you pray, say: Our Father, Who art in heaven. Do not worry, because your heavenly Father clothes the lilies of the field who neither toil nor spin, and you are worth more than many sparrows. Take up your cross, and follow Me. Eat My flesh and drink My blood. Baptize all nations. Love one another as I have loved you. Store up treasure in heaven.

Planet Earth is a complicated place. But uncomplicated Jesus has changed the earth from a trackless no-man’s land into a pilgrim road to the Father’s house. And the amazingly simple thing is: When we love Jesus in the manger, we’re already there.

Was Jesus Born on December 25?

annunciation

Three days till Christmas. Now, was Jesus actually born on December 25? Is Christmas His real birthday? [Spanish]

The Israelites did not use the Roman calendar that we use. And the gospels don’t give a birth date anyway, using either the Roman or the Jewish calendar—or the Chinese calendar, for that matter.

But the Scriptures do, in fact, offer us a great deal of pertinent information. We read at Sunday Mass: Mary set out in haste for the hill country of Judah. Right before that—right before Mary set out in haste–an angel had visited her. Which angel? Archangel…  Gabriel! What did the angel say to Mary? You will have a son.

In other words, Lord Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary right before she went to visit her cousin. Mary set out in haste. Why?  Because the angel also told her something else. Gabriel told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was pregnant. In fact, he was more precise. He said, ‘Your cousin Elizabeth is now in her…  sixth month!”

Upon Mary’s arrival, the infant in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy. Which infant is that, that leaped for joy in the womb? Yes, St. John the Baptist, son of Elizabeth and…  Zechariah.

st-john-baptist-grecoSo far, it’s all here in black and white. Baby Jesus was conceived when Elizabeth was six months pregnant with St. John the Baptist. Question is: Was that approximately March 25? Did the Annunciation–when Mary became pregnant with Jesus–occur on March 25? That’s the day when The Incarnation—God becoming man–occurred, in Mary’s womb. Was it March 25?

Here’s where ancient traditions start to corroborate the idea that we have the correct date for Christmas. For many centuries, people observed March 25th as New Year’s Day.  The first Mass said by an English-speaking priest in what is now the United States: March 25, 1634–New Year’s Day. (January 1 did not become New Year’s Day in the English Colonies until 1751). By the way: Who said that Mass?  That is correct: Fr. White. (Fr. Andrew White.)

Anyway, in ancient times, people believed that the world was created on March 25, that the Israelites marched out of slavery on March 25, and that Jesus was crucified on March 25.

Be all that as it may, though, it doesn’t prove anything. We need to try and figure out, if we can, when Elizabeth became pregnant.

Anyone remember what happened? The archangel Gabriel had visited someone else, besides Mary…  Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband! The angel visited Zechariah at home, while he was sitting and watching t.v., correct? No, the angel came to Zechariah in the Temple, while Zechariah was performing his duty as a member of one of the priestly clans.

Elizabeth became pregnant with John the Baptist right after Zechariah saw the angel in the Temple. Therefore, if we could figure out when it was that Zechariah ministered in the temple in the preceding year, we could add six months, and we would know more or less when the Annunciation took place. Then we add nine months, and we know the real date of or the original Christmas.

Do the Scriptures provide an answer? Yes. In the Old Covenant, the priests ministered in the Temple in Jerusalem according to a yearly cycle, depending on your priestly division. They didn’t use sign-up sheets for Eucharistic Ministers, like we do now. They followed a cycle established by King David, as we read in I Chronicles.

king davidZechariah belonged to the priestly division of…  Anyone? Abijah. The clan of Abijah came eighth in the annual cycle.

Now, yes: By Zechariah’s time, a thousand years had passed since King David established the cycle.  The Temple had been destroyed twice.  So the routine certainly had broken down, somewhere along the line.  But a Jewish writer from the time of Christ documented some facts about the cycle of priestly service, and it turns out: King David’s routine still operated, as he had instituted it a thousand years before. When they rebuilt the Temple, they restored the original yearly cycle of priestly service.

