As we come to the end of 2020, many of us will be glad to see the calendar change. From the coronavirus to murder hornets, civil unrest and a contentious election, this has not been an easy year. Who among us would have thought on Jan. 1 that we would end this year amidst all these challenges? As we continue through the Advent season and look forward to Christmas, we are keenly aware of just how different this time of the year is from previous ones. Normally we have a number of gatherings with family and friends as we approach Christmas. Parties and gatherings spread out consuming the more penitential aspects of Advent. It is no surprise that studies indicate the average American gains five pounds between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Yet this year almost none of that will happen.The thought of gathering inside with a large number of people will give most of us a panic attack instead of Christmas joy. So how does Christmas and the meaning of Christmas fit into the larger picture of these worrisome times?
The Christmas story is so well known to us and we look forward to displays of shepherds and angels, the Holy Family and the stable filled with hay. It is easy for us to sentimentalize the Nativity. I am not sure Mary and Joseph would have seen it that way. It was anything but sentimental for them. Unable to find a place for Mary to give birth, consigned to a dark cave with animals as the True Light entered the world. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords, not born in a palace but into poverty. His parents, not human royalty but peasants. His crib, not quilted and comfortable but a manger filled with cold, rough hay.
So what was God trying to communicate to us by coming into the world in such a messy and undignified way? It seems to me that it indicates that God desires to get right into the messiness and difficulties that we face every day. It is a reminder that God is not distant from us but close, that He wants to be right alongside us in all of the challenges we face throughout life. When we turn to the Lord in prayer we are not speaking to Someone who is indifferent or does not care about what we are going through. The great doctor of the Church, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, wrote, “He understands me.” A simple, yet profound and beautiful statement. In this is seen the logic of the Incarnation, that God becomes man to enter into the totality of our existence so that we can talk to Him and know that He does in fact understand us when we call out to Him in prayer.
It may at first glance seem outrageous that God would care about the minutiae of our lives, that everything about us is of interest to Him. Yet how often does the Lord defy our expectations, how often does He surprise us through His goodness and mercy. Yet at times we may struggle with this. We may wonder if the Lord really is as close to us as our Nativity scenes depict. The Lord knew that this would be a challenge for his followers and so He left us the sacraments to be tangible, physical reminders of His continued Presence. We are not angels, pure spirits, but rather composed of body and soul and we experience the world around us through our senses. In the sacramental elements of bread and wine, water and oil we encounter through our physical senses the invisible reality of grace. For priests and those who are discerning a call to the priesthood, this has particular importance because it is through our ministry that the faithful are given access to these savings mysteries and the ongoing Presence of the Lord with us. It is through that continual encounter with the Lord in the sacraments and a prayer life nourished from them that we can say with St. Thérèse, He understands me.