By Bishop Andrew Bellisario, C.M.
Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold! A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and he will be called Emmanuel. Isaiah 7:14
As we begin another liturgical year on the first Sunday of Advent and prepare ourselves for the great celebration of the birth of Jesus on Christmas, we once again have the opportunity to reflect upon and take to heart these consoling and inspiring words from the prophet Isaiah. In the mystery of the Incarnation and the coming of Jesus, God is truly and forever with us as our savior and our brother. His coming is the sign of God’s enduring and redeeming love for each of us and all humanity.
There are so many dimensions to this great mystery of the Lord’s descent among us as man (like us in all things except sin), but let me suggest that four celebrations during Advent and the Christmas season that especially invite our meditation. They are the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (celebrated this year on December 9th); Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th; the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas), and Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (celebrated this year on Sunday, December 29th). They provide us with four ways of grasping the implications of the great sign of God’s enduring presence among us in the person of God’s Son, Jesus.
Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
In the Immaculate Conception, we celebrate the conception of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. From the very moment of her conception, she was preserved from the stain of original sin. As a young woman, Mary would one day freely consent to carry her own child (conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit) in her own womb.
This is an important reminder that just like Mary, each of us, made in the divine image and likeness, from the moment of our conception, are called to play our part in the mystery of God’s providential plan for the world and its destiny. Like Mary and Jesus in their mother’s wombs, every unborn child has a unique and irreplaceable eternal destiny and an indispensable part to play in the salvation of the world. Although we struggle to see or understand God’s providence, like Mary, we can be confident that when we cherish and protect the lives of our brothers and sisters, from conception to natural death, we are cooperating with the plan of the God who by Jesus’ conception entered into the vulnerability and powerlessness of being an unborn child. This underscores the urgent necessity, in keeping with natural law and Catholic teaching, for us to work together with women and men of faith, as well as other people of good will, for the legal protection of all unborn children.
Our Lady of Guadalupe
Just as Jesus was sent into our world to save us from the power of sin and death, he continually sends his disciples out as agents of his love, compassion, and mercy. We see this with Our Lady of Guadalupe. On this day we commemorate how the Lord sent Mary, the first disciple, to the people of Mexico and the Americas. She appeared to Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin in a series of four apparitions on Tepeyac Hill outside of Mexico City in 1531.
Speaking Nahuatl, Saint Juan Diego’s native language, and indigenous in appearance, Mary was the herald of the good news to the native peoples of the Americas. To the oppressed native peoples of Mexico, the appearance of the woman of Tepeyac was a sign that God had not forsaken them. She was both a sign and an agent of hope.
In our own time, with so many in the midst of a crisis of hope and meaning, we are called, like Our Lady of Guadalupe to be authentic and believable signs of the presence of Christ Emmanuel, who has already overcome the inner or outer darkness that we struggle within this world that God loves so much.
The Nativity of the Lord (Christmas)
On Christmas, we are confronted with the paradox that Jesus, the savior of the world, was born in a stable to a poor couple in an insignificant town on the edge of the Roman empire. By every measure of wealth, power, and prestige, Jesus was no one of any significance, a provincial non-entity.
Yet, at Christmas, we celebrate this carpenter’s son, whose birth was heralded by the heavenly hosts, not to the rich and powerful of this world but to poor shepherds. Like the shepherds, we too rejoice, recognizing in Jesus, despite his lowly appearance, God’s saving presence among us. God’s presence is always to be found among the poor and the oppressed, delivering those whose cries for justice and liberation he hears.
Even in our increasingly secularized culture, charitable giving to those who are materially poor and in need is part of how we celebrate Christmas. But this is quite understandable. During the Christmas season, we contemplate the story of how this poor child, the Lord of heaven and earth, found shelter in a barn with only a manger for a crib. If Jesus is God-with-us, the materially poor and especially the homeless are Jesus-with-us in this moment of our lives. We make room for him when we make room for God’s beloved poor in our hearts and through our works of mercy and compassion.
The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
Finally, on the Sunday of the Holy Family, we are reminded that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were required to take up temporary abode in Bethlehem because of the Roman census. Later, they were forced to abandon their family, friends, and home when Herod sent his soldiers to kill his presumed rival for power. The Holy Family fled their native land as refugees. After a perilous journey across the desert, they found safety and asylum in the land of Egypt, where they remained until it was safe to return home to Nazareth.
In the midst of the largest worldwide refugee crisis since the Second World War, it is good to be reminded of how Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in the guise of the poor continue to search for safety, shelter and welcome on our border and around the world.
As our Holy Father Francis has reminded us since the very beginning of his pontificate in 2013, we must resist what he calls the “globalization of indifference” that allows us to ignore the plight of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants and turn them away. The Church’s advocacy for refugees and migrants is yet another way in which the Church continues to testify that God-is-with-us in all those who, like the Holy Family as they made their way to Egypt, are in desperate need of our help and generosity.
During this Advent and Christmas season, may God’s grace open wide our hearts to all who, like the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, are vulnerable, materially poor and in need. May they experience in our heartfelt concern for them, the embodied presence of Jesus Emmanuel who, through each one of us, pours out his loving care and compassion on them.