Christmas has arrived with many beautiful hymns and carols, completed crèche scenes, and the knowledge that unlike what the culture tries to say, it is a season that is just beginning, not ending. Hopefully, we were able to immerse in Advent without bypassing it in an attempt to get to Christmas before its time. Now we can reflect upon that first Christmas when the Son of God arrived in a stable and rested in a manger, the events of which were virtually hidden from the world at large. His arrival was announced to the humble and lowly who were completely surprised, astounded by the song of angels. Most of us will not see or hear angels singing so it is important to ask ourselves how we have recognized His presence without those signs. Of course, we have heard the Gospels and know the ‘story,’ but after the Feast of the Nativity the challenge will be that of continuing to recognize the presence of Jesus Emmanuel. This thought brings to mind a 14th century Christmas greeting:
“Thou shalt know Him when He comes
not by any din of drums
nor by the vantage of His airs
nor be anything He wears,
neither His crown nor His gown.
For His Coming known shalt be
By the Holy Harmony
His Presence makes in thee!”
As we reflect upon the coming of Jesus, it is important to sit at the foot of the manger in adoration, gratitude, wonder, and awe. In that contemplation we can immerse in His presence, drinking in the holy harmony of our newborn Lord. In our prayer we can observe the baby Jesus and therefore get to know Him with the desire that we will continue to recognize His presence. At the time of His birth there were many who seemed unfamiliar with the prophecies or did not regard them as truth.* And later, even for those who did know the prophecies, Jesus still emerged and acted in enigmatic ways, challenging those who heard His words and witnessed His deeds. But who was it that saw, heard, and believed? It was the unlearned fishermen and shepherds, the poor, the humble, the outcast, and the alien. Why did they recognize Him? And why, for the most part, did those who should have known better not know Him? And which are we?
It is rather interesting, as well as shocking, that one who recognized the Messiah rather quickly was Herod the Tetrarch, a self-indulgent, arrogant, jealous, impulsive, scheming, and power obsessed man who fancied himself a king. He was disingenuous with everyone from the Romans he patronized to maintain power, to the Magi toward whom he acted as if with good intention. It is clear: Herod did recognize Jesus as revealed in his consultation of the chief priests and scribes concerning the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures. (Matthew 2:1-12; specifically Mt 2:3-6) That he was so threatened by Jesus’ kingship is evidenced in his unfathomable crime of ordering the murder of all the male children under the age of 2 in the vicinity of Bethlehem in an attempt to safeguard his own power. Herod's downfall, (and that of all those future adversaries that recognized the true idenity of Jesus on some level and subsequently felt threatened), was that he allowed his sense of recognition to be overpowered by his own needs, desires, and will, rather than listening, learning, and therefore being open to receiving God’s mercy and love.**
Of course, there were also those of faith who recognized Jesus readily. They were Elizabeth, Zechariah, and John the Baptist; the Magi and shepherds, and people like the prophets Simeon and Anna. Of these, especially blessed are those who recognized Him without having to be told, without a word being spoken to them about it, such as the Magi who had nothing but a star, or Anna and Simeon who prayed, believed, and as a result, recognized so as to welcome Him. For the most part, those who would accept Jesus were the humble, the broken, the lowly, the poor: they were the ones who hungered and thirsted for God and His kingdom. They would recognize Jesus because their hearts were open. This is not to say any of them were perfect, just as we are not perfect; but those who seek will recognize, and therefore, find. We can choose to be like them, recognizing Jesus in our brokenness, our wandering, and poverty (whether monetary or spiritual or both). We, too, can find Jesus if we learn humility, embrace simplicity of heart, and open ourselves to His will, trusting that His will is far better than our own because He is far wiser than we could ever be. We, too, can find Jesus if we hunger and thirst for Him over and above any ideology, political viewpoint, or opinion. We can learn to always find Him if we sit at the manger getting to know Him in the silence and the beauty of His arrival.
If we learn to recognize the presence of Jesus Emmanuel through the beauty of what God did on that holy night, what was brought to fruition through the humility of His handmaid Mary and the courage of His foster father, Joseph, we can find Him and will continue to find Him in our own day-to-day living through the Christmas season and long after it is over. So let us savor our time at the manger: if we sit in the silence of the stable during this season we will “know Him when He comes…. by the Holy Harmony His Presence makes in thee!”
May we learn to recognize Jesus when He comes in simplicity as a Baby in a manger! May our hearts be open to recognizing Jesus in the humble of heart and poor of spirit! May we recognize Jesus by the Holy Harmony of His presence when we let Him take up residence within our hearts! Let us meet at the manger! Christmas Peace!
© Michele L. Catanese
* I am referring to the Pharisees and Sadducees, the latter of which did not even believe in a messiah-to-come and only accepted the Torah, (but not any of the other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures.) Ordinary people who were influenced by the teaching of the Pharisees awaited the Messiah with longing, and those influenced by the Sadducees, such as the priestly class, did not accept the prophets either, so they did not believe a messiah was to come.
** First, it must be said that Herod recognized without real understanding and without a shred of faith. Second, I have only written of Herod for the sake of this Christmas reflection, but anywhere there is evil, there is the recognition of who Jesus is (which is why these forces attack); most obviously, Scripture reveals that demons always recognize Him and some even call Him by name as the Son of God. Evildoers would also include the Pharisees and Sadducees when they wanted Jesus put to death, Judas who misunderstood and betrayed Him, Pilate who caved in to the demands of the crowd, and so forth.
1. Image; The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ by Fr. William Hart McNichols. You can find this at fineartamerica.com/featured/the-nativity-of-our-lord-jesus-christ-034-william-hart-mcnichols.html
2. Painting; The Adoration of the Shepherds (L'adoration des bergers) by James Tissot (1886-1894).
3. My photo; the moon over Stresa, Italy.
4. Photo; Communion Unleavened Bread Chalice of Wine by Romolo Tavani.
5. Fresco Painting; Nativity, by Giotto. (Assisi)
6. Painting; Tidings of Joy. (unknown)
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Heart Speaks to Heart