by M. Francis Mannion
The story that we narrate and celebrate at Christmas needs no rehearsal. We know it by heart. The story has ancient roots in the world before Christ. He who was born in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago had long been expected. The prophet Isaiah foretold a child who would break the yoke that bowed the people’s spirit.
As at the first Christmas, the Prince of Peace comes now to join us amidst the harsh realities of the present: a world torn apart, nations at war, and widespread political turmoil. And there is always the danger of World War III as terrorist nations and groups get hold of the worst and most powerful weapons of destruction ever conceived by human madness.
As of now, there are over sixty million unborn American dead—on the feast of birth. The earth is beset by hunger, homelessness, human trafficking, terrorism, child abuse, and the suppression of women in the name of religion. In much of the world, poverty and wealth are growing further and further apart.
Throughout Advent, we have sung the words, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” Now we give thanks that Christ, Emmanuel, has come.
To call Christ “Emmanuel,” God with us, means that his love and peace penetrate the world’s darkest realities. From him we learn how to cope in the midst of adversity. He shows us who we are; what is important; and how to live. He opens our barren hearts to new possibilities. Out of the darkness of Christmas comes light: light for peace and growth, courage and strength, hope and confidence.
But Christmas offers us not only warm consolation: it offers us a very stern challenge. The challenge is that if God has become one with us, then God’s work is done today through you and me. If God is with us, then he is with us through our vocations in life. This is literally what the incarnation means: God taking on our flesh.
Emmanuel, God with us, means giving bread to the poor and welcome to the homeless. Emmanuel, God with us, means the comfort we give to the lonely and the sorrowing. Emmanuel, God with us, means the love a neglected child feels when someone pays attention. Emmanuel, God with us, means the comfort the old feel when they are loved and cared for by their children and grandchildren.
Emmanuel, God with us, means the devotion of children for parents, parents for children, and children for each other. Emmanuel, God with us, means re-arranging our lives because others depend on us. And, most of all, Emmanuel, God with us, means that the Word of God, the love of God, has taken flesh in you and me.
What sense does it make to say that God is with us—that he is Emmanuel—if those we are responsible for don’t feel God’s love through us? God’s light has little power except as it shines through you and me. God’s warmth must be incarnate in our good deeds for those who need that warmth—or it has little presence at all. God’s peace flows out of your heart and mine—it does not drop from the skies. God answers our prayers not by great miracles mostly, but by the love, mercy, and charity we feel and express toward each other.
Christmas is about Christ coming to us, and our coming to Christ—and most of all about our going out to each other. Most of all, Christmas promises us an imperishable inheritance from Christ who came once in Bethlehem will come again in glory.
Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.