The Christmas challenge in a baby’s disguise

Abbot Mark A. Cooper, O.S.B. , Abbot of Saint Anselm Abbey, Chancellor of Saint Anselm Abbey

Across our country and around the world, this time of year sees homes, churches, schools, businesses, shops, and so many other places decorated, garlanded, and illuminated, all, one might say, because of one tiny infant – but indeed, how special and supreme an infant! As the Christian world prepares during Advent to celebrate the birth of the Divine Child of Bethlehem, we do so as well, we pray, with something of that same wonder beheld in the eyes of the shepherds, and later the awe of the Three Kings, and always the faith and love of Mary, his Virgin Mother, and the vigilance of Joseph, his guardian and protector. After 2,000 years of Christian history, however, we also approach the manger with the knowledge that we cannot linger overlong in nostalgia and warm memories. At the heart of the mystery of the birth of the Son of the Living God “in the 42nd year of the reign of Octavian Caesar” is an enduring challenge to believers, including us in this third decade of the 21st Century.

That challenge is both simple and weighty: we must learn to find Jesus of Nazareth in every age and every place, and every human person, and having found him, welcome him into our hearts. It can be relatively easy to find him in the warmth of Christmas customs and rituals. But the Catholic tradition, as we find it in the writings and lives of the saints, the many reflective theologians, courageous missionaries, dedicated teachers, and holy men and women, tells us that discovering Jesus can be a bit tricky and quite tough and demanding as well.  As grown men and women out of love draw their children and grandchildren into games of “hide and seek,” so the Lord himself desires us to seek him as he “hides” behind the disguises of poverty, confusion, loss, anger, hurt, suffering, illness, estrangement and so much else. Does not the biblical Word show us the Lord disguised in the burning bush, the pillar of fire, the cloud of darkness, the whirlwind, the still small voice, and the tongues of flame? The stakes in such “games” are high – faith and hope in this world, and eternal happiness in the next.

Human fear and weakness can make us want to turn away. But behind the disguise of the homeless teenager on the street, the addict showing up again in the clinic, the despondent prisoner, the at times difficult loved-one in the nursing home, the rival for promotion at work, the student making incessant demands, the professor who never notices, the fellow monk whom we annoy … there is Christ, the Risen One, waiting for us to discover his presence in, with, through and behind the face we are seeing or the individual we are encountering in the moment. It is a double challenge too! We must see the actual brother or sister before us in his own individuality, in her own uniqueness, but we must also recognize the Christ within that person.

When we reflect on this perennial Christian challenge, one we confront throughout life, we see yet another reason for the importance of Christmas. Amid the crowds in Bethlehem for the imperial census, very few recognized the import behind Joseph’s care for Mary and the precious burden she carried in her womb. Yes, the angels summoned shepherds, and a star guided the Magi, but most people fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, “the shall look, but they shall not see, they shall seek, but they shall not find.” That pattern would follow Jesus throughout his life; he would summon apostles, call disciples and attract crowds – and yet he would suffer betrayal, humiliation and finally death. In the mystery of God’s grace, however, we have been called to seek and find the same Jesus, now risen in power and glory. The Divine Infant placed on straw in the cold night, warmed by the breath of ox and ass, teaches us to look deeply behind the disguise and so discover the truth and the glory of the Eternal King come among us … today! Every disguise of the Lord is a call to open our hearts to his love.

Merry Christmas from all of the monks at Saint Anselm Abbey and a Best Wishes for a Joyous New Year!