Sunday, December 30, 2012

Mary, our Church's Theology

Solemnity of Mary Mother of God

Today’s feast is like an icon, a sacred work of art which acts as a portal to pierce the veil of mystery and open us to the horizon of invisible world of the Divine. What is this icon I speak of? The most common Catholic symbol in the world, besides the crucifix, is the juxtaposition of the Son with the Mother; it is the icon of the Holy Theotokos, the Mother of God, or in Western art, the Madonna and her Child. We see a 3D rendition of this icon in the traditional Christmas crèche, the manger scene. Kneeling close to the manger of Jesus, which stands at the centre of the whole crèche scene, is his mother, who gazes upon her child with loving tenderness of a mother and also the adoration of a devotee. This simply captures her whole heart’s desire. No wonder the Church closes each night prayer with an anthem to her where we make this supplication, “Show us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

To accuse Mary of being a distraction is to totally miss the mark when it comes to the Church’s teachings and especially the dogmas concerning Mary. The four Marian dogmas of the Church, two ancient (the Ever Virgin and the Mother of God) and two modern (the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption), are essentially Christological as well as Christo-centric. The first two points to the nature of Christ and highlights his divinity, whereas the second two demonstrates in a concrete way his mission, the salvation of all humanity, already prefigured in his mother.

When speaking of Mary’s motherhood, Scripture constantly stresses two fundamental acts, or moments, which correspond to what common human experience considers essential for a real and full maternity to take place – to conceive and to give birth. We see these two moments in the angelic annunciation, “Behold”, the angel said to Mary, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” (Luke 1:31); and also in prophecy of Isaiah, “A young woman shall conceive and bear a son” (Isa 7:14). These two moments, often amalgamated into one single act of birthing, are easily discernible and differentiated today with advances (or some would say regression) in medical science: for instance, a woman can give birth to a child who is not her biological offspring but through artificial insemination. The title Mother of God (Dei Genitrix), used by the Latin Church, places more emphasis on the first of the two moments, the conception; whereas the title Theotokos, used by our Eastern cousins, places greater emphasis on the second, to the giving birth. In fact, the word ‘Theotokos’ literally translated means "The One who bore God" or "the God bearer.” The first moment, the conception, is common to both the father and the mother, while the second, the giving birth, belongs exclusively to the mother.

These ancient titles, whether it is the Mother of God (Dei Genetrix) or the God-bearer (the Holy Theotokos) expresses one of the greatest mysteries and paradoxes in Christianity. It is a title that has filled the liturgy of the Church with wonder and the subject of theological discourse. Because of it, Mary is not just an object of devotion in Christianity but also an object of theology, and that means that she is part of the discourse on God himself. To contemplate this title of Mary, would be to contemplate three important truths of our Catholic faith, Jesus, God and Mary herself.

First, the title ‘Mother of God’ speaks to us of Jesus. The title the Church uses to honour Mary’s name is testimony of the Church’s most central belief – that Jesus is both human and divine. If Mary is not the Mother of God, then either Christ is not God (and that is the denial of his divinity – the Arian heresy) or Mary is not his Mother (the denial of his humanity – the Docetist heresy). Finally, the title ‘Mother of God’ attests that Jesus is both God and man in the same person. This was the reason for which the Fathers of the Council of Ephesus adopted this august title for our Lady. It expresses the deep unity between God and man realised in Jesus and how God bound himself to man and united man to himself in the most profound unity that exists – the unity of the person.

Secondly, the title ‘Mother of God’ also speaks to us of God. In other words, it not only a Mariological or Christological title, but also a theological one. Mary’s divine motherhood attests to the humility of God, a God who not only condescended to take on our human condition, but a God who took on a mother and placed himself in her care. This is a powerful reminder that we, in our hubris, need not built pyramids or towers to reach the heavens to search for God. This is because God has already come down by silently entering the womb of a mortal woman. By entering into our mortal condition, God sanctified and deified our lives, injured by original sin. God became man in order that men may become gods.

The title ‘mother’ is not like any other title that can be given to a person without, however, affecting the very being of the person. To become a mother, a woman goes through a series of experiences that leave their mark forever and modify not only her physical appearance and physiological condition, but her very awareness of herself. It is one of those things that takes place once and forever. For instance, at my ordination, I began to grasp the profound meaning of the simple catechesis of Catholic doctrine I received when I was young, “once a priest, a priest forever,’ because of the character that ordination impresses on my soul. This is even more true of a woman: once a mother, a mother forever. In this case the character is not the invisible mark left by the event on the soul; it is a creature a child destined to live eternally beside its mother and to proclaim her such. Therefore, the title “Mother of God” is eternal and irreversible because irreversible is the incarnation of the Word.