So, the next question: Was Jerusalem crowded when the angel visited Zechariah in the Temple?  St. Luke reports that the “whole multitude” of Israel awaited him out in the Temple courtyard. So: When would the priestly clan of Abijah have served during a large festival?  On the Day of Atonement, in mid-September, or during the Feast of Tabernacles, which followed two weeks later.

We could do all the math. But we don’t have to. If St. John the Baptist was conceived near the end of September or the beginning of October, then Lord Jesus was conceived in late March or early April of the following year, and born in late December, or early January. And, as we note this, let’s not forget: in Church, the feast of Christmas extends twelve nights, until January 6.

All very exciting, but let’s pause. We really cannot say for sure when Zechariah served in the Temple during the year before St. John was born. An honest historian would say: We do not know Jesus’ exact date of birth just from deductions and inductions from the Scriptures.

But the same honest historian would acknowledge: We have an ancient tradition identifying a particular date. Christians have been celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25 since long before the Romans established a winter holiday around the same time of year. And the information we have in the Scriptures not only does not contradict that traditional date, it confirms it.

December 25. Jesus’ birthday. The date is solid. Merry Christmas.

What Does Christmas Really Mean?

VisitationGuess what? We read the exact same gospel passage at Holy Mass today and on Sunday.

What do we call it, when the Blessed Mother came to her cousin in the Judean hill country? The Visitation. Two women and two… babies, unborn infants.

What time of year was it? Hmm… We keep the Feast of the Visitation on… May 31. So Mary arrived at Elizabeth and Zechariah’s house on May 31?

We can’t say that for sure. The Church chose the date of May 31 just fifty years ago. Not because we know the exact date when it happened, but because May 31 falls between two Solemnities, namely… Annunciation and Nativity of John the Baptist. (Like the account goes in St. Luke’s gospel, right?)

How about this: How long did Our Lady stay with Elizabeth? Correct! Three months.

How pregnant was Elizabeth when Mary arrived? Right again! Six months.

So one thing we can say for sure is: Our Lady stayed until the time of St. John’s birth. She left either right before or right after Elizabeth gave birth.

We don’t have dates, but we have a clear, reliable time frame: Mary conceived baby Jesus six months after Elizabeth conceived St. John. Then Our Lady traveled south to Judah, and stayed three months. Mary gave birth to Jesus how many months later? This math is not hard. Six.

dec25Now, you probably think: Blah blah blah, Father. We didn’t come here to do math! What’s your point?

Ok. Some people think to themselves: Christmas is all about good feelings and tolerance and world peace. The details don’t matter. Maybe Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem; maybe He wasn’t. Maybe He was born on December 25; maybe He was born some other day. Maybe the Bible is true; maybe it’s all just a lovely story. Doesn’t matter. Christmas simply means: feel good and be a good person.

I DON’T THINK WE COUNT OURSELVES AMONG THE PEOPLE WHO THINK THIS WAY.

I, for one, care. About whether or not December 25 is Jesus’ correct birthday. I don’t want to sing a whole bunch of Masses next Monday night and Tuesday morning–if Jesus actually got born on a different day. I want to sing the Masses on the correct day.

Feel me? So, listen: We will solve this. We will.

It is going to involve an elaborate Bible quiz. So hard that you couldn’t possibly study hard enough. But study hard anyway.

The Son of David and the Real Revolution

The baby’s name is… Mary and Joseph’s hometown was… Nazareth. So the baby’s full name, the way he would have been listed in the phonebook, if they had phonebooks… Jesus of Nazareth. [Spanish.]

