December 21, 2012

A Christmas reflection from Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R.

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R.I am privileged to address the readers of The Criterion for the first time, and I hope that these words will reach all the faithful in central and southern Indiana.

The beginning of my service to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis has been a daily experience of gratitude for the incredible welcome sincerely offered by so many good people.

The competence and generosity of my closest partners in mission give me great confidence as I assume my new responsibilities. I go to bed each evening and arise the next day saying “thank you” to God for having called me to labor in this corner of the vineyard. I would like to thank each of you as well. Hoosier hospitality is the real deal!

It seems particularly appropriate to write these words as the Church enters the final days of Advent. The days before Christmas invite us into the season of the Gift. This reflection on our celebration of the birth of the Lord is offered in thanksgiving to God, who loved us enough to become one of us, and who has called us to walk together on our way home to him.

At this time of the year, a great deal of heat is generated by a sort of “war” concerning the meaning of Christmas.

Many Church-going people are saddened or scandalized by a secular celebration that apparently has little, if anything, to do with biblical tradition.

These sensibilities are only aggravated by the banning of Nativity scenes from public property, a preference for politically correct greetings like “Happy Holidays,” and noisy airwaves that blare about snowmen, white and blue Christmases, and poor Grandma and her unfortunate encounter with that reindeer.

However, if you scratch these excesses, I believe that you frequently find values that are traditionally associated with the Christian celebration of the birth of the Lord.

At this time of the year, people desperately want to be happy, try to be generous, and generally like to spend time with friends and family. They also have a keen sensitivity to light.

In the northern hemisphere, Christmas comes at the darkest time of the year. The winter solstice means that our portion of the Earth is at its farthest point from the sun, the source of light and life. The greater portion of each 24 hours is spent in shadow and gloom. No wonder we like to decorate our houses, workplaces and churches with an abundance of light!

The shadows remain, but we trust that the light is finally stronger. Our decorations remind us, among other things, that the source of light, the sun, is returning.

Have you noticed how often the Church prays for light during the season of Advent?

The story of the birth of Jesus is a chronicle of light. Hosts of angels blaze across the night sky, while wise men follow a star. You have to look closely at the Nativity to glimpse the shadow, a reality that does not sit well with the more saccharine contemporary versions of the Christmas story.

The birth of Christ is touched by the shadow of the Cross, already the destiny of the holy Child. A subtle scarlet thread of suffering unites Nazareth and Bethlehem.

Consider how the initial consternation of Joseph at Mary’s pregnancy, the hardship of their journey to the city of David, the miserable poverty of the stable, the disturbing content of the prophecy of Simeon on the day of the Jesus’ circumcision, as well as the insane ferocity of Herod and the flight into Egypt, all conspire to shatter the peaceful image of the Madonna and Child bathed in soft light.

The suffering side of the Christmas story leads us to its deepest meaning—that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son (Jn 3:16), who “emptied himself” (Phil 2:7) and became “like us in all things, except sin” (Heb 4:15).

By his birth, the Son of God enters fully into the precarious, violent, unjust and often incomprehensible world of humanity. He is not play-acting. The Gospel of John, which is shot through with references to light, uses that image to describe the Incarnation.

“What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:3b-5).

This year, I think it is crucial to recognize the suffering side of Christmas.

After all, darkness recently has touched families of the archdiocese and the country in a devastating manner.

On Dec. 2, two lovely couples died in a plane crash outside Greensburg. Donald and Barbara Horan and Stephen and Denise Butz were loving parents of a total of six children as well as committed members of St. Mary Parish in Greensburg and generous partners in the mission of this archdiocese.

Since Dec.14, our nation has been grieving for the senseless slaughter of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Many are asking why God “took” these little children and their teachers. A similar question may have occurred to those who loved the Horans and Butzes.

Christmas reminds us that God does not “take.” God is both the Giver and the Gift.

In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God experienced the same sort of darkness that was manifest outside Greensburg and in Newton, and proclaimed forever that darkness will never have the final word. The more pronounced the gloom, the more dramatic is the presence of light.

Our celebration of the birth of Jesus pushes back against a long winter night and, even in our day, “the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:2).

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Most Rev. Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R.
Archbishop of Indianapolis

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