And so as the world celebrates the beginning of a New Year and many start it off with a whole list of resolutions, let us as Christians echo the prayer of St Augustine as we make our own list of resolutions for this Year of Faith: “His Mother carried him in her womb, may we carry him in our hearts; the Virgin became pregnant with the Incarnation of Christ, may our hearts become pregnant with faith in Christ; she brought forth the Saviour, may our souls bring forth salvation and praise. May our souls be not sterile, but fertile for God.”

In fitting tribute to Mary, Mother of God, the Holy Theotokos, I close with the lyrics of this hymn that shows the profound connection between Mary and her son Jesus.

Mary the dawn, Christ the Perfect Day;
Mary the gate, Christ the Heavenly Way!
Mary the root, Christ the Mystic Vine;
Mary the grape, Christ the Sacred Wine!
Mary the wheat, Christ the Living Bread;
Mary the stem, Christ the Rose blood-red!
Mary the font, Christ the Cleansing Flood;
Mary the cup, Christ the Saving Blood!
Mary the temple, Christ the temple's Lord;
Mary the shrine, Christ the God adored!
Mary the beacon, Christ the Haven's Rest;
Mary the mirror, Christ the Vision Blest!
Mary the mother, Christ the mother's Son
By all things blest while endless ages run. Amen.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Role Models of Holiness

Solemnity of the Holy Family,  Year C

Any initial thoughts of the Holy Family hardly brings consolation, not because we do not possess a personal devotion to each of its members – to St Joseph Our Protector, to Mary our Mother and Jesus, our Saviour. The discomfort arises from the perceived disparity between the perfection epitomised by the Holy Family and our own socially dysfunctional family units. In the face of such heavenly perfection, trying to match up to their standards seems impossible. Fortunately, popular culture is less demanding. Media and other expressions of popular culture often mirror the realities of family life.

Today, TV executives are concerned with garnering ratings by shocking society with the newest, most scandalous shows advertisers are willing to promote, because there seems to be a ready market and demand for this. A simple look down memory lane can demonstrate that television used to be something quite different.  From the 1950s we get the idyllic American family sitcom "Leave it to Beaver." With the 1970s came “The Waltons" and "Little House on the Prairie." Both reflected traditional morals that transcended through history. Revisiting these shows today may be more than just a nostalgic experience. Their clean cut, Pollyannian plot provides a different kind of comical relief: we snicker cynically over their naiveté, and not because of the squeaky clean humour in the script.

Today, many would lament that trying to find a good family programme to watch is hard. Even the lines between children’s programmes and adult television have been blurred. You just need to watch animated series like ‘The Simpsons’, ‘Sponge Bob’ and ‘The Family Guy’, to understand what I’m saying. Cynicism passes off as humour. Story lines are filled with promiscuity and lax parenting. They highlight the dysfunctional, almost chaotic side of family life. Children are defiant and rebellious. The parents can only watch as their world falls apart around them despite their best efforts. These parents are more spectators in their children's lives rather than actual parents – they have lost all control. This is the new norm. Reality TV has become so popular because it helps us to laugh at the tragedy of dysfunctional behavioural patterns within our own homes and thus depersonalise the experience.

Pandering to this demand for bad role models, the media happily proposes ‘new heroes’ of modern family life, the likes of Homer Simpson and Peter Griffins (from the Family Guy) who seem to make bad parenting an art. Despite their atrocious parenting styles, anti-heroes like Homer and the Griffins, prove to be quite endearing to their audience precisely because when compared to them, they make us look good. In a certain way, these anti-heroes provide the necessary justification for our bad behaviour. We live in a world where we try to come to terms with and even celebrate our limitations, our brokenness, our sinfulness, the painful realities that define both our individual and social lives. It is a world where the ‘good’, ‘the perfect,’ ‘the holy’, ‘the functional’, ‘the beautiful’ are just part of an Utopian dream.