Also: He had “titles.” Important people have titles, and Jesus of Nazareth is the most-important Person ever. …Christ, Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, Lord… How about, “Son of ______, have pity on me; have pity on us!” We read in the gospels about a number of occasions when people who needed help called out to Christ, addressing Him as Son of…

Need a hint? He was born in Bethlehem, the City of… And on the very last page of the Bible, we read about Christ calling Himself  “the root and offspring of…”

The Messiah came from the House of David. What can we say about King David, who had lived a thousand years before Christ? He was small. He had courage. He defeated Goliath–not because the boy had extraordinary prowess in battle, but because God took David’s side.

King David loved to sing to the Lord. He fell into lust and homicide. He repented and prayed for mercy from the Lord. He received it, and he learned from his failure. David became a humble king who feared offending God more than anything.

King David harpNow, we could come up with a hundred reasons why the Holy Bible comes across as perfectly believable, to any earnest reader. But the way the books of Samuel recount the life of King David—that has to stand near the top of that list. The Messiah born in Bethlehem is the descendant of a man to whom we can all relate. The Christ sits on the throne of a real, imperfect human king.

Now, one thing we all want to know is: What is the central turning point of history? How and when does hope dawn for this suffering world? How does a change for the better begin?

In the ancient Roman Empire, you had to regard the birth of the current Emperor as the beginning of the new, improved age. When Julius Caesar, or Tiberias, or Trajan, or Hadrian was born: you had to regard that as the day hope dawned on earth. And when the French and Russian Revolutions took power, they demanded the same: You had to regard the revolution as the turning point of history, the beginning of the new, hopeful age.

Maybe this all sounds strange, but it isn’t. It’s actually very familiar. Every generation experiences the temptation of thinking: We now have the answers that our ancestors didn’t. We now know how to behave properly. We are finally cleaning this world up, cleaning up the mess that our ancestors left us.

Now, don’t get me wrong: It’s a great thing that men like Harvey Weinstein finally have gotten the comeuppance they deserve, for trying to take advantage of their authority in the workplace. But: let’s not kid ourselves about when the idea first got hatched—the idea that men shouldn’t prey on women with less power than them. It’s not a new idea. You can read all about it in sermons by St. Augustine, from around the year 400 AD, or sermons by St. Bernard, from around the year 1150 AD.

st-augustineMy point: Today, the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God and Son of David: Today is the day when hope dawned in this needy world. He—the Person, the real man—Jesus Christ: He is the truly New Thing that the world needs. His coming is the only real “Revolution.” No idea, no technological innovation, no political process or social arrangement can begin to approach the true newness brought into the world by this baby.

And He came to heal a world full of people like King David. People who aren’t perfect, but who trust in God and know how to ask forgiveness. Not super-talented people, or razor-sharp minds–but humble souls who love to sing to God.

2,017. 2,018. These are not meaningless, throwaway numbers. These numbers measure precisely the on-going duration of the real “New Age,” the real “revolution.” The age of hope, of liberation from the evils of this world.

The last hundred years saw plenty of instances when people got impatient with the course of Christian history. They forgot that Christ is patiently dealing with a race of imperfect King Davids. The revolutionaries of the 20th century imagined they could start something newer and improved, better than Christianity. And in the process they managed to kill innumerable innocent people. We already mentioned the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. There’s also the supposedly glorious revolutions of China, Mexico, Cambodia, and others. And let’s not forget the millions of innocent unborn children killed right here in the USA, in the name of the so-called Sexual Revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s.

The history of the last century proves one thing, above all: We can’t improve on the change for the better that Jesus Christ brought to this world. And nothing is more dangerous than imagining we can.

Today, let’s find our peace in the truth. The world has indeed changed from bad to good. In Bethlehem, on a cold, quiet night. A Savior was born, the heir to throne of David. This baby has the power gently to heal sinners.

The Holy Spirit and the Christmas Spirit

 

sistine isaiah

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me!” rejoiced the prophet. “Do not quench the Spirit!” commands the Apostle. Christ came in the Holy Spirit, to give us the Holy Spirit. The day of His birth approaches quickly—Christmas is a mere eight days away! So in Church we pray, Come, Lord Jesus! And meanwhile, the world says: “You better get the Christmas spirit! And quick!” [Spanish]

Now, can we analyze the similarities, and differences, between the Holy Spirit we read about in the Bible and the “Christmas spirit?” The “spirit of Christmas” we read about in books by authors like Charles Dickens, or hear about on the Charlie Brown Christmas Special or on Amazon.com?

