...we are told that only through Christ did real joy appear and that in
our life, in the last analysis, nothing matters more than coming to recognize
and understand Christ, the God of grace, the light and the joy of the world.
Only then will our joy be true, when it no longer relies on things that can be
snatched away from us and can perish, but when it is rooted in the innermost
core of our existence, which no power in all the world is able to take away
from us. And every outward loss ought to become for us a pathway into these
innermost realms and to prepare us ever more for our true life.” Christ Jesus, our Joy and Hope has been born of the Virgin Mary for us, apart from Him, we want nothing else on earth. Madonna and Child, detail, Sandro Botticelli and workshop, Vienna. Lines by Benedict XVI
“Mary gave birth to her first-born son and
wrapped him in swaddling clothes…” The literal verbal form says that she
“swaddled him.” Various reasons were given for the practice of ‘swaddling’. It
was clearly more than diapering the child, although such cloth bands had to be
changed as often as modern-day diapers do. What Mary did for Jesus in swaddling
him was what any ancient Palestinian mother would do for a newborn babe. It was
not a sign of poverty or lowly birth. It was simply an expression of a mother’s
loving, maternal care. Like any infant, Jesus, needed to be cared for. He
couldn’t take care of himself. He would have died without that care. In the
Christ Child God chose to need us. God chose to be dependent on his creatures.
This is the core of the Christmas message and mystery: the profound dependency
and vulnerability of the divine as it divests itself of power and glory in
order to assume the form of a fragile creature.
The Christmas mystery is more than just
information about God. It’s more than just a new piece of data to be stored away
on our theological hard-drive, because what we need from God is more than just
information. The Letter to the Hebrews is probably one of the boldest and most
unambiguous statements possible about what is so unique and special about the
Christmas mystery: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our
ancestors through the prophets; in these days, he has spoken to us through the
Son…” In other words, God has always been communicating with humanity, in any
number of ways; but what we need from God is more than just information. The
climax of the communication is the sending of the Son, so that we can grasp the
fact that really knowing God, really responding to God’s Word of promise and
life, is a matter of relationship. It’s all about becoming God’s child.
Relationship is what is unique about Christmas; the new possibility for each of
us to be related to God as Jesus was and is. The Source whom Jesus called
Father is now our Source, our Father! We are adopted children of God; taken into
the very life of the Trinity.
The Incarnation is God’s move into need and
dependency - into our need and dependency. The incarnation of God is revealing
and communicating a reality that is as much about us, as it is about God. The
words of the traditional Christmas carol Oh, Holy Night come to life in a
whole new way: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining till he appeared,
and the soul felt its worth.” God, in Jesus, needs our care, our love.
Jesus Christ became human, really human.
And he wants and needs the love of each and every one of us. And in our
realization of this and in our responding to God’s divinely human need and
desire, we awaken to and realize our own inestimable worth. And at the same
time, we realize the inestimable worth of every creature God has created. And
it should be no surprise to us that when we seek to encounter Christ today, we
find him in the needy, vulnerable, the broken and helpless of our world. The
Christ we meet in the vulnerable is the child Christ and none other. The
hungry, the homeless, the thirsty, prisoners, refugees, the sick and abandoned.
And today, most especially, children themselves. All these carry in their
bodies the vulnerability and dependency of the Christ Child who continues to
wait for our swaddling efforts, who ceaselessly continues to desire and need
our loving care. Every human being we encounter, in fact, every piece of
creation awaits our swaddling care and concern because the Word really did
become flesh. Detail of a fresco by Giotto. Excerpts from Abbot Damian's homily for Christmas.
Christianity lives within the wonder first
sketched out by the prophet Isaiah and heard in the liturgy throughout these
past weeks of Advent. Lots of Isaiah! Today, as we zoom in on the birth of Jesus
in Bethlehem, we celebrate both the coming of Isaiah’s exalted Lord of Lords
who became a servant, and the birth of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant who became
Lord through his whole life of faithful love of God and neighbor, “even unto
death, death on a cross.”
Although historically birth comes before death,
the early Christians celebrated the death of the Lord long before they came to
ponder his nativity. His Passion and Death are always in the background of the
Infancy Narratives, which were composed last. Looking back from the vantage
point of Golgotha, Matthew and Luke recognized that, from the very first, this
child is born to deal with evil and sin and love gone wrong. Humanly speaking,
he will fail and be buried under the weight of it. Another victim in the bloodthirsty
history of humanity, which continues in our own day.
