On Christmas Day many of us gathered around the table to a delicious meal shared with family and friends. I would hope that at some tables there was a mixture of friends, family, and strangers, too, some of whom came unannounced. If that sounds a bit shocking, it is important to realize that the group who gathered in the stable at the Nativity of Jesus consisted of folks such as those: Mary and Joseph kneeling before the bounty given by God, the Bread of Life as a tiny baby, along with some ‘ragtag’ shepherds whom they had never met before the moment when they arrived unannounced. Among these were no doubt people who had never met one another, and who definitely had not met Joseph and Mary prior to the night with the star and a host of angels singing with the joy of Heaven, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.” It must have been quite a night with all these people simply showing up to adore a tiny infant born in a stable surrounded by animals. This is indeed a scene filled with joyful mystery!
Indeed many of us sat down to a meal at our tables with people who we truly love, folks whose presence we relish. I would hope that we sat down to the other kind of meal, too, the one with the friends and strangers alike. That latter meal was the meal with our faith communities in our churches. At our Christmas worship services we were indeed gathered with strangers, some of whom may have arrived unannounced. You know the ones I mean: those who come at Christmas, but may not come all that often to the table of the Lord. These unannounced ones are our present-day shepherds who followed some sort of inner light which led them to the church though they may not be used to entering into a religious house of worship. It does not matter why they came, but that they followed an inspirational ‘star’ to come and adore with those who go to church every Sunday and Holy Day. They came and worshiped with us. What a doubly joyful event!
I hope we realized that we partook of two meals at Christmas. And I hope we acknowledged that we sat down together both to worship and to eat, and that when we did it, we were with those whom we did not know, but that somehow deep inside we knew we were all the family of God. It does not matter where the strangers came from, but that they were welcomed in the same way as our friends and family. What is most important is that we never stop greeting them as if they are part of our family, because they are.
If we look to the Holy Family on the Feast of the Nativity, we see that Mary and Joseph were poor. When it was time to go for the Presentation in the Temple, the next joyful mystery after the birth of Jesus Christ, they could not bring the usual offering, so they brought the offering of the poor. They had just welcomed a bevy of strangers into their stable 'home' having nothing within but that which they carried upon their donkey for their trek. Yet they had the Wealth of the Nations under their roof, the very Son of the Living God. Who could ask for more and expect it? But after sharing the joy of that holy night, they eventually made their way into Jerusalem so that they could carry out that which was expected by religious custom. They were obedient to the requirements, but they were also filled with so much joy that they needed to share it with others in the house of God, the Temple in Jerusalem. Once again, they shared their bounty with strangers, and they did it with great joy.
That Mary and Joseph went to the Temple to fulfill what was expected should not surprise us since they loved God deeply. They also knew that Jesus, the Son of God, needed to be shared with the world. Indeed, they shared Jesus in the Temple by allowing the approach of people like Simeon, the old man with strange things to say. Simeon both praised God and spoke a prophecy about this child which was not very pleasant, actually. And when the old widow Anna approached they did not shrink back in horror either, but rather they accepted her words, no doubt pondering them in their hearts for many years. They welcomed Simeon and Anna to share in the joy of their Son and they did not ‘shoo’ them away for fear of contagion or because they were strangers. This is the welcome of the joyful mysteries. We, too, are invited in. And we, too, are encouraged to do likewise in welcoming the stranger.
The gospel for this Sunday was about Jesus as a boy. (Luke 2:41-52) Once again Mary and Joseph were following the requirements of the Law because it was Passover, and so they traveled at a distance to get to Jerusalem. However, Jesus chose to stay behind while His parents began the trip home, unknowingly without Him. Though later He said, “I must be in my Father’s house,” we do not know why He did this. Perhaps it was because He was sharing the welcoming attitude He had learned from them. Whatever it was, after three days His parents found Jesus sitting in the Temple teaching the teachers; that means for three days Jesus had welcomed those learned men into what really was His house. The Gospel says His parents were astonished to find Him there and were equally astonished at His reason for remaining behind. But He did return with them, obediently trusting their wisdom: His time for teaching had not yet come.
Just as we should be joyful for those who found their way to the altar table at Christmas, Mary and Joseph were clearly joyful to be reunited with their Son. But the joy is not contained only in that fact. There is joyful mystery in what Jesus said and did during those three days. The rabbis obviously liked him, enjoyed His insights, and were even a bit stupefied by Him. But who else might Jesus have encountered and welcomed during those three days? Surely He was not sitting in that spot day and night for three days; He must have gone somewhere to eat and sleep. And in going back to the place of academic conversation, Jesus had to have worshiped elbow to elbow with other Jews. He had to stand in the corridors and pass through the courtyards welcoming many unknown people into His presence, perhaps engaging them in conversation or giving a greeting. If only they knew who this young stranger was!
Certainly what we learn from these joyful mysteries is that the stranger is important to Jesus. He never turned anyone away. From the moment He entered into the world His life was filled with meeting strangers, welcoming them in, and desiring with His whole heart that they would accept the invitation to friendship with Him. Jesus was also the stranger to everyone around Him. None of us has divinity in our nature, so Jesus as God (though still fully human) is the ultimate stranger in the sense of being different from us in that way. Yet His welcome to us never grows cold and His ability to persevere in places with little welcome for Him is without limit. If Jesus is the ultimate stranger in our world, maybe it is time for us to look in a new way at those whom we designate with the label of ‘stranger.’ Perhaps the joyful mysteries are wide enough for us to enter into so that we can welcome the stranger as Jesus has welcomed us. Perhaps meditating upon the mysteries with Mary and Joseph is the way to opening our hearts to the ‘ragtag’ among us, the poor materially, spiritually, and emotionally. And perhaps these mysteries will help us to be less distrustful of those unlike ourselves or toward those who have customs that we do not understand.
It is important to remember that events surrounding Jesus’ birth are joyful mysteries for a reason: there is joy contained in entering into mystery and finding Love residing there. Just as the shepherds found this strange couple from Galilee where the customs, dress, and speech were slightly different; just as Mary and Joseph found the shepherds from Judea who may have smelled like their sheep; just as Jesus found this broken, yet beautiful world which is very different from the perfection of Heaven: it is joyous to enter into the mystery of one another especially when we are doing it together with Jesus as the focal point. So as we continue to enter into the joyful mysteries of the Christmas season, let us welcome the stranger as our brother or sister. We will find it a joy to meet Christ in them!
May we continue to welcome the newborn Child by opening our hearts to one another and by accepting the welcome which is extended to us! May we receive with gladness those who come to the table of the Lord and those at the table in our homes! May we recognize Jesus in those who are strangers, and may they recognize Jesus in us! May we be shepherds to those who are searching for the Child in the manger! And may we find joy in the mysteries of the coming of Christ! Let us continue to meet in Jesus, the friend of strangers! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first icon is the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols. It is called The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-nativity-of-our-lord-jesus-christ-034-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
Next is a photo of Fr. Bill McNichols praying over the gifts at Mass. All are welcomed at this table.
Following this are three of my photos of churches, representing the various places where people worship. The first is St. Peter's in Rome. The second is in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and the third is in Coppell, Texas.
Next is a painting by the great medieval artist Giotto. It is The Boy Jesus in the Temple. (1305-1306) It is found in Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. You can view it at: http://www.christianiconography.info/boyTemple.html
Finally is another of Fr. William Hart McNichols Holy Family icons. This one is called The Holy Family for the Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem. It can be found at
(If you think that star looks familiar, it was the star that was at the beginning of my post for last week.)
Heart Speaks to Heart