First we can say that the Holy Spirit—Who proceeds from the Father and the Son, and by Whom the Word was made flesh; the Spirit Who fills us with wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, piety, fortitude, and holy fear: He is a divine Person of the Blessed Trinity; He is God.

Meanwhile, “Christmas spirit…” That’s a little more vague. The phrase can mean different things to different people. But everyone more or less agrees: the spirit of Christmas involves kindness and generosity towards family members, friends, associates—towards everyone. It means rejoicing in human goodness and sharing time together, sharing food, and a warm house.

Now, the original event, the thing involving the Holy Spirit: it really did happen. That is, Jesus Christ really was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judea, and shepherds saw angels and rejoiced. That original event is so magnificently lovely, so wonderful, so promising and hopeful for everyone, that we have kept a great feast to commemorate it all these many centuries.

And no matter how much any huckster tries to turn Christmas into just another reason to pull out the credit- or debit-card, the “spirit of Christmas” cannot wither completely into something desiccated and purely secular. Christmas can never become utterly shallow and materialistic.

For about forty years or so now, some Christians have increasingly lamented the secularization of Christmas. But holy Mother Church continues to keep the day as a commemoration of the original most-sacred event. And we will keep doing it that way until the cows come home. The Church will celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25 until well after every credit-card company currently in operation has choked to death on all their chip readers and swipe fees.

When families get together and give each other sweet little gifts, we rejoice. After all, it’s the three wise men who started that tradition, not UPS or Sears and Roebuck. Of course it’s better to go to church first, before the Yule-tide cheer at home. Going to Mass makes Christmas much, much better and more fun. But why fight with anyone about anything on Christmas? Fighting goes against the spirit of Christmas, according to people like Charles Dickens and Charlie Brown. Far be it from us to contradict that, we who worship the babe of Bethlehem as the Prince of Peace.

santa-clausAfter all, in the end, there’s no real contest between Jesus and Santa. There’s no contest at all. Jesus wins. Jesus is the divine Child, with the power to govern the sun, the sky, and the stars—right there in His little hands. Jesus makes Christmas Christmas—He makes it holy, joyful, and blessedly quiet. Santa, as we know, started his long career as a bishop in Jesus’ Church. And Santa became popular because he is one of Jesus’ saints.

So there’s no point in picking fights with anyone about the secularization of Christmas. Better just to focus on good will towards men. But we do have a battle to fight—with ourselves. Can we Christian souls stop the frantic motion of our day-to-day lives, and pray and meditate, and maintain perspective? Can we find the interior peace we need to come to the manger and quietly rejoice?

We have come to the right place, if we want the Holy Spirit to help us. On tv, they love to talk about how “magical” Christmas should be. “Magical”—because it snows, or because the kids believe in Santa Clause, or because you spend your money on the right thing.

But there’s really no magic in the spirit of Christmas. The Holy Spirit doesn’t do magic tricks. Yes, there are magi. But believing in Christ and rejoicing in His loving goodness, and finding the sweet peace of Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds and the animals—it’s not “magic.” The enchantment of Christmas is the work of the same Holy Spirit that made the whole thing happen in the first place–the same Holy Spirit that accomplished the Incarnation in the Virgin’s womb. “Magical” is a penny-ante sideshow, compared to God becoming man for the sake of our salvation.

Let’s just stay focused on the babe in the manger, and the glad tidings that He brings, and rejoice in Him, and let Him give us a merry Christmas.

Pro-Life Christmas

cab-calloway-hepstersdictionaryWhose birthday is December 25th? The Lord Jesus! Also: Isaac Newton, Clara Barton, Humphrey Bogart, Rod Serling, Cab Calloway, Anwar Sadat, Karl Rove, Annie Lennox, and Jimmy Buffet, to name a few.

