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Wherever we turn these days, Christmas music plays, and for some of us this year, the words to the traditional carols we’ve come to know by heart have suddenly taken on new meaning. Old, familiar jingles about Christ’s birth now seem to resound with significance, bursting with the presence of His Gospel!
The popular hymn, O Holy Night, is full of such moving words; it speaks of the world lying long in sin, “’til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.” Such were the great crowds of the lame, blind, deformed and mute in today’s Gospel.
Imagine them – the sick and weary, the hungry, approaching Jesus up on the mountain, filled with “a thrill of hope.” Envision them “falling on their knees” as our compassionate Savior placed them at His feet and cured them! Jesus took pity on that crowd of four thousand and fed them with only seven loaves and a few fish. Imagine the “weary souls rejoicing!”
Jesus holds no less compassion for our weariness and hunger as He continues to heal us with His Word and feed us through the Eucharist. We give thanks for these gifts which we receive in faith, and rejoice along with the souls on that mountain, “Sweet hymns of joy! In grateful chorus raise we! Let all within us praise His holy Name!”
One of my favorite Advent books and one that I read every year at this time is a book by Catherine Doherty called “Donkey Bells,” published by Madonna House Publications. I love to read this inspiring book curled up in a comfortable chair by the wood stove, a hot chocolate or apple cider beside me, Advent and Christmas music playing quietly in the background. This lovely book is filled with heartwarming stories, customs and traditions (such as the Advent wreath, baking, the blessing of the Christmas tree) and moving reflections for the season. It is a beautiful way for children, teens and adults to prepare their hearts for Christmas.
The following is a story from Donkey Bells: Advent and Christmas by Catherine Doherty
(Available as a paperback and e-book)
Donkey Bells (by Catherine Doherty)
It came to me, during these days of Advent, that I should share with you a custom which is not necessarily liturgical but which adds to the enjoyment of this lovely season. It has deep spiritual connotations; at least it did for our family, and for many others I knew when I was a young child.
When I was a little girl, my mother used to tell me that if I was good during this holy season of Advent, and offered my little acts of charity and obedience throughout Advent to the little Christ Child for a gift on his birthday, then sometime during Advent, at first very faintly and then quite clearly, I would hear bells. As she put it, the first church bells.
These were the bells around the neck of the little donkey that carried Our Lady. For mother explained that Our Lady carried Our Lord. She was the temple of the Holy Spirit, the first ‘church’ as it were, since Christ reposed in her. And the donkey, carrying Our Lady and sounding his bells as he walked, wore the first church bells.
Around the second week of Advent, mother wore a little bracelet that had tinkling bells. As she moved her hand I could hear them tinkle, and I got excited because I associated them with the donkey’s bells.
As young as I was, my imagination would build up a lot of little stories about the trip of Our Lady from Nazareth to Bethlehem — stories which I would share with my mother, and which would spur me on to further good deeds and little sacrifices.
During the third week of Advent, mother’s bracelet miraculously got many more bells on it. The sound grew louder and louder as Christmas approached. It was wonderful.
My brother and I used to listen. Mother’s bells were first around her wrist and then around her knee too. Then more bells, as it got closer to Christmas. We were really excited about them.
I introduced this little custom in Madonna House. During Advent, I wear a kind of bracelet that can be heard as I walk or move, in whatever room of the house I may be. The members of our family tell me that it spurs them on, even as it did me when I was a child, to meditate more profoundly on the mystery of Advent.
Here at Madonna House, we have begun in these last few years to make a collection of miniature donkeys — of wood, glass, ceramics, rope — you name it. And we have an album of Christmas cards (which we save from the many we receive) that depict the donkey in the manger scene.
The presence of the donkey and the ox in Scripture is symbolic of the prophets who foretold the Incarnation. And also of the fact that “the ox and ass know their Master’s voice, but Israel doesn’t know the voice of God” (Isaiah 1:3). So, you see, there is some spiritual foundation for my love for the donkey which brings such great joy to my heart.
I’m sure that, as a child, Christ rode on a donkey many times. And also as a man, of course. In Scripture we know of only two times: one was when the donkey carried Our Lady, who in turn carried God, from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The other was when the donkey carried Christ into Jerusalem as the people laid palm branches before Him, proclaiming him king.
