Sanctoral

Christmas

Our nation comes to Christmas this year with a weariness from the combination of heat, fire and smoke that have marked our December. We long for rain that might extinguish the fires and bring relief to the drought that tightens its grip on our landscape. This Christmas we think especially of those who have been so deeply affected by the drought, whose livelihood is at stake, and we are mindful of those who have lost loved ones and property because of the unprecedented fires across our State of New South Wales, Queensland and most recently in South Australia. For many of these people Christmas brings little cheer. And even if we have not been directly involved all of us, perhaps, come to Christmas this year with a certain anxiety about our changing climate and its implications for us.

At first, we might be tempted to think of such concerns as distractions from Christmas. They seem to intrude on the spirit of the festival and dampen its joy and sense of celebration. However, they might also help us recognize something important about the great story we recount this night/day. All those who approach the manger in which the Christ Child lies are occupied with their own deep concerns. The young couple of Mary and Joseph have turned up to Bethlehem for a politically motivated census, discovering that there is nowhere for them to stay. There are abandoned, on their own, away from any support of family or friends.  Can we imagine their terror as their first child is delivered without any assistance at all? The shepherds, too, approach the scene with all the difficulties of their own livelihood, precarious and marginal as it is. The entire scene is one charged with a certain anxiety. And we, too, like the characters in the story, come to the manger with our own questions and uncertainties. We are gathered together in the stable with them all too well aware of our struggles and difficulties.

Yet, in the stillness of the scene confusion and uncertainty give way to something. It is as if the smoke of our concern and care dispels with clarity and freshness. A baby smiles.  And the smile makes all the difference to our troubled hearts. As Pope Francis recently preached, “When we look at a newborn baby, we are led to smile at it, and if a smile blossoms on its small face, then we feel a simple, naive emotion. The child responds to our gaze, but their smile is much more “powerful,” because it is new, pure, like spring water, and in us adults it awakens an intimate nostalgia for childhood.”[1]  . Our interaction with a smiling baby restores us to the truth of ourselves, to our own loveableness and the loveableness of life itself. The smile of a baby towards us is a profound assurance of the goodness of life, of our own goodness. But in the baby of the Nativity, it is God who smiles at us. As Pope Francis puts it so simply yet so eloquently, “Jesus is the smile of God.”

This divine smile influences our whole perspective on life and on ourselves. It frees us; it dispels our self-doubt; it opens our entire countenance, our whole being. In that brief moment we see ourselves loved and unconditionally valued. And we are never the same. The moment may be brief, but its effect is eternal. It marks us indelibly. And this indelible mark at the core of who we are enables us to stand in the midst of all our cares, concerns and contingencies with an assurance that we are part of something much larger than ourselves; that something has been achieved that is not dependent on us; that a promise has been given that will see its fulfillment even if not entirely by ourselves. As Pope Francis, himself, says, to come to the manger is “to look at the Child Jesus and feel that God is smiling at us there, and smiling at all the poor of the earth, at all those who await salvation, who hope for a more fraternal world, where there is no more war and violence, where every man and woman can live in his or her dignity as son and daughter of God.”  

Pope Francis’ recent comments echo a beautiful sentiment of the 13th century Dominican mystic of the Rhineland, Meister Eckart. Eckhart wrote, “Do you want to know what goes on in the heart of the Trinity? I will tell you. In the heart of the Trinity the Father laughs and gives birth to the Son. The Son laughs back at the Father and gives birth to the Spirit. The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us.[2]

This is the joy of Christmas. It is a joy that lives underneath whatever we might feel in the face of our ever-changing circumstances. The smile of this newborn baby not only brings a smile to us though. It enables us to smile to others, to bring that smile to those who, as Pope Francis remarks, “may find it difficult to smile, for many reasons.” For God’s smile is infectious. We see it reflected in the fire-fighters who in the midst of their exhaustion can still smile; we see it in the smiles of the countless volunteers who are at work supporting those communities who have been devastated by the destruction of the last few weeks. It is the smile that assures us of what is most important and restores hope, and therefore gives a future.Let us gaze upon the child given to us this day; let us receive his smile, the smile of God. Let us allow ourselves to smile back, and let us know that life is good, that we are good, and let us bring the hope that is born of such a smile to the world around us this Christmas


[1] See Pope Francis’ Christmas Greetings to Vatican Employees and their Families, 21 December 2019. See https://zenit.org/articles/pope-offers-christmas-greetings-to-vatican-employees-and-families/

[2] Eckhart goes on to say, “When God laughs at the soul and the soul laughs back at God, the persons of the Trinity are begotten.  When the Father laughs at the Son and the Son laughs back at the Father, that laughter gives pleasure, that pleasure gives joy, that joy gives love, and that is the Holy Spirit.” See Meditations with Meister Eckhart, translated and edited by Matthew Fox,(Bear and Company: 1983), 129.

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