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home : bishop : columns

12/22/2016 8:30:00 AM
More than a story
IN THE NATIVITY PLAY at St. Peter's parish in Saratoga Springs,Mary and Joseph, portrayed by Alli Richard and Frankie Anzaroot, attend to baby Jesus as the animals huddle together for warmth. (Nate Whitchurch photo)
IN THE NATIVITY PLAY at St. Peter's parish in Saratoga Springs,Mary and Joseph, portrayed by Alli Richard and Frankie Anzaroot, attend to baby Jesus as the animals huddle together for warmth. (Nate Whitchurch photo)
Christmas Eve midnight Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, celebrated by Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger, will be live-streamed to the diocesan website (www.rcda.org) beginning at 11:15 p.m. with the Office of Readings with Anthems and Carols. Anyone with internet access can watch the Mass live. The recording of the Mass will be available for playback on demand on the diocesan website on Christmas Day and for the entire week after Christmas. In addition, Christmas Day Mass from St. Patrick's Church in Ravena will be live-streamed at 9:30 a.m.

The Christmas story continues, as it always has, to fascinate and to disturb, to inspire and to irritate both people of great faith and people of little faith, depending on how it is heard and how seriously heeded.

For many, it is even a scandal: The Greek word "skandalon" translates as "stumbling block." It is something "in your face," so to speak, that you just have to deal with -- an obstacle that you cannot get around, even if it annoys or offends to the point of inciting fear or even hatred, as it did in the case of King Herod.

To others, however, this self-same scandal is an evangelion (Greek for "gospel"): a proclamation of Good News, a message of hope and a promise of freedom.

Such are the contradictory responses to encounters with the Christmas story. No one can long remain neutral or indifferent about Christmas, because it is really more than a story. It forces one to take a stand.

What is going on in that stable in Bethlehem, as St. Luke sets the scene, is nothing short of revolutionary: The Savior of the world is revealed to lowly shepherds as Lord and Messiah in the tender flesh of an infant in a manager.

This is preposterous and unheard of -- both the message and the messengers -- yet these poor, uneducated and unconnected denizens of the fields, living with their animals on the margins of society, become the first evangelists. They are outstanding icons of today's new evangelization, so effective in those most humbled by the enormity of God's mercy upon them that there can be no doubt their glow and credibility derives not from their erudition or education, but from God's glory in them.

This newborn baby to whom, in St. Matthew's narrative, wise men would bow is also a scandal for other reasons. Divinity would become incarnate in the humanity of a vulnerable class deemed neuter under Roman law -- children -- with no rights beyond of the command of the paterfamilias!

The best of the known sciences would lead masters of these skills to follow a star to an infant king. The very nature of their gifts -- gold, frankincense and myrrh, which accompanied royal burials -- would even anticipate the mission of a Messiah born to die for the salvation of all.

Children get excited over Christmas! Unlike many other things religious, from which the heady flavors of wonder and surprise are often extracted by a soulless ritualism, Christmas is never boring to them, though it may seem so at times to the adults, who dread the tedium of the preparation routines.

Christmas-season controversies over a misplaced religious display have almost become part of the routine, along with reports of overly-aggressive shoppers, characterized as "seasons' beatings." St. Francis, the originator of the public practice of a crèche display, would probably have been sued today!

But even the offense taken at calling an evergreen a "Christmas" tree or of saying "Merry Christmas" in an angrily secular setting implies that no one needs a reminder that the name of "Christ" means something.

What exactly is the source of such passionate response to the name? The Christmas story is, again, revolutionary and challenging. It crosses so many barriers of expectation and propriety. It is the Gospel that proclaims good news to poor and, to those in sorrow, joy; liberty to captives; healing to those broken by life's many assaults and oppressions. From first notice, Christ would be a threat to the powerful and well-heeled, closely watched by the masters of this world who quickly sized up the challenge to their all-too-vulnerable stature of control by the powers of money, fear and seduction.

Soon enough, as this -- the "greatest story ever told" -- unfolds, not even death itself would be an obstacle to the new life coming into the world with this birth, the "light the darkness could not grasp," to recall St. John's metaphor.

That is not the way things were expected to work out. Still, for those who are familiar with stories of the ancient Scriptures, it is hardly surprising that God's breaking into our history always comes as a surprise. The patterns recur -- yet, when they do, few of the most learned or the most expert tend to recognize them.

This is perhaps the greatest scandal of all! It is still possible to know of the Christmas story, yet miss it. Each year, we hear other stories: a load of presents gets stolen from a car trunk, or drunkenness turns someone's Christmas Eve into a nightmare. This is all the more pitiable, since Christmas is an experience where it pays to be sober and, if we really want to hear the message, even profits one to be poor, needy, desperate and at one's wit's end.

Like a meal only to be truly savored on an empty stomach, a Savior means most to those who know their need to be saved.

Sinners -- that is to say (if I may be so bold), all of us who are honest enough to be in touch with the truth of our undeniably fallen state -- have something to celebrate whenever Christ is around, for He is our only hope. Who else can forgive and heal us but a Savior-God who enters our own flesh to give us the reward He deserved by suffering the punishment we deserve?

This is more than a story. It promises that our lives have more meaning than the mere strike of a match against the relentless darkness of death's ultimate summons: Born into our midst is the hope of eternal life!

The Christmas story changes human history and our personal history, too, moving it in an entirely new direction from where it got sidetracked in Eden or somewhere later on along the twisty path of our destiny. The inevitable is no longer the invincible.

The shepherds and angels have something to tell us that we do not learn in books or even from life experiences. And everyone who heeds the saving call to follow that star -- to move away from that sordid past, however we may have lost the way -- is welcome to have a seat at the table.

Let whoever has ears to hear, hear! Merry Christmas!

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)

Edward B. Scharfenberger

Bishop of Albany

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