Before all the ages, in the bosom of eternity, the Son of God was, is, and ever will be born of the Father in the Holy Spirit, the undivided Trinity. Today, the Son of God was born a man, a human being, a human child.

Christ’s birth gives every birth meaning. God’s coming into the world as one of us reveals the divine love which moves the heavens and the earth. We call the mystery of God’s becoming man the… Incarnation. Today the Incarnation occurred.

No, wait! That’s inaccurate. And when priests fall into inaccuracies, Santa justly withholds their presents.

God was born a child on Christmas Day, in Bethlehem. But the Incarnation occurred not on December 25th, but on… let’s see: Math. Nine months… March 25th! The Incarnation occurred when the baby Jesus was conceived. Christmas celebrates the beautiful and successful birth of a divine child Who had been human, alive, and growing for nine months.

Now, we of course want to celebrate Christmas in spirit and in truth. And we might as well celebrate Humphrey Bogart’s, and Clara Barton’s, and Annie Lennox’s birthdays in spirit and in truth, too. That means celebrating the Gospel of Life. Christmas is the feast day of the Gospel of Life. We celebrate Jesus’ birthday, and everybody’s birthday, with holy joy—because we are pro-life.

What does this mean? Well, what does Jesus’ birth teach us? It teaches us that, when a child gets conceived in a woman’s womb, God acts. God reveals a plan, a grand plan that only He fully knows. A child, conceived and growing; a mother selflessly, naturally lavishing her as-yet-unborn child with everything, through the ineffably intimate relationship of the womb—something so complex and amazing that our little human minds cannot comprehend it all: God acts in this process with such a surpassing demonstration of His powerful loving care, that all we can do is revere this holiness with awe and dedicated service.

Who gave us the inspiring phrase “Gospel of Life?” Let me give you a hint. He began a letter he wrote to the whole world with this phrase, “Gospel of Life, Evangelium Vitae.” He had already defined the world-wide pro-life movement by his courageous leadership. In his encyclical letter, he laid out the Biblical and philosophical foundations of the pro-life movement. He explained how the movement actually began way before Roe v. Wade. The pro-life movement began with creation itself, and with God’s reaction after the Fall of Man, when He answered human violence with gentle compassion. The man who gave us the phrase “Gospel of Life,” the undisputed hero of the pro-life movement; from heaven he guides us and aids us still: Pope St. John Paul II.

John Paul II on the MallSomeday historians will look back and take stock of the 20th century, and the 21st, and they will recognize the enormous moral significance of Pope John Paul’s pro-life movement. With the benefit of some perspective, free from the fever of our contemporary political alliances, our children and grandchildren will look back and see the destruction that the culture of death did during our times. All the unnecessary pain and suffering for mothers and fathers, doctors and nurses, whole families; indeed, whole communities. Succeeding generations will look back and see clearly how the culture of death gave rise to terrible economic problems, to hopelessness and guilt on a grand scale, to a spiritual malaise throughout the Western world.

That’s for future generations to assess fully. Right now, though, we already know the basic answer. We fight the culture of death by rejoicing in the birth of the Son of God, and in every human birth. We fight back by taking our place near the manger, where the pro-life Church gazes with love at the divine mystery of conception, pregnancy, and birth.

When we take our place here, celebrating Christmas, we have no choice but to stand up for all innocent and defenseless unborn babies, and for all those who love them: their mothers, fathers, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles.

Because, when we find ourselves next to the newborn babe in the manger, we clearly perceive that violence has no place here, in this sublime mystery of conception, pregnancy, and birth. As the prophet Isaiah put it, declaring the Gospel of Life: “Every boot that tramped in battle, every cloak rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for flames, because the Prince of Peace has a vast dominion, which is forever peaceful.” The cruel violence of abortion is completely foreign to the peace of God’s kingdom. Visiting Bethlehem spiritually cements this truth into our minds.