Let us think for a moment: What kind of animal is a donkey? It is a beast of burden, the animal of the poor. Once again, the immense theme of poverty is illustrated in an animal. God chose the humblest, the smallest in status, because among the animals the donkey is considered very low. So God is teaching us a lesson here — a lesson of humility, of poverty, and of simplicity.
Have you ever seen a newborn donkey? Well, every donkey has a black cross on its gray fur, a marking which is especially noticeable just after it is born from its mother’s womb. It gets less clear as the donkey matures, but still is visible. I share this fact with you to teach you to open your heart to the bells of the donkey that carried Our Lady and also God.
The breath of the donkey and the ox made the stable warm. So we meditate on several things at once: the poverty and humility of the donkey God chose, and which should be our poverty and humility; and the breath of our love, which should warm God in our neighbor constantly.
Let us remember that the donkey also had no room at the inn. Neither woman, nor man, nor donkey had a place at the inn. So they went to live in a poor stable that wasn’t too well prepared for animals, let alone as a decent habitation for human beings.
Now, another meditation comes to us. Think of the millions of people who are left homeless on our streets. Tragic is this situation. We, as apostles, must be very careful that we do not exclude anyone from the inn of our heart.
I pray that our heart, our soul, our ears will hear very clearly ‘the bells of the donkey,’ not only in Advent but throughout the year. For whoever who is pure of heart and childlike shall hear the bells of the donkey ring in their life.
(Creative Commons Licence Pass It On by Madonna House Publications is free to re-publish under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.)
Do you have a favorite Advent or Christmas story? Please feel free to share.
Major celebrations in the Christian calendar are a great time to pull out texts from antiquity that relate to a current event. It really helps to connect you with the traditions we will celebrate in the coming days. With that in mind, I began conducting searches on Logos for texts and sermons on Christmas.
I enjoyed reading quite a few selections, but there was one that stood out to me above the rest. It is a sermon by Pope Leo the Great (r. 440-461). In it, he asks listeners to meditate on what would be a worthy gift to give the Lord on the day of his birth. In Leo’s thinking, the only gift worthy of the Lord’s majesty is the peace we receive from God himself. He writes:
But in the treasures of the Lord’s bounty what can we find so suitable to the honour of the present feast as the peace, which at the Lord’s nativity was first proclaimed by the angel-choir?
As Leo’s sermon continues, he quotes the Apostle Paul from the Book of Romans using an alternate, more infrequently used, meaning to the Greek word πρός (transliteration: pros). I think that is significant because the translation of one word can change the meaning of the text. Here is the more common translation:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with (πρός) God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1, RSV)
Here is the way Pope Leo quotes the same verse:
Being justified therefore by faith let us have peace towards (πρός) God through our Lord Jesus Christ
I don’t think the alternate meaning for the Greek word πρός is insignificant. I mean it’s not as if one is simply changing happy to glad. Having peace with God is, in my mind, an initiative undertaken by God. He is the one offering peace to us and we are free to accept or decline it. But to have peace towards God is something we must do. I suppose it is the choice of translation Leo employed, and the subsequent direction it took the rest of his sermon, that brought it to the forefront among all the other readings I looked at today.
Pope Leo instructs his listeners (and us) that where there is peace towards God, “there is no lack of virtue” and by living virtuous lives we will “wish what He bids, and not wish what He forbids.” Making use of analogies, Leo likens our relationship with God to our earthly friendships, where we struggle to reach a “similarity of desires” so that we may attain peace among our friends. The pope cuts to the quick by asking his listeners:
[H]ow will he be partaker of divine peace, who is pleased with what displeases God and desires to get delight from what he knows to be offensive to God?
Simply put, we cannot have peace towards God if we are intent on doing the things that are displeasing to him. Similarly, we will not experience peace with God either if we insist upon taking a path that leads us away from him.
In building up his audience at the end of his sermon, Pope Leo refers to them as “the noble family of the adopted” and as the “chosen and royal race.” We too, in 2012, are part of the “noble family of the adopted,” who should sing out Gloria in excelsis Deo in our loudest voices as our Advent journey draws to a close and the holy season of Christmas begins (cf. Romans 8:15, Gal 3:25-26, 1 Pt 2:9). Meanwhile, in the quiet depths of our hearts, let us offer peace towards God by offering him the words his beloved Son taught us to pray: “Thy will be done” (Mt 6:10). In doing so, we will be acknowledging the peace we have received from the Lord and return it to him by willingly placing our lives in his hands.
