January 21, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Keeping the humility learned
at Christmas alive year-round

We are well into January and already we may find that our resolve to make new spiritual beginnings in 2005 is slipping away. In reality, the special graces of the Christmas season are still with us. And so I think it might be helpful if we travel back in our minds to the Mass on Christmas, to recapture the simple drama, the aura of the mystery of the birth of Jesus, the Son of God, in all humility.

We might recall our prayerful Christmas sentiments in the words once preached by a renowned liturgist: “On this Christmas night, everything inside me stops. I am face to face with Him; there is nothing but this Child in the whole of that huge white expanse. He does not say anything, but He is there … . He is God loving me” (J. Leclerq, A Year with the Liturgy). How quickly we can forget “God loving me” as we are easily preoccupied once more with the everyday busyness of life! Christian joy and hope can seem like dying embers of the warm Christmas fire. Why is it so? Need it be like this?

“In proportion as the world grows weary of its Christian hope, the alternative is materialism, of a type with which we are already familiar—that and nothing else. The world’s experience of Christianity has been like a great love, the love of a lifetime … . No new voice … will have any appeal for us, if it does not bring us back to the stable at Bethlehem—there to humble our pride, and enlarge our charity and deepen our sense of reverence with the sight of a dazzling purity” (From a Sermon on Christmas by Msgr. Ronald Knox).

It is difficult to see “a dazzling purity” in our world these days. Msgr. Knox preached the necessity of returning to the stable at Bethlehem in our thoughts and prayer for there we can still gaze on “a dazzling purity.” In the perspective of our world, it does indeed humble our pride to kneel before the Child-Messiah whose throne is an animal feedbox. It can seem to lack cultural sophistication in a world that has become more complicated.

It is also difficult to wade against the stream of materialism that easily overpowers the authentic spirit of giving, of charity, that should be a pervasive hallmark of the birth of the Savior and the tradition of giving inspired by St. Nicholas.

Perhaps a reflection on being humble is timely in the gray of winter and as we approach an unusually early Lenten season this 2005. I borrow a few thoughts from one of the books I use for my meditation, In Conversation with God by Francis Fernandez, published by Scepter Press. In his reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the author cites the thoughts of several saints on humility and charity. For example, in one of his sermons on humility, St. John Vianney (the curé of Ars) said that without humility everything else is “like a huge heap of hay which we have piled up, but which with the first gust of wind is blown over and scattered far and wide. The devil has little respect for those devotions which are not founded on humility because he knows well that he can get rid of them whenever he pleases.” The curé speaks from pastoral wisdom.

St. Augustine once said that humility is the dwelling place of charity. The point is simple: To the extent that we are self-preoccupied, we are not truly freed up in spirit to care about other people. Without humility, there is no genuine charity.

St. Francis de Sales said that among all the virtues humility and charity are the mother virtues—the others follow as chickens follow the mother hen.

Humility is often misunderstood and, indeed, panned by critics of Christian spirituality as being a demeaning self-subjugation. I believe it was St. Teresa of Ávila who spoke directly to the point when she said humility is truth; she means that humility is an honest perception and acknowledgement of one’s gifts and limitations before God. What better imaginary place to do so than before the manger in Bethlehem? There, face to face with the Child-Messiah, there is God loving us, and we are permitted to be truthfully who we are.

In my mind, St. Joseph, who was present yet in the background of the mystery of the Incarnation, is a visible image of humility and charity. Humbly, he accepted the role of foster father with faith. And selflessly he cared for the Child-Messiah and his mother, Mary. His yes to faith and his selfless love simplify the call to humble love that seems foreign in our world. †

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