But the Good News and reason for
celebrating Jesus’ birth is that the whole life ahead of this child will be one
of re-creating our humanity from within our own history. In the stories that
will be told about him, we shall find him restoring and healing, guiding and
welcoming, forgiving and recreating the lives of the ordinary people whom he
meets. So much so, that they will share in his Holy Spirit and become his
co-workers in his mission.
“Re-creating our humanity from within our
own history”— a few days ago I saw an article in the newspaper which struck me
as a powerful example of this, taking place in a “Bethlehem” of our own time,
where there is literally “no room in the inn,” a teeming tent-city in Mexico
where more than 2,500 migrants seeking asylum have squatted while their cases
wind their way through immigration court in Brownsville, Texas. Exposure to the
elements, overcrowding and lack of sanitation have created conditions for
illness to spread in the sprawling camp. The picture that caught my eye, and my
heart, was that of a 28-year-old Cuban critical care physician, the sole doctor
in this tent city and himself also awaiting asylum, treating very sick children
as a peer completely sharing their situation. Under a canopy on the edge of
this squalid encampment he gets right down to their level and all day every day
gives everything of the little he has to treat, stabilize and encourage. A
picture shows him in T-shirt and jeans making a spacer for an inhaler out of a
paper cup to make sure a 4-year-old girl from Honduras who has asthma receives
the appropriate dosage of medication, her eyes looking right into his, and his
into hers as he sprays. He is Christ; she is Christ. Salvation within a shared
At Christmas we ponder, “How did all this
begin?” and “Who is it that is with us still, Emmanuel, even until the end of
time?” In the Gospel, St. John proclaims, “the Word became flesh
and dwelt among us.” To say that this Word “became flesh and
dwelt among us” is to say that God has translated his own character into a
language accessible to us – a lived human life – that of Jesus of Nazareth. Here
the Eternal Mystery of God is showing itself at its most characteristic, though
in a human form. The night before he died, Jesus tells his disciples in the
upper room: “To have seen me is to have seen the Father.” Jesus is the human
face of God. And today’s Gospel concludes with this tremendous claim: “We have
seen his glory: the glory of an only Son coming from the Father, filled with
Jesus shows us God’s way of being human and
invites us, from his Bethlehem poverty, to follow in his life, to likewise be
“filled with enduring love” (as is that young Cuban doctor on the Mexican
border). Jesus’ truth and faithful love embrace the joy and hope, the grief and
anguish, of the men, women and children of our own time, and as his disciples,
we are to become with him the “in-breaking” of the Reign of God, “the Light
that shines on in darkness.”
That picture in Monday’s paper was, for me,
no less than an icon of “the Light that shines on in darkness,” the Word saving
us within our own context. He does not come to us as some alien from another
world, or even as Isaiah’s “Lord of
Lords and King of kings” intervening from without, but as flesh of our flesh,
making his dwelling among us as one of us – fully human, just as he is fully
Today, each of us will approach the crèche
and look into the manger. Let us recognize this tiny baby as the Light that
comes in the midst of darkness, our darkness, and believe that this little
child is truly “God-with-us.” Let us honor this tiny Bethlehem that restores
Paradise to us.
Just as Saint Stephen sees the heavens open and Jesus at the
right hand of the Father, we too know that the heavens have indeed been torn apart - the newborn Christ lying in the manger has come down to us like the spring
rain upon the tender grass.
With Stephen let us hand over
our entire selves to God Most High who has become for us God most low.
Mary, the undefiled handmaid of the Lord: her
message is the feminine willingness to receive and to conceive.... ‘The angel Gabriel
was sent by God to a town in Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin. She was
betrothed to a man named Joseph of the House of David, and the virgin’s name
was Mary. The angel entered and said, “Hail to thee, full of grace . . .!” ’
This is one of the stellar moments in world history – for here and at this spot
and in the fullest sense the presence of God began indeed. Here in truth
‘Advent’ came about. But let us be aware that this stellar moment in world
history was at the same time one of its quietist moments. A moment overlooked,
not reported in any newspaper nor mentioned in any magazine; nor would it have
been reported if such means had then been known. What we are told here is
therefore first and foremost a mystery of stillness. What is truly great grows
outside the limelight; and stillness at the right time is more fruitful than
constant busyness, which degenerates all too easily into mindless busywork. All
of us, in this era when public life is being more and more Americanized, are in
the grip of a peculiar restlessness, which suspects any quietness of being a
waste of time, any stillness of being a sign of missing out on something. Every
ounce of time is being measured and weighed, and thus we become oblivious to
the true mystery of time, the true mystery of growing and becoming: stillness.
