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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Come, Lord, Do Not Delay

One of the things someone pointed out to me a few years ago, found prominently in both iconography and the writings of the Church Fathers, is the link between the Birth of Christ and His Resurrection.  This is a critical link that many don't understand, for much sacred art showing the Nativity is very misleading:  our Christmas cards show pristine views either in the desert with pretty palm trees on a clear night, or a snowy night much like those we might experience here in Minnesota, surrounding a cute little clean-looking cozy warm stable with angels singing overhead and animals cuddling around on the hay. Or perhaps some other warm-and-cozy scene eliciting feelings of vague pleasure that our secular culture has deemed to be "the Christmas spirit".  

This kind of art, while to the degree that Truth is allowed, can be beautiful and certainly may portray PART of the birth of Christ, unfortunately causes us to miss out on the fact that Our Lord Jesus Christ was born into the shadow of the Cross and in a place proleptic of His Resurrection.  If we are missing this part of the story, it means that our preparation for Christmas during the season of Advent is lacking some focus, which follows, therefore, that we can't fully enter into the joy and celebration of the Christmas season!

The fact is that Jesus was not born in a nice cozy modern stable in a cow's stall (as the popular song proclaims), but rather, in one of the caves the surround Bethlehem, where the shepherds corralled their flocks at night to protect them from predators and the elements.  Just imagine, then, what the FLOOR of that cave must have been like!  Imagine, if you will, what covered the ground, and how deep it must have been!  It's not as if the shepherds had time to design a manure shovel and clean it out and lay down some nice hay for the "guests"!

Jesus was, indeed, born in a cave. One of the nastiest caves on earth.  And where was our Most Precious Infant Savior, our King, laid to rest?  He was laid in a manger, something used to feed animals, which was never cleaned. It in fact, would have been the cleanest place in the entire network of caves, yet there, "clean" would be a relative term, wouldn't it?  That nasty manger would have been lined with the spit of a thousand camels, and never mind the fleas! He was thus born into the very same relativism that personifies even our own culture today, the actual filth of his own age, and this is fitting, isn't it, for He is relevant to all ages, revealing Truth of eternity in a world in which very few awaited or wanted to receive Him.

Jesus was BORN into extreme suffering, and so we see the connection to the Cross, for as the Church Fathers remind us, the wood of the manger is the very same as the wood of the Cross. In the town with a name that meant "House of Bread", the Bread of Life Himself was placed in an animal's feeding trough, and yet, He came not to feed animals, but to feed US with His own Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity...only to die upon the gibbit as a reminder of His own humble beginnings....and our own great Fall into sin.

This is why, in iconography, one can observe the cave through which Christ was born and entered the earth at his Nativity, and the same type of cave through which He left when He rose from the dead in order to overcome the grave for us, restoring our dignity by opening Heaven to so that we could reach our final end:  eternal union with the Holy Trinity.  Just as He arrived, so He every way.

We must remember, in this season of Advent, and as we celebrate Christmas with great joy at the Incarnation, our God become man who came to save us from our sins calls us to follow in ALL His footsteps...all of them.

"Come, Lord, do not delay.
-Free your people from their sinfulness."
~ Liturgy of the Hours, Midafternoon, Third Sunday of Advent

Advent is a time of Preparation, so that we can prepare our hearts to receive the gift of Christ Himself, and in turn, make OURSELVES a gift to Him!

There is no greater gift we can give to Jesus but ourselves.  We must take time in silence, maybe solitude, slow down even as the world speeds up, and realize what is truly important. The readings for most of Advent call us to consider final Judgement, reminding us of our final ends, giving us hope in our eternal beatitude with God, but only if we respond to His grace and work to eliminate sin from our lives. It is a time of darkness and purification, it is a time of confronting temptations and actual sins and vices that keep us from God.  Especially when we consider the filth into which Christ was born, don't we want to be MORE certain of our own purity so that we can receive Him, offering Him the same mercy He provides to us?