In contrast to the dysfunctional heroes of popular culture, the Church provides us with Mary and Joseph. But the idea of Mary and Joseph as models of parenthood, however, frightens many of us. We are inclined to just dismiss the possibility that our families can be like the Holy Family. They are spiritual giants compared to us. They make us uncomfortable with our mediocrity. Their sanctity seems to highlight our deficiencies. It is no wonder that many try to demythologise the story of the Holy Family, with the hope that by exposing their flaws, we can pull them down to our miserable level. And so liberal exegetes will try to make Joseph appear like a cuckold selfish old man who is only concerned with his good reputation; Mary, a victim of societal pressure, perhaps even a rape victim who hides behind the lie of a heavenly visitation and miraculous conception. In spite of our cynical disparagement of the two, we secretly ask ourselves: How could we ever come close to the sanctity and special position of Mary, the Mother of God or to Joseph, the most self-less family guy?

So, what does Mary and Joseph offer us as a ‘realistic’ starting point for our family lives? The answer is simple – they offer us holiness; Mary and Joseph teach us that family life begins with God. The Holy Family was not a perfect family, a family free of crisis or conflict or tragedy. We often have a tranquil picture of the Holy Family: “Silent Night, Holy Night. All is calm,” and all that jazz. So it must have been most of the time. Still, the Gospels describe events that shattered their tranquility: The Flight into Egypt when they became refugees fleeing a murderous despot, the anguish of searching for a missing child, the death of Joseph leaving Mary a widow and Jesus an orphan and finally the cruel and shameful death of Jesus. Apart from these critical events, Jesus, Mary and Joseph would also have lived with the constant taunting and innuendos suggesting that Jesus was born out of wedlock. There is sufficient spice in the story to make it good material for a Reality TV show. The Holy Family, therefore, would have experienced disappointments and tension just like any other family. But what sets them apart from other families is their faith in God. They understood that a family is never truly a family unless God is at its centre. That is why we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, and not the Feast of the Perfect one.

When we hear the story of the finding of Jesus in the Temple, there is much we can sympathise with Mary as a mother. We understand her anxiety and pain. Her child has run off, and she doesn’t know where he is, for three days! Can you imagine the worse case scenarios going through their heads? Mary is freaking out. She wants to know why Jesus has put her through this: “My child, why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you.” But the answer Jesus gives puts things in their proper perspective. This is not just a revelation of Jesus’ identity and his mission. It is also a reminder to all families on what really matters. God is the beginning and the end of all things. Parents often forget this as they constantly fret and worry about their children’s welfare – will they be able to acquire a good education which guarantees them a successful job; will they find a good wife; will they be secure and happy for the rest of their lives? Jesus’ words to his mother set out the main priority and concern for every person. Jesus’ answer raises the eyes of our souls to see beyond the horizon of human existence. It invites us to see God and make him our goal, our destination, and our fulfillment.

Today, many families are trying to address the dysfunctional patterns and dynamics that plague them: the verbal, physical and emotional abuse that members mete out to each other; the narcissistic personality disorders that result in self-centred behaviour; promiscuity, incest and adultery; the inability to set boundaries or respect them. They look for solutions in the form of family therapy, self-help books, and when all fails, divorce seems to be the only option. What many often fail to recognise is that dysfunctional behaviour is just another euphemism for sinfulness. If sin is the cause of jealousy, envy, strive, enmity, selfishness, unforgiveness in the family; then holiness must be its solution. Holiness, life in union with Christ and with God, is the source of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness, everything we need to make our families work.

So, do we need role models? Yes, we do! But not the kind who flaunts their pride and selfishness, the ones who make us feel comfortable with our limitations and shortfalls. We need role models that do not bring out the worst in us, but always the best. We need the kind who can inspire us to move beyond ourselves, to strive for higher things; the kind that will reveal to us all that is good, all that is true and all that is beautiful. Our Holy Father, in his first encyclical reminds us: “We must learn to believe first of all in the family, in authentic love, the kind that comes from God and unites us to him, the kind that therefore “makes us a ‘we’ which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is ‘all in all’” (1 Cor 15:28)” (Deus Caritas Est, 18).