It is the same in the area of religion, where all our hopes and expectations
rest on what we do; where we, through all kinds of exercises and activities,
painstakingly avoid facing the true mystery of inner growth toward God. And
yet, in the area of religion, what we receive is at least as important as what
(about 1450 - 1508), The Annunciation, about 1487, tempera on panel, 40
5/16 x 45 3/16 in., The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Lines by Pope Benedict XVI
It may seem a bit odd but perhaps the Spirit of God is pleading for our understanding in today's Gospel, as if to say, “Now this is how the birth of Jesus took place…This
is the way, no other way, sorry to disappoint you but it really is as amazingly
beautiful and as crazy mixed up as this.” So it is that the Christmas story
unfolds each year. “Now this is how the birth of Jesus came about.” And each
year those few words sound so promising, almost like, “Once upon a time…” But
as the story unfolds, things fall apart, and it’s more like a fractured fairy
tale, not at all neat and uncomplicated. There is Mary’s unexplained pregnancy,
Joseph’s sense of betrayal and his decision to put her aside, then an angel’s
reassurance in a dream; you know the rest of the story so well - an
uncomfortable journey for a census, demanded by tax-greedy Romans, not a room
to be had, and God’s Son ends us being delivered in a cattle stall; and very
soon these three will be refugees fleeing to Egypt. All of it seems a glaring reproach
to our pretentions, whatever they may be. But this is how the birth of Jesus God’s
only Son took place. And like those two disciples on the way to Emmaus, we may
still wonder, “Did it have to be like this?”
of these circumstances were appropriate, because God was doing something so
unprecedented in Christ. A sign has been given us from on high; the sign we’ve
been longing for.And it
is all a sober reminder of who Jesus is, and who he wants to be. For God points
to the precarity and brokenness, the mess and inconsistencies and ambiguities of
our lives, our smelly flesh and guts and bones and asks quietly, “May I dwell
there?” And as the angel spoke to Joseph in a dream, so he speaks to us, “Do
not be afraid. Instead go to the low stable of your weakness and you will find me
waiting for you there.” You see the Christmas story is after all harsh and
terrible, full of struggle, with the shadow of the cross falling over it.Jesus enters our world anonymously,
clandestinely, born to insignificant parents from a nowhere town because like a
warrior he is slipping in behind enemy lines
in order to subvert the way we thought things were supposed to be and so to
initiate his kingdom.
this the scandal of the Incarnation - that God Most High wants to be God most
low, small, hidden, weak and unremarkable; this is God’s embrace
of all that we are in its beauty as well as its shoddiness. Hidden first of all
in Mary’s warm womb; he will then live the small-town life of a carpenter and
wandering preacher. Later on, he will fall under the weight of the cross, and
in the excruciating hour of his death his body will be pierced and torn; all
his beauty and divinity smeared and concealed by blood and spittle. But there
most of all in the poverty of his passion, our deadly mess will be turned
completely inside-out by God’s weakness. The mess is always God’s opportunity;
for his power is always made perfect in his weakness. As first in the stable so
on the cross, nowhere is God more divine than in his weakness, in his humility
Many of us will remember Br.
David West. He was an artist who worked for an advertising department at a big
department store in Texas before he entered. David loved to tell the story of
the time he was assigned to do a watercolor painting of a single rose for an ad
campaign. He had struggled with it all evening; and after his final attempt, he
turned the paper over in desperation and discovered there in what had bled
through the paper the perfect rose; he added a few touches and that was it.
With Mary and Joseph and David, we must trust the upside-downness and continue searching
for the Rose – hoping against hope, turning things over and discovering the beauty
of God. Are we adventurous enough?
Mary and Joseph show us that there is
no security but faith and loving surrender to God. For his part God reveals that
he cannot be enfleshed without our faith and the cooperation of our weakness.
It is what he longs for, delights in and depends on in order to be with us. And
he wants to make new Bethlehems in us,
if we will make room for him. But how slow we are to understand that confusion
is grace, how reluctant to trust that God wants to turn things over and show us
beautiful opportunities for his grace in the messiness. If we await neatness or
easy success and fanfare, we will always be disappointed. This
is how the birth of Jesus comes about: God places a child in our midst and
says, “Here I am - in the smallness of your reality.” And maybe it is like an
apology after all.
not OK. It’s much better than that: everything is falling apart around us, within
us. But this is great, good news, for in Christ we have been grasped by the
love of God and drawn irrevocably into the fullness of his desire for us. For God
has at last heeded the lonely cry of his creatures, “Please surrender yourself! Lower the heavens. Come down to us.”