Now, don’t accuse me of bringing politics into Christmas Eve. Our Catholic adherence to the Gospel of Life runs much deeper than any political affiliations we have. But, of course, being pro-life has political implications. We rejoice in the victories won this past Election Day by candidates with a pro-life message.

These victories mean that we have to pray all the harder and remain all the more vigilant for opportunities to participate in building up the culture of life. May the year to come see us living out in practice, day in and day out, the spiritual worship that we take part in at Christmas, beside the holy manger of the newborn Son of God. May He give us the strength and clarity we need to live 2017 as truly pro-life Christians.

God vs. Judge Judy at Christmas

“I am unworthy to unfasten the sandals on his feet.” St. John the Baptist said this about his cousin, the Word made flesh.

For St. John the Baptist to say this! A worthy man, St. John. The greatest of all prophets. Consecrated in the womb of St. Elizabeth. Righteous as righteous can be. Even he says, “I don’t deserve even to unfasten the sandals of Jesus.”

angels nativityNow, baby Jesus had no sandals at the first Christmas. His little feet hadn’t grown big enough yet even for footie pajamas. But St. John’s sense of unworthiness: let’s strive to feel it. Because it will help us find real joy, as we make our spiritual visit to the manger.

I’m not saying that we humble human beings don’t have some things going for us. We have rights, rights which even God recognizes. He made us creatures worthy of respect.

All human beings have the right to life, the right to a decent life, the right to follow our consciences freely. We all owe each other respect and esteem.

And Christmas offers us the perfect time to beg pardon of one another for all the times we have treated each other unworthily. For all the times I have failed to recognize what every human being deserves from me.

But the coming of Christ into the world involves something way beyond what we are “worthy” of, something way beyond what we could ever claim to deserve. We creatures made of dust, prone to ignorance, cravenly selfish—what claim can we have on our Creator? What can we demand of Him as our right, something He supposedly ‘owes’ us? In the beginning, He made us out of nothing, purely because of His love. We respond by looking at our phones most of the time.

Lying in the manger, Jesus radiates peace. His peace comes from the sublime heights of His divinity. He offers to us human beings what He has as God–as a gift. He offers freely what we ourselves have no hope of having, without Him.

We, the human race, deserved to stew in our own rather-unpleasant juice. But that’s what Judge Judy would say, if she had the case to judge. God, on the other hand, judges according to the criterion of His own ineffable love.

He stays true to Himself in everything, no matter what we do or don’t do. So, in the fullness of time, He became man, born of the Virgin, to give the human race hope and peace—to give Himself, as a pure, un-merited gift to the un-deserving.

Our real Christmas joy springs from the very same place in our souls where we acknowledge just how unworthy we are to be anywhere near the mystery of Bethlehem. Men and women of unclean lips, consumed by trifles, vain and self-centered! Yet He invites us to kneel close to Him, to adore Him, to hear His gentle breathing, and rejoice that His heart beats for us.

At Christmas, God tells the human race: What you deserve does not exactly concern Me right now. I delight in you. Not because you deserve it. But because I love you.

Taking December 25 to the Bank

In the hill country of Judah, they have the ugliest statue of Zecahriah in the world
In the hill country of Judah, they have the ugliest statue of Zecahriah in the world

Mary set out in haste for the hill country of Judah. Right before that, an angel had visited her. Which angel? Archangel… Gabriel! The angel told her that she would have… a son.

VisitationThen Mary set out in haste. Because the angel also told her that her cousin Elizabeth was now in her… sixth month! Upon Mary’s arrival, the infant in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy. Which infant is that, that leaped for joy in the womb? Yes, St. John the Baptist, son of Mary’s kin, Zechariah and Elizabeth.

So let’s have some fun and do some simple calendar math. Lord Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary when Elizabeth was approximately sixth months pregnant with St. John. Right? It’s all in the Scriptures, in black and white.

