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Remembering Our Story at Christmas

How pondering gifts received helps us find direction

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During the Advent season, I often think of past Christmas celebrations and the traditions with which I grew up as a young child anticipating the coming of Christmas. It seems that especially this year I have been thinking of those happy memories, maybe to replace more recent recollections from years when our celebration of Christmas was changed or more limited due to circumstances beyond our control. Perhaps you might also be reflecting on some of your good memories and traditions of Christmas past.

For example, my family always began Christmas day in church. We all went to Mass together, before we opened our presents. I remember the excitement each year as we were getting ready Christmas morning while trying to sneak a peek into the dimly lit living room where all the presents were beneath the Christmas tree.

We were often told by our parents to hurry to get ready for Churchto try to keep us from getting caught up in the excitement of trying to guess what the gifts were. After all, Christmas was about Jesus being born in a stable in Bethlehem, surrounded by animals and visited by shepherds. That was the important message of Christmas. Those presents in the room would wait. We were going to Church first.

This essential Christmas message was renewed when we visited our grandparents on Christmas afternoon. But, at my grandparents’ house, there were no presents under the tree. Oh, do not misunderstand, there were presents. But the presents were off to the side, only visible to those who knew where to look. The only thing that was under the tree was a Nativity scene, much like the one we had seen in Church.

As a student in our parish elementary school, each year my classmates and I were recruited to retrieve from storage those figures that were part of the church’s Nativity scene. We were able to see them up close, touch them and carefully guard those precious possessions. As we carried the statues from the basement up into the Church, we would often talk among ourselves about the characters that the figures represented while imagining the stories that went along with each of them.

Nativity Scenes

Every Christmas, we hear the biblical account of how Jesus’ birth came about — in a stable in Bethlehem, surrounded by animals. But our stories speculated beyond what we knew from Scripture. What were their names? Where did they come from? Did they understand what was happening? How did their lives change after they saw Jesus lying in the manger?

As we undertook that special project each year, I never thought that I would one day follow in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, who in 1223 first recreated the Nativity scene that we now see in all of our churches at Christmas. As one of his biographers recalled, Francis said, “I wish to enact the memory of that babe who was born in Bethlehem: to see as much as is possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he rested on hay” (“The First Life of St. Francis of Assisi,” Thomas of Celano).

St. Luke’s Gospel describes those events from many years ago that changed history forever: “Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: / ‘Glory to God in the highest / and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests’” (2:8-14).

Mary, Joseph, Angels

Christmas is the story of an angel who appeared to a young girl and asked her to become the mother of God. It is the story of a man who had a dream that an angel told him to take Mary as his wife. And in childlike trust and faith in God, both Mary and Joseph agreed to do what the angels asked of them. Christmas is the story of an angel who appeared to a group of shepherds and told them to go to Bethlehem to worship a newborn child sleeping in a manger. Although they did not know what this was all about, the shepherds did what the angel told them to do. The shepherds received a great gift and opened their hearts to what God wanted them to do. They proclaimed the Good News to all that they met — and they gave praise to God. They would never be the same again.

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MESSAGE FOR PRIESTS

This Christmas, my prayer is that we each remember the great gifts we have received (cf. Congregation for Clergy, “The Gift of the Priestly Vocation”). God is with us. God has called us and consecrated us to his service. May we remember and embrace these great mysteries. And may our lives become changed forever as a result.

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At times it is important to remind ourselves that we cannot lose the childlike trust and faith that filled our celebrations of Christmas when we were younger. Such trust and faith are hallmarks of our Christmas tradition and, in particular, my Franciscan tradition. Remember that when St. Francis heard the voice from the cross say to him, “Francis, go repair my house; as you see, it is all being destroyed” (“The Life of St. Francis of Assisi,” St. Bonaventure, Chapter 2), in childlike trust and faith he gathered stones to repair the Church of San Damiano. Later, he realized that God wanted him to help rebuild the universal Church. Francis put his complete trust in God, he depended upon God, and he was obedient to God. In childlike simplicity, Francis did what God asked of him.

Marian Devotion

St. Francis had a special devotion to our Blessed Mother, who was, for him, a model of faith and humility. For Francis, Mary was mother, advocate and queen.

Marian devotion is certainly not limited to Franciscans. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reminds us that Mary is “the one who carefully keeps ‘all these things, pondering them in her heart’” (Lk 2:19). Mary can recognize the traces of God’s Spirit in events great and small.

“She constantly contemplates the mystery of God in our world, in human history and our daily lives. She is the woman of prayer and work in Nazareth, and she is also Our Lady of Help, who sets out from her town ‘with haste’ (Lk 1:39) to be of service to others. This interplay of justice and tenderness, of contemplation and concern for others, is what makes the ecclesial community look to Mary as a model of evangelization” (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 288).

Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI addressed Mary as a model of love and hope for all Christians. In Deus Caritas Est, he stated that “Mary, Virgin and Mother, shows us what love is and whence it draws its origin and its constantly renewed power. To her we entrust the Church and her mission in the service of love” (No. 42).

As Pope Francis noted, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). We will hear these words on several occasions during the Christmas season as we celebrate the great mystery of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh. Mary kept these things in her heart to contemplate them and to reflect upon them.

Mary was the first one to ponder the significance of the events of the Incarnation. By her willingness to hold all things in her heart, Mary became an inspiration of contemplation and reflection. Mary’s initial question of “How can this be?” (Lk 1:34), coupled with her continued trust in God (cf. Lk 1:38), are part of her message for us.

She inspires us to contemplate the significance of the events of our lives and we learn from them rather than go aimlessly through life without meaning or direction. She inspires us to constantly reflect on the truths of the Faith, which are made real in life’s experiences and the ways through which God works in our lives. We look to Mary as the model of contemplation to guide us as men of faith and trust, chosen and consecrated by God to be his ministers in the Church and the world.

This is what makes it possible for us to minister effectively to those whom the Lord sends into our lives. That is why we must begin our days in prayer with the Liturgy of the Hours and the celebration of the mystery of the Eucharist. We are fed with the Word of God and the body and blood of Christ so that we can be more effective ministers of God’s love and presence in the world.

Prayer and Contemplation

Our daily ministerial commitments also call us to further contemplate the mysteries of our faith, the love of God and the many ways in which he blesses our lives every day. And then at the end of the day we once again lift our minds, our hearts and our voices to praise God. We reflect upon our joys and the achievements that the Lord worked through us that day, and we share them with the Lord. But we also turn over to him our fears, anxieties, frustrations and the challenges that we face. And we ask our mother Mary to intercede for us with her son, who is so loving, kind, compassionate and generous toward us. Mary was chosen by God and consecrated to God. She cooperated with God’s saving plan. She is an inspiration for all disciples of Jesus who want to listen to his Good News, even as it comes through the often difficult and mysterious circumstances of our lives. Whether we realize it or not, we need Mary and her example for our spiritual lives.

Like Mary, in faith and trust we need to remember and contemplate our story now more than ever.

Christmas is about remembering once again with childlike trust and faith that we need a Savior. Like many people at Christmas, we will once again partake of the traditions that fill our memories of Christmas. We will share with loved ones a joyful meal of ham or stuffed turkey or some other favorite Christmas dish. We will sing the traditional Christmas carols, enjoy the Christmas tree and the Nativity scene that recaptures the events of that night.

We remember him as a child lying in a manger. We remember that the Word was made flesh. We remember him in the breaking of the bread. And we remember him who called us to serve at his altar. There are the gifts that make up our story, and we need to remember and reflect upon our story at Christmas.

Responding with Faith and Trust

This Christmas, as you hold the host that will become the Body of Christ and pray the beautiful words of the Eucharistic prayer, recall that each one of us has been chosen by God and consecrated to the Lord’s service. Pray that we will always be faithful to our consecration as we represent Christ to others. We may not always understand God’s plan, but like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds, we need to respond with great faith and trust.

We need to remind ourselves that we have our own story of Christmas to tell — to tell others how God broke into our lives and changed us forever. We ask for the grace “to recognize the traces of God’s Spirit in events great and small” (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 288). And we contemplate these great mysteries as they unfold in our lives so that as the bishop said on the day of our ordination, “May God who has begun the good work in you bring it to fulfillment.” (Rite of Ordination, 125).

FATHER SEAN O. SHERIDAN, TOR, past president of Franciscan University of Steubenville, is vicar general council of the Franciscan Third Order Regular in Rome.

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 St. Francis’ Prayer to Mary

In his prayer entitled “A Salutation of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” Francis presents Mary as the model for every Christian who responds to God’s virtuous presence in their life: “Hail, O Lady, Holy Queen, Mary, holy Mother of God, Who are the Virgin made Church, chosen by the most Holy Father in heaven whom he consecrated with His most holy beloved Son and with the Holy Spirit the Paraclete, in whom there was and is all fullness of grace and every good. Hail His Palace! Hail His Tabernacle! Hail His Dwelling! Hail His Robe! Hail His Servant! Hail His Mother! And hail all You holy virtues which are poured into the hearts of the faithful through the grace and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, that from being unbelievers, You make them faithful to God.”

In this beautiful prayer, Francis highlights Mary’s place in salvation history. But this prayer should also remind us that through the holy priesthood we, like Mary, have been chosen by God and consecrated to his service.

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