Now, then, my soul,
embrace that divine manger;
press your lips upon and kiss the boy's feet.
Then in your mind
keep the shepherds' watch,
join in the heavenly melody,
singing with your voice and heart:
Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace
to men of good will.
St. Bonaventure (d. 1274),
"The Tree of Life" (Trans. Ewert Cousins),
Bonaventure (Paulist Press, 1978)
Growing up in a family that rarely went to any church and that, though vaguely Protestant, had no particular denominational affiliation, it is odd that my two favorite and most formative "religious" items were a Christmas crèche (though it was always referred to as "the manger") and a "Sacred Heart of Jesus" nightlight.
In difficult times (for example, when my Father was out of work or my Mother was ill) as a child, the figures of the crèche brought comfort - especially the baby in the hay. Likewise, my nightlight (a gift from my grandmother) brought comfort in the dark. The two images - the baby born in a barn and the caring Jesus - helped to shape my understanding of God and prepare me for my conversion as a college student. These were my "icons," my windows into the holy even before I really knew it.
The crèche is said to have been introduced to popular practice by St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226). Though devotion to the Sacred Heart is older, another Franciscan, St. Bonaventure, popularized it. The crèche and the Sacred Heart remind us of the humanity and humility of God in Christ Jesus.
The Priest who baptized me gave me a book:
Through the year with Michael Ramsey: Devotional Readings for Every Day [edited by Margaret Duggan (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975)]. Michael Ramsey (1904-1988) was the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury (1961-1974). It helped to shape my faith. It is literally a year's worth of reflections from the late Archbishop. Especially in difficult times, I still take it down to read during my prayers. This Christmas, the Archbishop's words (from page 249) struck me as if written for us today:
Our Christmas is no less Christmas, and our joy is no less joyful because we are keeping Christmas with a very dark and troubled world around us. We cannot banish from our minds the miseries on the poorer countries; the continuing griefs of political and racial strife; the many in the world who are without homes and without food; the many who are lonely, and without friends to cheer them.
Our rejoicing Christmas is not an escape from life's grim reality into a fancy realm of religion and festivity. Rather is it a joy that, as we face and feel the world's tragedy, we know that God has an answer: an answer for mankind to receive. In a word, this is a time of hope.
Christians say: Christ has taken humanity to himself, and so every man and woman and child in the world is loveable and infinitely precious. And, in response, men and women can treat one another - whatever their race or colour - in the light of Bethlehem; or they can, in rejecting the human dignity of their fellows, reject their own dignity too.
The combination of humanity and humility is the way I know God. Yes, the realities of human evil, greed and violence are evident in our world, in Aleppo, Cairo and Berlin, at Standing Rock and in our own communities. As the followers of the Christ-child it is through broken humanity that we must seek out God. In the words of St. Bonaventure quoted at the beginning, we are called to "kiss the boy's feet." It is in the Christ-child that God has come to know us and through whom we see God in every child.
It is in Jesus Christ that we know the God described in Psalm 146:6-9: "God: the maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, God: who is faithful forever, who gives justice to people who are oppressed, who gives bread to people who are starving! The LORD: who frees prisoners. The LORD: who makes the blind see. The LORD: who straightens up those who are bent low. The LORD: who loves the righteous. The LORD: who protects immigrants, who helps orphans and widows, but who makes the way of the wicked twist and turn!" In seeing God in Jesus Christ, we can act the same way. It is in others that we pass through the heart of God.
I pray that we all have a joy-filled and peaceful Christmas this year!