Dear Good People of Saint Mary,
This week has us seeing stars! I have to mention the beautiful constellation of art that has appeared over Bethlehem in the church. They are the loving work of a parishioner, Elise Lynch, who has been creating this beautiful galaxy for many months so that we might enjoy them at Christmas. It is such a great example of how the unique gifts of one can be so beneficial to everyone — to thousands of us.
Bethlehem is ready; the Magi and the camel are still far away, but on the way. The star begins to lead us to Jesus, calling us to prepare in our hearts a place for him to come dwell, an original homeless child seeking a safe place within us, a place of love and concord. In these last days of Advent, we need to empty ourselves a little more of ourselves, so that there can be space for him when he comes to us.
Part of why this is so complicated is that we just don’t live in Bethlehem. Or Nazareth, for that matter. Around this time of year as duties and requests ramp up I usually try to figure out how I can simplify my life to more reflect the world into which Christ was born. I don’t think the simplicity of Bethlehem was a product of not having much to do (I like having nothing to do least of all). Even in the quieter, less hectic context of Bethlehem people were still too busy to realize what was happening. If it weren’t for the angels and the star, the whole birth Event might have been overlooked entirely.
Nor do I think the simplicity of Bethlehem was a matter of solitude. Some people have this ideal of living alone on an island without the cares and complications that are brought about by others. I’m reminded of my dear friend who looked out over a sea of tourists in Venice and said to me, “I’m just not ready for heaven.” I asked what he meant. He replied, “I’m supposed to want to share heaven with all these people.” Being alone is not the answer. In fact, I just spent nearly two weeks in the hospital with rules I had set for myself to prevent too many visitors — no visitors — and recall those days as being so very empty of others. No, the simplicity of life necessarily involves the presence of other loving persons who experience the solitude with you.
Bethlehem wasn’t the lavish accommodations or the gold faucets in the bathroom, or the great feasts — obviously. People who have everything they want will most often be the ones to tell you that everything doesn’t supply you with what you really need.
So what was so great about Bethlehem? I think my answer might surprise some. When I was in the seminary coming to terms with what it meant to make a promise of obedience to a bishop, part of me wanted to rebel. Such a blind commitment seemed to violate concepts of personal freedom and self-reliance that I had come to value greatly in my own life at the time. Of course, such a promise is never binding if someone were to ask you to do something that you know is wrong; but what about the things of which you are not certain?
It requires a kind of trust, an admission that I am not in control, also a humility that says, at very least, that someone is capable of making a decision at least as good as me. And I am willing to give the assent of mind and heart to follow where I am led, believing the source of the leading is God and the place where I am being led is God. When you are following God in faith: hardship, suffering, disappointment, cold and hunger — all these things are bearable if you can see beyond them to a purpose and know that God’s will is being accomplished through it, and through me and my life. And that new life will come from it.
This is exactly how I would describe Bethlehem. The cold, the cave. The faith of Mary and Joseph, the fertile moment in which God is born in us.
God bless you.