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Word was God

Christmas Mass During the Day 2012

The great Feast and Solemnity of Christ can perhaps be aptly described as the second most important feast in the Church’s Liturgical Calendar after the Great Pasch, the Feast of Easter. Its importance is attested by the liturgy in the three masses celebrated on Christmas Day proper – the Midnight Mass, the Dawn Mass and presently, what we are celebrating now, the Day mass. Christmas Day begins in a very special way with the Midnight Mass. The time corresponds with the traditional belief that Christ was born at midnight. The dramatic darkness of midnight which surround the worshippers who attend that mass also reminds them of the spiritual darkness in the world which only Christ the Light can dispel. The second Mass of Christmas Day is the Mass at dawn, traditionally called the Shepherds' Mass, because it narrates the visit of the shepherds and the first epiphany of the child Jesus to the Jews, as symbolised by this group. The theme of light is also prominent in this Mass. Outside, the natural light is increasing. (We’ve skipped this mass in our parish this year.)

Because the feast of Christmas is so great, the Church does not stop rejoicing after one or even two special Masses. She continues her worship with a third, the Mass of the Day. And so after a marathon of masses, just when you thought you’ve exhausted everything that needs to be said about Christmas, we find ourselves right back at the beginning in this morning’s mass. Not just to the beginning of the Christmas story that took place two millennia ago in Bethlehem, but to the very beginning, before God embarked on the great enterprise of creation. The prologue to the gospel of St John helps us to situate the story of Christmas beyond time and space, before the beginning of the history of man and the universe.

In this Mass, our attention is directed towards the divinity of the Child born in Bethlehem. Whereas the Vigil Mass at midnight of Christmas has as its central theme the humanity of the new born Christ, this Day Mass focuses our attention primarily on our Lord’s divinity. The infant lying in the manger is truly God made flesh. More precisely, he is the Word of God, who comes out from the bosom of the Father from all eternity. This is certainly the crucial dogma of our Catholic faith. All the other mysteries depend for their efficacy in the plan of salvation upon the fact that the son born of the Virgin Mary is truly human in his nature, while being the person of the Son of God.  The second reading refers us back to the Midnight Mass with the passage: "You are my Son, today I have become your father.” The progressive manifestation of Christ continues. From swaddling clothes and a lowly stable we move to might and majesty, throne and sceptre. From the adoration of Mary and Joseph and a few shepherds, we go to the adoration of all the earth.

Let’s get back to the gospel, which is the crown jewel of our readings for this mass. St John does not start the story of Jesus in the usual way as in the case of Ss Matthew and Luke who provide two different versions of his infancy narratives. He says nothing about the way Jesus was born. Rather, he takes us back in time to "the beginning." In the beginning, he says, was "the Word" or ‘logos’ in Greek. To the uninitiated, the "Word" here may seem ambiguous, but it becomes clear in verse 14 that John is talking about a person: "The Word was made flesh, he lived among us." The Word became a human being, a Jew by the name of Jesus. But the Word was also at the beginning, the Word was with God and then John makes this audacious claim, “the Word was God!” Jesus Christ, the child born in the humble stable of Bethlehem and laid in a manger is no ordinary child. He is the Divine Creator-Word, he is the Son of God; he is God.

By using the word ‘Word’ or ‘Logos’, St John was using a term that had rich meaning to Greek and Jewish philosophers. They also believed that God had created everything through his word, or his wisdom. Since God was a rational being, he always had a word with him. The "word" was his power to think — his rationality, his creativity. According to Plato, the world of ideas was more perfect than the material world, which could only provide a poor copy of the former. John takes this idea and gives it a radical twist: The Word became flesh. Something in the realm of the perfect and the eternal became part of the imperfect and decaying world. That was a preposterous idea, people might have said. It is no wonder that John tells us that when the Word came into the world, “the world did not know him. He came to his own domain and his own people did not accept him.”

Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI gives us a beautiful reflection which peals away layers of nuanced meanings hidden behind this single line. He says that this rejection by his own people, “refers first and foremost to Bethlehem, the Son of David comes to his own city, but has to be born in a stable, because there is no room for him at the inn. Then it refers to Israel: the one who is sent comes among his own, but they do not want him. And truly, it refers to all mankind: He through whom the world was made, the primordial Creator-Word, enters into the world, but he is not listened to, he is not received. These words refer ultimately to us, to each individual and to society as a whole. Do we have time for our neighbour who is in need of a word from us, from me, or in need of my affection? Do we have time and space for God? Can he enter into our lives? Does he find room in us, or have we occupied all the available space in our thoughts, our actions our lives for ourselves?”