And he begs for our surrender to him in return, even as he astounds
us, perhaps even disappoints us, with his unpretentiousness and weakness. A Rose has blossomed from Mary’s
tender stem. And from this altar we receive his self-surrender to
us in a scrap of bread, rose-red
with his precious blood.
was able to point out Christ at the Jordan, in a moment of fulfillment, which
gave meaning to his whole life. John also had to witness to Christ in
prison, in face of death, in failure....So too, we may at times be able to show the
world Christ in moments when all can clearly discern in history, some
confirmation of the Christian message. But the fact remains that our task is to
seek and find Christ in our world as it is, and not as it might be. The
fact that the world is other than it might be does not alter the truth that
Christ is present in it and that His plan has been neither frustrated nor
changed: indeed, all will be done according to His will.
Our Advent is the
celebration of this hope. What is uncertain is not the ‘coming’ of Christ but
our own reception of Him, our own response to Him, our own readiness and
capacity to ‘go forth to meet Him’. We must be willing to see Him and acclaim
Him, as John did, even at the very moment when our whole life’s work and all
its meaning seem to collapse. Indeed, more formidable still, the Church herself
may perhaps be called upon some day to point out the Victorious Redeemer and
King of Ages amid the collapse of all that has been laboriously built up by the
devotion of centuries and cultures that sincerely intended to be Christian.
Photograph by Father Emmanuel. Lines by Thomas Merton.
On the one hand, the season of Advent is a season of joy and hopeful
anticipation as we approach Christmas; on the other hand, it is filled with
sober reminders of what will happen when the Lord comes. The prophets are
particularly sensitive to this paradox. St. John the Baptist certainly knew the ups and downs associated with the
Lord’s coming. His whole prophetic mission was focused on it. He had spent
years in the desert preparing; he fearlessly rebuked the religious leaders as a
brood of vipers and called out the king for his adulterous behavior; he had
seen the heavens opened and the Spirit descending like a dove; and finally, he
was bound in prison for his witness to the truth with only his conscience for
might think that Jesus would do something to assist John. But when
his disciples bring John’s question to Jesus, that is, whether Jesus is the one
who is to come, Jesus doesn’t send a rescue squad. He doesn’t offer words of
sympathy. He simply relates the works that he has been doing and allows John
to complete his glorious witness.
Jesus goes on to speak to the crowds about John, and higher praise could hardly
be given. John is the messenger sent before the face of the Lord to
prepare his way. He’s not a reed swayed by the wind. If there is any example of
someone standing firm in the truth, it is John – and under what conditions! I
can only imagine John repeating to himself over and over again the words of
Isaiah: “Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are
weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is
Jesus concludes with the puzzling statement: “Among those born of women there
is none greater than John the Baptist.” It is hard to know
what the rest of the statement means: “…yet the least in the kingdom of heaven
is greater than he.” One thing is clear: now that John is in the kingdom of heaven, there are very few who are closer to God
than he. John prepared the way of the Lord, and we are all his beneficiaries.
I would like to mention one other prophet in the context of Advent – a
modern prophet – St. John Henry Newman. Newman, too, knew the paradox of being
a prophet of the Lord. He had been one of the most influential Anglicans of the
1800’s; but his prayer and study led him to a perplexing question. Just as John
had found it necessary to ask the Lord if he were the one who was to come,
Newman was led by to ask something similar, but with a slight twist if I may so
phrase it: “Are you she who is to
come, or should we wait for another?” He meant the Catholic Church. Was the
Lord’s coming inseparable from her coming? Was she the Bride of Christ?When Newman
reached the conclusion that she was, he asked to be received into the Church. His
adherence to this truth and to the voice of his conscience cost him dearly, but
he stood firm, and now he is a guide for countless believers.
What do these two great prophets have to do with us? How do we fit into this puzzle
which is Advent? The coming of the Lord is near, but so is his Paschal Mystery.
The prophets patiently awaited and prepared the way for the Lord, and we must too. We, both monks and laity, have a prophetic mission in the Church. As monks
we rarely see whether we are making any difference in the world. We are hidden
away in the bosom of the Church. Our prophetic mission is to go continuously
before the face of the Lord and ponder his majesty and lowliness. We must
witness to the truth in our communal life, often in the darkness of faith. Like
the Eucharist we are about to receive, so hidden from the eyes of the world,
let us stand firm hidden yet prophetic in the bosom of the
Church and rejoice in the Lord always!