One of the things you hear from people during this time of year is they “need to beat the rush.” For example, “I need to get up at 4am on ‘black Friday’ so I can get to the mall and beat the rush.”
So in keeping with that idea of needing to “beat the rush,” I’ve decided, on Christmas Eve, to write about next year, 2012, in order to beat the rush and get a leg up on all the other bloggers out there.
Okay, that’s not really why I’m writing about the new year before we even have celebrated The Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord. I know most Catholic bloggers have focused their writings on the coming of the Messiah, or the meekness of the King of Glory as he lay in the manger; their pieces are timely, powerful, and excellent for reflection and guiding prayer. But I am looking ahead. I really want us to be taking those familiar Christmas themes and carrying them forward beyond the Christmas liturgy and into the new year. I want us to find the spirituality associated with Christmas and recognize that it is not just for the month of December, but for everyday.
I know, I know. I can imagine the collective groan as people start moving their cursors to the red “X” in the upper right hand corner of the screen. Most people believe that when Catholics start talking about “spirituality,” orthodoxy gets thrown out the window. I get it. I’ve seen plenty of that material too. However, I can assure you, this is not that kind of post and if you indulge me for a few more minutes, I’ll prove it.
One of my sons, Noah, is seven years old and he has been going crazy for the past two weeks, waiting for Christmas. In fact, one of the traditions in our home is to buy everyone a new pair of Christmas pajamas to wear to bed on Christmas eve and on Christmas morning. This year, Noah’s expectation is running so high, that he has been wearing them for the past two days; as in, he hasn’t worn anything else! I can already see the debate we’ll have later when it’s time to go to Mass. But, I digress…
This expectation is an important part of Christmas, not only for children, but for adults too. Indeed, Advent is a season dedicated to expectation. Consider these snippets taken from the Advent Gospel readings:
- “Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming….” (first week of Advent)
- One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. (second week of Advent)
- I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord,'” as Isaiah the prophet said. (third week of Advent)
- Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (fourth week of Advent)
We can see the Lord’s coming is unexpected, but anticipated. We don’t know when it will occur, but nonetheless we are exhorted to, “Watch!” We see John’s testimony about the Lord in the next two weeks. It not only highlights the coming of Jesus, but serves as foreshadowing of our efforts to evangelize, always pointing to the “one mightier than ourselves.” And finally in Gabriel’s message to Mary, the Kingdom which Jesus shall rule over will have “no end.”
The expectant message of Advent is not only in anticipation of the Lord’s coming as a baby, the celebration of a historical event, but also serves celebration of a future event when the King of all the Ages comes at the end of history (cf. CCC 526, CCC 1042). Therefore, the first (i.e. Christ’s incarnation) should influence our spirituality as we journey towards the second (i.e. Christ’s second coming). But what should our spirituality look like as we anxiously await a world that is not here yet?
Almost exactly forty years ago, in October 1971, John Lennon released the song, “Imagine.” In it, the former Beatle sang, “Imagine there’s no heaven; it’s easy if you try.” Coincidentally, for the past forty years people have been living as if there is no heaven; they are not anticipating the return of the King of Heaven. It would seem the pervasive idea of no heaven and hell, articulated in John Lennon’s famous song, resonates more with modern man than Catholicism’s call for people to lead lives of holiness and charity.
There may be good reason for that. The rise of religious fundamentalism and fanaticism in the past half century, both inside and outside of Christianity, has paved the way for a popular (and profitable) backlash against religion in general and Christianity in particular. Books by Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and recently deceased Christopher Hitchens (God is not Great) fly off the shelves in great quantities, demonstrating the popularity of the idea that there is no heaven and no hell.
If you survey the “religion” section of your local bookstore, I believe you are likely to see, in addition to books by Dawkins and Hitchens, books written to direct people to a new kind of spirituality apart from religion, or books dressed up as orthodox (i.e. Richard McBrien) that really get many of the facts wrong. Interestingly, there is no shortage of this type of material being distributed. From these facts, I can only assume there is a great interest in religion/spirituality, there is a thirst for God, but there is a lot of aggression and ignorance too. Unfortunately, people like Dawkins and McBrien seem to have the lead in telling the story – our story!