These are questions which we must constantly ask ourselves, especially during this Year of Faith. Many take time away from their busy schedule to be in Church this morning to celebrate Christmas. But do we take time every day of our lives to deepen our faith in the one, whose birthday we celebrate today – the Word made flesh. As St Hippolytus wrote in the early 3rd century, that “our faith is not founded upon empty words; nor are we carried away by mere caprice or beguiled by specious arguments. On the contrary, we put our faith in words spoken by the power of God, spoken by the Word himself at God’s command.” Jesus did not just bring a message about God — he himself was the message. He showed us in the flesh what God is like. We are more than just people of the Book as Muslims would claim. We are people of the Word of God, the Word who is, who was and will ever be God. The Year of Faith is not just a call to be acquainted with the words in our Bible or in the Catechism of the Church. We are called to encounter the Word himself, Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Saviour – the true light that enlightens all men – a light that shines even in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower.

Our celebration today is testimony to the immense beauty of encountering the word of God in the communion of the Church. In listening to the word, may we become one with the Word. Christmas is a call to conversion, to be renewed in our “personal and communal encounter with Christ, the word of life made visible, and to become his heralds, so that the gift of divine life – communion – can spread ever more fully throughout the world. Indeed, sharing in the life of God, a Trinity of love, is complete joy (cf. 1 Jn 1:4). And it is the Church’s gift and inescapable duty to communicate that joy, born of an encounter with the person of Christ, the Word of God in our midst. In a world which often feels that God is superfluous or extraneous, we confess with Peter that he alone has “the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68). There is no greater priority than this: to enable the people of our time once more to encounter God, the God who speaks to us and shares his love so that we might have life in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10).” (Verbum Domini, # 2)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Majesty Concealed in Humility

Christmas Midnight Mass 2012

Christmas is one of those grand occasions where we get to hear at least four sets of readings if we attend all three of the masses for Christmas proper and this evening’s vigil mass. Moving through all four liturgies is truly a delight as you begin to discover little details worth treasuring within each mass and its set of readings. A special story unfolds which takes us along an adventure which stretches from the Old Testament: the genealogical link between the Promised anticipated and the Promised fulfilled in the first mass, the event of the birth at midnight, the visit of the shepherds at dawn, and finally the exposition of its theological significance for all eternity. Although this may be a source of great delight for many aficionados of liturgy, it’s a real challenge for many priests who are presented with the added challenge and pressure to produce four different sets of homilies. I count myself fortunate this year, I only had to prepare three.

At this midnight mass, we hear in the second reading as St Paul writes to his friend Titus, “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race and taught us that what we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions.” The key to knowing what we must do is found in the nature of this revelation. On this Christmas night, the invisible Deity is made manifest in the visible humanity of one born of a mortal woman; the omnipotence of the second person of the Godhead condescends to the vulnerable weakness of a child; the Timelessness of the Creator is revealed in the temporal character of the history of His creatures; the Lord of the heavenly realms and hosts of angels pitches his tent among mortal men; the Glory and Majesty of God is displayed in an epiphany of humility in a stable. Today is the great Solemnity of Christmas, the great Feast of God’s Humility, the feast of God’s love incarnated, en-fleshed in the humble birth of a child in Bethlehem. Today, we encounter the God of humility in the radical humility of Christ.

The beauty of Christ’s humility on this feast day reveals as much as it conceals. He demonstrates through his own birth, the meaning of humility, which is to “give up everything that does not lead to God.” This is a necessary reminder especially when humility is no longer in vogue or respected. Instead, it is held in contempt. Humility is often regarded as a sign of weakness and even stupidity, a lack of prudence in an age that demands street wise tactics and an ego the size of a football field in order to survive. Thus, humility revealed as the pathway to God is concealed to our modern senses. Today’s world would have pooh poohed the path taken by God two millennia ago. The capacity to change and influence the world requires a whole list of factors missing from the Christmas story: wealth, power, a degree from a prestigious university, hide as thick as a rhino, success, achievement, a proven track record, connections with the right people, a magical public relations team and lots of media promotion. Juxtaposed against a narrator’s introduction of a seemingly all powerful Roman emperor who can move the various nations on earth as if they were his pawns, and a less powerful politician but still formidable provincial governor, the story of a child born to poor humble parents would seem miniscule or too trivial for the telling. But this child would be the main protagonist of our Christmas story and not the former two.

