"For He assumed at His first coming the lowliness of human flesh, and so filled the design you formed long ago, and opened for us the way to eternal salvation … "
My dear sisters and brothers in Christ:
These words addressed to God, Our Father, and taken from Preface I of Advent, beautifully call to mind that we are now in the liturgical season of Advent, preparing for the great feast of Christmas, the birth of Our Savior, the Word become flesh: "he assumed … the lowliness of human flesh … and opened for us the way to eternal salvation … "
In contemplating the wondrous miracle of the Incarnation, one could ask: What would the world be like if Christmas had not happened? How would everything be different, in this year 2015, if we had no year One to date it from, if the world were still waiting to be redeemed? If the picture of a dark stable on a snowy night, a working man and his wife, and a baby lying in the straw among the animals had no significant relevance for us?
During these days, the world of politics has received great media attention; so let us ask, first of all, what difference Christmas has made to our social institutions? The noble principles of justice, freedom, equality, the dignity of the person, which all should be woven into the fabric of any social or political movement, were they not born in Bethlehem with the very One who would command us to love one another?
St. Paul gives us a blueprint of what the Christian ideal ought to be in the way of altering our human values. He writes to the Galatians: "All you who have been baptized in Christ’s name have put on the person of Christ; no more Jew or Gentile, no more slave and freeman … you are all one person in Christ" (Galatians 3:27-28). Insofar as the Gospel succeeded in enlightening the shadowy pagan world which surrounded it, the barriers which divided race from race, nation from nation, were due to disappear. And at the same time, the dignity of human nature would be asserted; all people would stand before God as His sons and daughters and together raise their voices in praying Our Father in what Pope Francis referred to as "the school of encounter" during his Sept. 25, 2015, homily for Mass at Madison Square Garden, New York.
When the shepherds go back to their flocks, we have not finished the story of Christmas. Their place at the crib is taken by the three wise men from the east, and Christian belief has always emphasized one significant point about their coming: The birth of the Savior was for the whole world; all humanity became brothers and sisters in the family of God when His Son, the Christ, became man. And so the angels sang: "Glory to God in the highest, and peace to people of good will …"
And when the Christ Child was born, the fiat of a woman renewed the noble place of all women in the world. The historian and political theorist, William Edward Lecky (1838-1903), not particularly known for advancing positive views toward Christianity, wrote in his book titled History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, this about the Mother of God: "The world is governed by its ideals, and seldom or never has there been one which has exercised a more profound and on the whole, a more solitary influence than the medieval conception of the Blessed Virgin. For the first time woman was elevated to her rightful position … woman rose, in the person of the Virgin Mother, into a new sphere, and became the object of a reverential homage of which antiquity had no conception" (London, 1910, Volume I, chapter 3, p. 78). Yes, what would the world be like, if Christmas hadn’t happened?
And from that crib were born the most beautiful virtues of humility, charity and purity. In humility, the Son of God took upon Himself our humanity and our salvation was wrought through His humiliation upon a cross. Whether in a crib at Bethlehem, or on His knees washing the feet of His disciples in the Upper Room of the Cenacle, or at table with publicans and sinners, or on the Via Crucis, or at last upon the cross at Golgotha, the Son of God was the humble, suffering servant whose life transformed the world forever!
And charity! From Bethlehem we find the origin of the Good Shepherd and, for the followers of Jesus, charity toward complete strangers has become a way of life, a habit with us. It has filled the world with hospitals and orphanages, schools, homes for the sick and dying, soup kitchens and sacrificial almsgiving — all because of Bethlehem. Christ came among us, and Christian selflessness became a way of life. Because Jesus Christ came to redeem us when we were strangers who had no claim on Him, brought redemption to everyone far and near, we, too, welcome the stranger in our midst, see the need to feed the hungry, cloth the poor, visit the sick and the imprisoned.
And purity! Every person is a child of God, a precious human being, the tabernacle of a soul transcendent in its essence, a son or daughter of God to be respected and never to be used as an object of another’s selfish pleasure. That, too, we owe to Bethlehem — to the memory of that virgin motherhood which saved us all.
What a difference Christmas will continue to make if we only allow that difference to fashion our minds, our hearts, our souls, our entire being. Christmas is the heart of the Year of Mercy, commencing on December 8, 2015, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception; Christmas is the heart of the New Evangelization. No new voice that speaks to us in the name of religion will have any appeal for us if it does not bring us back to the stable at Bethlehem — there to humble our pride, enlarge our charity, and deepen our sense of reverence for the dignity of every person from the moment of conception until God calls us home to eternity where the joy of Christmas is forever!
Wishing you and your families the blessings of the Child born in Bethlehem and with an assurance of my prayers, I remain
Devotedly yours in Christ,
The Most Reverend
Salvatore R. Matano
Bishop of Rochester