(JollofNews)- I still have a Christmas card that was sent to me from a friend in Malawi some time ago. It contained a picture of five young boys – each of them about six to eight years old. They were gazing in wonder and awe at the sight of the newborn child – in the centre of a Crib. It is still a most moving picture. It seemed to me that each one of them was so focused on that child that none of them was aware of the presence of the other. And yet they were simply looking at a fragile clay statue. It reminds me of the words of Jesus: ‘unless you become like little children, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
In all our Churches, during the Midnight Mass, and after the reading of the Gospel, the priest celebrating the Mass will place the image of the child Jesus in the centre of the Crib with Mary and Joseph on each side of the child. It will remain there until the end of the Christmas season. Some Churches go to a lot of trouble to attract our attention to this extraordinary mystery of our faith – the mystery of the Incarnation. God became man.
And while they were there (in Bethlehem), the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn’ (Luke, 2,6).
‘No room in the Inn’: this unfortunate situation for Mary and Joseph came about because the Roman Emperor had decided to call a population census for the whole world. Joseph had to go back to his town of origin – Bethlehem – to enroll with Mary his betrothed who was expecting a child. And so it was that the Prince of Peace was born in such harsh conditions – in a manger, in a stable or cave where animals came for their food. It was a most unworthy place.
On the other hand, it provided the necessary privacy for such a sacred event. And as it turned out, Bethlehem was the place foretold by the prophet Micah for the birth of the Messiah. St. John tells us at the opening of his Gospel: ‘He came to his own home, but his own people received him not’.
From the very moment of his birth, his social status placed him among the poorer class (or the ‘marginalised’). He was a stranger to those who would be recognized as the important, the powerful, or even the ruthless in society. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, we read: ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Matt. 8, 20). These words were given by Jesus as a reply to a young man who said to him: ‘Master, I will follow you wherever you go’. He was telling the would-be disciple to be sure about his choice of a vocation.
The teaching and the lifestyle of Jesus call on us to reflect on the contrast between the wealthy and the powerful of our world today and the example given to us by this man Jesus of Nazareth. When his parents brought him to the Temple in Jerusalem to be presented to God, the prophet Simeon took him in his arms and said to his mother: ‘You see this child; he is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign of contradiction’. Yes, a sign of contradiction! He would turn so many attitudes or values upside down, inside out and back to front!
After his first visit to the Passover in Jerusalem as a boy of 12 years, he ran into trouble even with his mother! ‘Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business’! Then he went back to Nazareth with his parents and lived under their authority until he was about 30 years of age. This must be one of the greatest mysteries of his short life on earth: that he spent 18 years in Nazareth before taking up the mission his Father had given him (though we don’t call it a mystery). And so, he spent just three years of his short 33 years on earth fulfilling the mission that the Father had given him. Not a very profitable use of his time on earth! He was finally put to death because ‘his own would not accept Him’. But, by dying he destroyed our death; and by rising he restored our life; and now we await his coming again in glory.
This, very briefly, is the story of the life of the child we look at in the Crib.
Every Christmas, we celebrate not only his birth but also his whole life – given up for us, especially his triumph over death and the evil one.
It all began on that night in Bethlehem when an Angel spoke to shepherds: ‘I bring you good news of great joy, a joy to be shared by all peoples. Today, a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.’ Then a throng of the heavenly host praised God singing: Glory to God in the highest heaven and peace among his people on earth.
Let us remember, however, that he has come and he has gone and he has given his life for us.
Now, it is our turn to be witnesses to his birth, his life, his death and resurrection. What must we do?
Unless we become like little children, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Let us take time to look at that child in the crib and ponder in our hearts the story of his life. This year, we celebrate a Year of Mercy! Let us pray for our families, our communities and our homeland….that we may strive and work and pray, that all may live in unity, freedom and peace each day.
Peace and blessings to all people of goodwill and may you have a very happy Christmas 2015. Amen.
Robert Ellison is the Bishop of the Roman Catholic Mission in the Gambia