If we saw a child lying in filth, wouldn't our first response be to pick him up, cuddle him and hold him close and warm, wrapping Him in pure, clean clothes? Yet, if we were filthy ourselves, wouldn't we hold back so that we would not contaminate Him further?  Would we not first change our OWN clothing so as to ensure that our efforts would not make this child's condition even WORSE?  If we had just come from a sewage pit, covered in the "fruits" of our labors, would we even CONSIDER picking up a child lying in a manger, knowing that the sewage dripping from us would make his own condition filth even WORSE?

I shudder when I recall that I was once one of those who lived in habitual and terrible mortal sin, did not go to Confession, and yet, at Christmas, for many years, I went forward to receive Him, this dear Holy Infant, into the profanity of my body and soul. I took the Christ Child into my own sewage, that of my own sinful soul, far worse than the filth into which He had been born!

Oh, how I shudder now to consider it!  And how I shudder to realize that this happens EVERY DAY, it happens in HUGE numbers every Christmas and Easter when such large numbers of people return to the Church....but go forward to receive Our Lord in such a filthy state!

We should ALL ensure, then, that we are not in denial of our own sin. We should be using Advent as a true time of preparation, and maybe this is difficult. Maybe it's hard to face ourselves and the reality of our own immorality. Maybe we are in darkness because we have a war within us, an interior battle within which we realize we are in bondage to sin...and are unwilling to let go of the chains that bind us.  Maybe we are afraid that if we go to the Sacrament of Confession, especially if it's been a long time, that we can't be forgiven. Do we inflict a "statute of limitations" on ourselves and condemn ourselves even though Jesus calls us to Him through the Sacrament of Penance in order to reconcile us to that we can receive Him in purity? Do we deny that we NEED the Sacrament of Confession in order to be ABLE to receive Him and be strengthened on this long pilgrimage to Heaven?

Or do we err on the side of sacrilege, approaching the Holy Altar of Sacrifice, having sacrificed nothing of  ourselves, but presuming a place upon our own authority, demanding to be fed at the Table but refusing to partake in the Sacrifice to which we are truly called?

During this time of Advent, maybe in our introspection we are crushed, and finally realize how we have been defeated over and over again, how we have chosen love of some worldly, fleshly pleasure over love of God, preferring what is temporary to what is eternal.  This is not cause for despair! It is a reason to rejoice, for this gift of self-knowledge, while difficult, is the very cave through which we are born again!  It is the very tomb through which we must pass in order to live again!

We MUST see the parallel between the Nativity and the Resurrection, between the Manger and the Cross. We MUST see how, if we are to be conformed to Christ and live out our Baptismal call to Holiness, we have to live out, over and over again in our spiritual lives the cycle of crushing defeat and the darkness in which we are rebuilt, if only we are willing to cooperate with God's grace. We must be crushed, we must die to ourselves in order to learn to turn our wills more perfectly to God.

Christmas isn't just a random celebration, a day off from work, a day to open gifts. It is a day that requires great preparation, for when we celebrate it, we should be offering the gift of ourselves, in purity, in joy, knowing that God has brought us through darkness and into redemption!  Today, on Guaudete Sunday, in the Liturgy of the Hours we pray in recognition of the Redemption! Now, during Advent, we are directed not towards the Nativity, but towards our eternal Salvation!

Rejoice! Persevere through the remainder of this "mini-Lent" and know that your redemption is at hand!

"Let us cleanse our hearts for the coming of our great King, that we may be ready to welcome him; he is coming and will not delay."


Hidden One said...

May you have a blessed Feast of St. John of the Cross, Adoro!

Anonymous said...

Wow, that was a most excellent post! Thinking of Jesus born into a cave full of sheep poop--oy! And you are correct how we have chosen worldly, fleshly pleasure over love of God--preferring what is temporary to what is eternal. Jesus took no comfort, he suffered--payment--justice due for our sin.

Mark said...

Thanks for a truly superb post.