My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Once again we are in the Advent season, preparing for the great solemnity of Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Our Savior, Jesus Christ. Let us then look into that cave in Bethlehem and contemplate the birth of Our Savior, Jesus Christ. While the simplicity of His birth is quite striking, what is also very impressive is the common element that brings together those gathered around the Christ Child: Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Magi. Faith brought each one to the crib.
From the time that Mary proclaimed her "Fiat," her acceptance of becoming the Mother of God after the angel Gabriel announced that she would "conceive and bear a son and give Him the name Jesus" (Luke 1:32), Mary faithfully followed Her Son, until at last she stood beneath His cross on Calvary. Mary in her own life experienced her personal "via crucis," "way of the cross," as unveiled through her seven sorrows: the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, where Simeon told Mary that a sword shall pierce her heart; the flight into Egypt to avoid King Herod who sought to destroy the Christ Child; losing Jesus in Jerusalem when He was 12 years old and Mary and Joseph had gone to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover; the meeting of Mary and Jesus on the road to Golgotha; the crucifixion; the taking down of Jesus from the cross; and His burial. From crib to cross, from conception unto eternity, Mary remained a woman of unwavering faith.
Joseph, the husband of Mary, also is a man of deep faith. Imagine the anxiety and the turmoil that he endured within his heart and soul upon learning of Mary’s extraordinary conception by the power of the Holy Spirit. "The liturgy (of the Eastern Churches) tells us that a storm of contradictory thoughts raged in Joseph’s heart, and he was perplexed; but enlightened by the Holy Spirit, he sang ‘Alleluia!’" (Pope Benedict XVI, The Blessing of Christmas, p. 115). Imagine his struggles and concerns in having to build a new life as an immigrant family in Egypt. And let us not forget the uncertainty of that return to Nazareth. As a faithful spouse, Mary’s trials, suffering and crosses were also Joseph’s, for indeed he was the husband of Mary. And like Mary, amid these trials Joseph remained faithful, "he did as the angel of the Lord had directed him," "received Mary into his home as his wife" (Matthew 1:24); and Joseph never ceased to be her faithful husband, with his first fidelity to the Lord.
At Bethlehem, as he and Mary looked upon their newborn child in that cave, Joseph no doubt worried about their future: a homeless couple without family or friends, whose destiny was in peril. It is faith that sustained him, and he and Mary became the first living columns upon which the first tabernacle would rest!
Without words, Joseph’s presence "allows us to discover in his actions – shrouded in silence as they are – an aura of deep contemplation" (St. John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, no. 25). So it is that "Those souls most sensitive to the impulses of divine love have rightly seen in Joseph a brilliant example of the interior life" (Ibid.)
And then we have the shepherds, also attentive to the angel of the Lord as they allowed the angel’s message to penetrate their hearts and "said to one another: ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem.’" And "once they saw, they understood what had been told them concerning this child" (Luke 2:15-17).
In their simplicity and humility, these hard-working shepherds were chosen to be among the very first to behold the Christ Child. So often, those overlooked because of their seemingly ordinary station in life are those with a very deep faith. They do not seek honor or glory for themselves, but seek only to love God and to love their neighbor.
Let us now look to the Magi. Tradition tells us that they were learned astrologers. Yet their wisdom led them to even greater knowledge, even beyond the stars, as they observed "His star" (Matthew 2:2). Pope Benedict so beautifully wrote: "The star of Christmas night – this is, first of all, the incarnate Son Himself. He is the light that shows the path through the streets of history … To look at the star means receiving light and giving light, radiating in the world around us the light that we have received, so that it can provide orientation to others, too" (Pope Benedict XVI, The Blessing of Christmas, pp. 95-96). I believe it was faith that caused the Magi to follow the star and faith that caused them "to pay Him homage" (Matthew 2:2).
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, from the first moment of his pontificate has called upon us to renew our faith in Jesus Christ. His Holiness has intensified the call for a New Evangelization proclaimed by his predecessors, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Let us, like those who welcomed Jesus into the world at his crib, take to heart the invitation of Pope Francis and live that New Evangelization in our own hearts. The Christmas season provides an excellent opportunity for us, like Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and Magi, to strengthen, to renew, to enhance and to proclaim our faith. The Child born in Bethlehem continues to live in our world and the Word becomes flesh at every celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Our faith causes us to ponder how very precious is the gift of the Most Holy Eucharist, so that every day is Christmas. Fidelity to Christ, especially by faithful attendance at Holy Mass, is the call, the plea, the invitation and theme of this special moment in the life of the Church, this New Evangelization.
In union with the theme of the new evangelization to follow Christ, we have been called upon by our Holy Father, Pope Francis, to express our profound gratitude to the consecrated women and men in religious life who always have embraced the work of evangelization. Pope Francis opened the Year of Consecrated Life on November 29, 2014, the weekend of the First Sunday of Advent, and it will continue through February 2, 2016. Vowed religious teach in our schools, take care of the poor and the sick, and bring the compassion and love of Christ to those shunned or forgotten by society. Others live lives of intense prayer and contemplation, as they place before the Lord the petitions of God’s family. In sum, religious are the everyday bearers of peace and hope of Christmas to so many who otherwise would never know or experience the joy of Christ’s birth.
During the Year of Consecrated Life, I pray that our parishes, schools and apostolates will celebrate the gift of religious life and that this special year will inspire young people to respond to the call of Jesus to serve Him, His Church, His beloved people, as religious. My own vocation to the priesthood was so beautifully encouraged and supported by the Religious Sisters of Mercy (my aunt, who has returned to the Lord, was a Sister of Mercy), as so many other religious communities have been the cause of others following in their footsteps as consecrated religious.
This Christmas, as we continue to live the New Evangelization, I ask that we all look deep into our hearts and ask the question: "How well do I know that Child born in Bethlehem?" And if the answer is "Not so well," what shall we do about it? May I humbly suggest we listen to the angel’s voice, follow the star and come to the House of the Lord. Let us bring to Him our concerns, our worries, our frustrations and anxieties, as well as our joys and hopes. Let us repeat the prayer of Pope Benedict XVI: "We bring you our own selves, something more valuable than any gift of money: we bring the wealth of the true faith to you, the God and Savior of our souls" (Ibid.).
My brothers and sisters, I wish you all a joyous Christmas and a blessed New Year! I pray that our Diocese will be blessed with a renewed presence of Christ among us as we join our voices to those of the angelic choir and cry out: "Glory to God in the highest."
Invoking the intercession of Our Mother, Mary, who gave birth to the Savior,
Devotedly yours in Christ,
The Most Reverend Salvatore R. Matano
Bishop of Rochester