In order for Christianity to grow and truly become the life changing force it is in 2012 (and beyond), it must be something more than just “spirituality.” The life of the Christian must be, as the former Master General of the Dominican Order, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP, once said, “moral, reflective, prayerful, and imaginative.” The Christian life, truly understood and lived, would be a synthesis of these four items. We must use our imagination to combine ethics (i.e. morality), theology (i.e. reflection), and spirituality (i.e. prayer) into our daily lives. If these items exist apart from one another the result is never good, even sometimes tragic. For,
- Ethics/morality detached from spirituality and theology reduces the Christian life to a list of do’s and don’t’s. It is overly moralistic.
- Theology detached from spirituality and ethics can be arid. The Christian life was meant to produce fruit, not be a dry wasteland.
- Spirituality detached from theology and ethics reduces the Christian faith to set of principles based on warm, fuzzy feelings.
The challenge for our spiritual lives in 2012 is to bring together all these aspects. Advent and the season of Christmas, with all its expectation, awe and wonder should inspire to dive deeper into our faith. As we contemplate the awesomeness of God becoming man, being born in a state of lowliness, and the worshiping Magi during this season, we should be renewed in our desire to pray more, study more, and live virtuously.
I will be publishing a follow-up to this article in a few days. Right now, I have to go begin to get my seven year old out of his PJ’s and ready for Mass! Have a blessed Christmas!
Belief in the Incarnation is distinctive to the Christian faith. It is a basic tenet in the Creed: Jesus Christ “was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.”
The Incarnation is a unique and singular event. Its truth transforms the way we view God and ourselves: The Incarnation of Christ is the height of centuries of Divine Revelation…. Divine Revelation, of course, being the revealing, or making known, of God Himself to humanity.
In the Incarnation, God now chooses his divine communication to be made known through the Person of His Son.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) defines the Incarnation as “the fact that the Son of God assumed a human nature in order to accomplish our salvation in it (CCC 461).”
St Paul taught:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8.)
This holy condescension of God means we can never accuse God of being absent or lofty or unreachable or inaccessible. The Incarnation – the taking on flesh in the Virgin’s womb – is the moment whereby the inexhaustible, inexpressible, invisible, omnipotent, and almighty holy One takes on human visage. The divinity of God shines through a human person now. And God used the humanity of Jesus to save us all.
At the time appointed by God, the only Son of the Father, the eternal Word, that is, the Word and substantial Image of the Father, became incarnate; without losing his divine nature he has assumed human nature.
The Second Vatican Council had this to say about the Incarnation:
The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown.
He Who is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) is Himself the perfect man. To the sons of Adam He restores the divine likeness which had been disfigured from the first sin onward. Since human nature as He assumed it was not annulled, by that very fact it has been raised up to a divine dignity in our respect too. (Gaudium et Spes, 22.)
As God reveals Himself and his love for us via the Incarnation, he reveals much about the humanity to which we belong: we are now enlightened by Christ. Having once been darkened by the sin of Adam, human life is restored and re-dignified to an even greater height than when it was first made in the image and likeness of its Maker.
Humanity now counts the face of God among its own.
Never again may I look at another person, or my own self, with disdain or disrespect. For there is an inherent dignity in all: we too are robed in flesh; now the Son of God, the Savior and Lord, images us.
For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man. He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin. (Gaudium et Spes, 22.)
This is why we celebrate Christmas: the Nativity is the realization of the Incarnation.
This is why we kneel with wonder, praying at the manger. The Christ Child gives us insight into the God who truly knows us, loves us, and still chooses to save us. And as we yield to that love, we receive a keener understanding of our own true selves.
The Church has always acknowledged that in the body of Jesus “we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see” [Roman Missal, Preface of Christmas I].
The individual characteristics of Christ’s body express the divine person of God’s Son. He has made the features of his human body his own, to the point that they can be venerated when portrayed in a holy image, for the believer who venerates the icon is venerating in it the person of the one depicted.
Come, the Crèche awaits us… let us pray and gaze into his Holy Face.
This article was previously released at CatholicExchange.com as “The Unique and Singular Event of the Incarnation”, and is reprinted and re-titled here with the author’s permission.