Now, do we know when Elizabeth became pregnant? Anyone remember what had happened? The archangel Gabriel had visited someone else, besides Mary… Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband! The angel visited Zechariah at home, while he was sitting and watching t.v., correct? No, the angel came to Zechariah in the Temple, while he was performing his duty as a member of one of the priestly clans.

Now, people often wonder, Can we really know for sure that Jesus was born on December 25? After all, Holy Scripture does not explicitly name the date. And maybe it would have been too cold for shepherds to couch their flocks by night on December 25?

Let’s back up. We do know that Jesus Christ was, in fact, born. So, if we knew nothing else at all, and said: He was born on December 25! we would have a 1/365 chance of being right.

But, actually, we do know a little more about it. Generally speaking, mothers carry babies in their wombs for how long? Coupla weeks? No. Nine months. So we can say: The Lord Jesus was born approximately nine months after He was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Reasonable enough, right? When was He conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Right! When Mary said Yes to the Archangel Gabriel. The Annunciation, which occurred right around St. Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy. So, the $10,000 question is: was that March 25? Or at least March 25th-ish?

The Ark and the Dove carried the first Catholics to the English colonies.  First Mass?  March 25
The Ark and the Dove carried the first Catholics to the English colonies. First Mass? March 25
You know, for many centuries, people observed March 25th as New Year’s Day. The first Mass said by an English-speaking priest in what is now the United States: March 25, 1634. New Year’s Day. (January 1 did not become New Year’s Day in the English Colonies until 1751). Who said that Mass? That is correct: Fr. White. (Fr. Andrew White.)

In ancient times, people believed that the world was created on March 25, that the Israelites marched out of slavery on March 25, and that Jesus was crucified on March 25. But: please forgive me; I digress. None of that is really on-point. Can we find any historical evidence for the idea that Jesus Christ was conceived in the womb on or around March 25?

In a word, yes we can find some evidence. Elizabeth became pregnant right after Zechariah saw the angel in the Temple. So, if we could figure out when it was that Zechariah ministered in the temple in the preceding year, we could add six months, and we would know more or less when the Annunciation took place.

Zechariah belonged to the priestly clan of… Anyone? Abijah. King David had assigned the yearly routine of service for the priestly clans, as we read in I Chronicles. The clan of Abijah came eighth in the cycle.

Now, a thousand years had passed since King David’s time. The Temple had been destroyed twice. So the routine certainly had broken down, along the line there. But a Jewish writer from the time of Christ documented some facts about the cycle of priestly service. So we know that King David’s routine still operated, more or less as he had instituted it a thousand years before.

GrinchWas Jerusalem crowded when the angel visited Zechariah in the Temple? St. Luke reports that the “whole multitude” of Israel awaited him out in the Temple courtyard. When would the priestly clan of Abijah have served during a large festival? On the day of Atonement, in mid-September, or during the Feast of Tabernacles, which followed a fortnight later.

We could do all the math together. But we don’t have to. If St. John the Baptist was conceived near the end of September or the beginning of October, then Lord Jesus was born in late December of the following year, or early January. (Let’s not forget that the feast of Christmas extends twelve nights, until January 6.)

Now, all these calendar calculations are very exciting, but let’s pause. We really cannot say for sure when Zechariah served in the Temple during the year before St. John was born. An honest historian would say: We do not know Jesus’ exact date of birth from the historical documents that we possess.

But the same honest historian would acknowledge: we have an ancient tradition identifying a particular date. And the naysaying quibbles about December 25 don’t really hold water. Palestine can have mild Decembers, just like Virginia. The original Christmas Eve could have been a lovely night for shepherding flocks outside by night.

So let’s not let any unreasonably skeptical grinches try to steal our genuine Christmas joy. If anyone suggests that we are naïve to believe everything we hear in church on Christmas, we could reasonably respond by asking: What ill-founded nonsense did you naively believe that made you start to doubt any of it?