Friday, December 25, 2015

Not Too Little

   The Nativity of the Lord - Christmas   

Among our Christmas decorations,
we have seven different Nativity scenes
set up throughout the rectory,
along with four statues of the Holy Family
and one large figure of the Christ Child—
not to mention that there’s at least one manger to be found
in each of our four parish churches.
So it’s not much of an exaggeration for me
to claim to be an expert observer of Nativity sets.
And carefully looking at all of these
and many other Nativity scenes over the years—
especially the older ones—
a person could easily get the impression
(and I mean no disrespect here to my infant Savior)
that Jesus was a pretty big baby.

Have you ever noticed that?
Life experience tells us that newborns
are rather tiny, fragile creatures…
…but so often in our depictions of the Christmas story
we have a child who’s simply all out of proportion
to be the just-delivered babe
of the woman depicted in the statue
kneeling right beside him.

Why is the baby Jesus all out of scale?

One reason, no doubt,
is that he’s the big player in the scene.
It was a common principle of religious art in earlier ages
that the most important characters
would be depicted much larger than all the rest.

But I think the explanation
runs much deeper into the human psyche.

We don’t like to be little.

It starts when we’re physically little—when we’re children.
I think most of us can recall how much it would sting
to be told that you were “too little”—
whether it was too little play with the older kids,
too little to do whatever the grown ups were doing,  
or too little to go on that special ride at the fair.
And that continues into adulthood:
not wanting to be little, not wanting to be overlooked,
we frequently shun playing a minor part.
We aim to land the big job,
which will mean a big bank account and then a big house.
We’d like to be a big deal—
in our own circle of friends, at least,
if not in our community, or the country,
or even on a worldwide stage.

We don’t like to be little. 
And if the Only Begotten Son of God
is going to come from heaven to earth to live as one of us,
we don’t like the idea of him being too little, either.

Our Catholic faith tells us that, when he comes again,
the Lord Jesus will do so in great power and glory.
But when the kindness and generous love of God
first appeared in human flesh,
he didn’t make a big, splashy entrance.
In fact, the sign announced by angels
and which shepherds sped in haste to see—
an infant who lay sleeping in a hidden nook of a minute town—
was so ordinary, so small,
that it could have quite easily gone unnoticed altogether.
And it did go unnoticed by many—and still does.

Especially as we celebrate Christmas in this Jubilee Year of Mercy,
it’s essential that we acknowledge the littleness
which God so willingly embraced 
when his Son was born of the Virgin Mary.

For one things, 
we’re challenged to renew our efforts during this Holy Year,
to extend mercy to others:
to care for our neighbors in their physical need
for things like food and safe shelter;
to tend to their deep spiritual needs, as well;
and even to forgive those who have wronged us.
Pope Francis often speaks of his longing
for a “revolution of tenderness” in the Church.
If that’s going to happen,
then we need to have eyes for the little ones.
Jesus said we actually serve him
whenever we serve the least of his brothers and sisters.
Our words and actions must tell them they’re not forsaken.
We see Christ’s face in theirs.

You and I are also invited 
to experience God’s mercy firsthand
during this Extraordinary Jubilee Year.
But in order to experience the grace of Divine Mercy,
humility is called for:
we must become little ourselves.
It's with good reason that we kneel this morning
before a manger where livestock feed,
and kneel at every Mass before the altar
where Jesus comes in Sacrament that we might be fed:
it’s so that we can make ourselves small
before the immense mystery of the Incarnation—
that God was once born as a tiny, helpless child
and comes to us still under the appearance of a little white Host.
It’s in our tininess, in our weakness,
that the surpassing strength of the Lord’s mercy
can most clearly shine through.
When approaching God, littleness isn’t a liability at all;
instead, it’s a great asset.

What the shepherds saw in Bethlehem
was a newborn child too small, too poor, too insignificant
to really attract any notice.
And that, paradoxically,
must have been the source of their amazement:
that this otherwise apparently ordinary birth 
was heralded by choirs of angels;
that these shepherds themselves,
who worked on the edge of the village
and lived on the fringes of society,
would be the first privileged recipients of such good news;
that this tiny baby is none other than Christ and Lord.

In this Year of Mercy,
make a commitment to keep your eyes open
to see God in the least among us.
And learn from Jesus to walk the path of humility:
fear not to be little before him
who became so small for us.

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