Today, the humble often go unnoticed and are deemed insignificant. They make no impact on our lives and hardly warrant a flicker of our attention. The role models of our society are not the humble, but the selfishly ambitious, the proud, the arrogant. The people that our society looks up to – businessman, politicians, sports heroes, actors and actresses, singers, entertainers – they all tend to have one thing in common: a very high regard for themselves, insatiable ego and ambition, and a great talent for self-promotion.

But let us now consider the humility of the Incarnation itself, the second person of the Trinity, the eternal Son of God, taking on humanity with all of its limitations, with all of its pain and sorrow and suffering. It is impossible to fathom the transformation Jesus endured to leave the glorious perfection of heaven, for a manger.  The Son of God gave up his honour and glory, he let go of his position, he relinquished all of the riches of heaven, in order to become one of us, in order to save us from our sins. He gave up that glory in order to become a human baby, a helpless little infant. But think of it: a baby unable to feed himself, unable to move about, to communicate. And here’s the irony of it all. He is dependent upon the man and woman he created to now take care of him. Those hands which had formed galaxies and set the stars in place, those hands that had spun the earth on its axis, now just waving around, ineffectually. The mouth that had spoken the universe into existence, now just babbling and cooing. The sovereign Lord of creation, had now become the very picture of weakness and powerlessness and inability – a little baby. Not even a royal baby, not the son of a king; not a wealthy baby, the son of money and privilege. But instead, a peasant child born to poverty and want, raised in very humble circumstances. Surrounded not by God’s holy angels and the glory of heaven, but instead surrounded by sinful, fallen human beings (with the exception of his immaculately conceived mother) and a stinking, dirty barn. But Christ’s humility didn’t end with his birth or his childhood. It continued throughout his life.

Think about it: when people are struck with a serious illness, something progressively debilitating, so that they know over time they’re going to become less and less able to care for themselves, one of the things they fear most is losing control. Becoming dependent on someone else, at first needing someone to drive them places and perhaps prepare meals for them, and then eventually having to rely on other people for the basic necessities of life – to dress them, and feed them, and bathe them. Yet Jesus voluntarily took on this kind of complete helplessness, the kind that we fear so much.

So, how do we come before him on this Christmas night? What can we offer to him who created the universe and gave us everything we possess? The answer is this: we come to him in all humility, we come to him with nothing to offer but ourselves, when we have learnt how to “give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions.” Thus, the only way in which we can truly come to encounter our Lord and Saviour on this Christmas day, is to adorn the garment of humility and condescend to where he has chosen to lay his head for the night. If we want to restore Christmas to our culture, it will require more than just good intentions; it would require radical humility.  We will need to give up seats on the pews or places in line.  We will need to show grace, even when grace is not given.  We will need to humble ourselves and follow the example set by the baby in the manger, the shepherds in the field, and Mary and Joseph as they agreed to God’s plan.  We need to humble ourselves as the wise men did, bowing before the young child and presenting him with gifts “fit for a king.”

In last year’s Christmas midnight mass homily, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI made this same call to all Christians to approach Christ’s birth with humility. He drew our attention to the doorway that leads to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem: “Today, anyone wishing to enter the Church of Jesus’ Nativity in Bethlehem will find that the doorway five and a half metres high, through which emperors and caliphs used to enter the building, is now largely walled up. Only a low opening of one and a half metres has remained (less than 5 feet). The intention was probably to provide the church with better protection from attack, but above all to prevent people from entering God’s house on horseback. Anyone wishing to enter the place of Jesus’ birth has to bend down. It seems to me that a deeper truth is revealed here, which should touch our hearts on this holy night: if we want to find the God who appeared as a child, then we must dismount from the high horse of our “enlightened” reason. We must set aside our false certainties, our intellectual pride, which prevents us from recognising God’s closeness. We must follow the interior path of Saint Francis – the path leading to that ultimate outward and inward simplicity which enables the heart to see. We must bend down, spiritually we must as it were go on foot, in order to pass through the portal of faith and encounter the God who is so different from our prejudices and opinions – the God who conceals himself in the humility of a newborn baby. In this spirit let us celebrate the liturgy of the holy night, let us strip away our fixation on what is material, on what can be measured and grasped. Let us allow ourselves to be made simple by the God who reveals himself to the simple of heart. And let us also pray especially at this hour for all who have to celebrate Christmas in poverty, in suffering, as migrants, that a ray of God’s kindness may shine upon them, that they – and we – may be touched by the kindness that God chose to bring into the world through the birth of his Son in a stable. Amen.”