Photograph by Father Emmanuel. Excerpts from Father Vincent's homily for Gaudete Sunday.
At Tepeyac the Virgin Mary depicts herself as a pregnant, olive-skinned Indian maiden. Like the Son she carries in her womb, she identifies herself with the little ones and pictures herself as one of them.
On an icy cold day in December of 1531,she promises Juan Diego that he will find many flowers blossoming on the hilltop where he first met her. He does as she says and gathers Castilian roses, lilies, carnations, iris, fragrant jasmine blossoms, yellow gorse and tiny violets. The Virgin arranges them all in the fold of Juan’s coarse cactus fibertilma.
When they fall to the floor before the dumbfounded bishop of Mexico City, he sees Our Blessed Lady’s lovely handiwork. She has painted her self-portrait with spring blossoms in winter.
Jesus and his dear Mother long to be with us; and even now they are doing everything, anything to get our attention. Very often perhaps we have ignored His mercy-laden advances; or perhaps forgotten her promise and desire to console and protect us. No regrets, for once again Mercy and His Mother come to us like spring in the midst of winter.
Do listen, do be assured of it, my littlest one, that nothing at all should alarm you,should trouble you, nor in any way disturb your countenance, your heart.For am I not here, I, your mother? Are you not in the cool of my shadow?In the breeziness of my shade? Is it not I that am your source of contentment?Are you not cradled in my mantle, cuddled in the crossing of my arms?Is there anything else you need?
Seeing tiny bird tracks in the new snow, we are reminded of God's desire to be small and hidden in Mary's womb and even now in our own daily experience - always waiting for us there.
The divine Word belittled himself and he has remained pledged to smallness…he loves smallness…Jesus seeks smallness because he knows very well that there is nothing so truly great upon earth as that which is insignificant…small is the manger, small is the boat, narrow is the cross…He clothes the small with the immensity of his love, and to the little ones he entrusts great missions…
so many annunciations; God makes so many overtures to us all day long, trying
to get our attention. There are so many invitations to embrace our fears, our inner
loneliness as privileged places of encounter with as much courage as the Virgin
Mary, who allowed herself to be invaded, tenderly overshadowed by Mystery, a
Mystery who loves us beyond all telling to
can spring from (fear and) death;
growth can flower from our grieving;
can...turn transfixed by faith.
step quietly, perhaps even a bit forlornly, into this place of deep trust.
Photograph by Father Emmanuel. Lines from the Advent hymn Each Winter as the Year Grows Older.
The Abbey's cloister garth is a kind of secret garden surrounded by the four cloisters. This garden enclosed is a symbol of the Blessed Virgin Mary, her beauty, and fragrance set apart for Christ alone, a place where he could nestle and grow.
On this Solemnity of
her Immaculate Conception we celebrate Mary's chosenness. And we rejoice in her privilege, for she reveals the breadth of our human capacity for
God, the breathtaking beauty of our availability to all that God wants to
accomplish in us.
A garden enclosed is my sister, my bride; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up.
Lines from the Song of Songs. Photographs by Brother Brian.
Jesus invites us into a place of deep trust and freedom, where fear
is conquered by the weakness of love. It is, after all, what
he says over and over again to his disciples after his resurrection. “It is
I, do not be afraid.” And so we are trying to learn that God’s love for us casts out all fear. We can simply fall
backwards into him, into that confidence, that knowledge that we like him are
beloved ones of God. This is the work of trusting, choosing to believe. For our
belovedness is simply the way things are. No one can take it away. God is with
us, on our side; we can stop running. A group of doctors from Brigham and Women’s Hospital
in Boston went to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010. A young
woman oncologist told the story of being totally overwhelmed by the situation
in a very primitive tent hospital. There was a seemingly endless barrage of
impossible medical traumas without proper medicines or instruments. And at one
point she became paralyzed by her helplessness and fear. She was just then at
the bedside of a little boy, whose leg had been amputated a few days earlier. It
was all too much for her. Suddenly unable to function any longer, she began sobbing uncontrollably,
her face hidden in her hands. It was then that this little boy about six or
seven years old, saw her tears and her trembling and with a smile lifted his
head from his pillow and encouraged her to move on to some other kids nearby
whom he knew needed her attention more than he did. And remarkably she found
she was able to do so. It was a numinous moment for her. For in that
moment the power of death, the horror and hopelessness and fear were broken
open. She witnessed in that little boy the triumph of love over pain and fear.See Boston Globe, Spring 2010.
Now in Advent we look for the little hand of God beckoning us not to be afraid. Whatever our
fears - great or seemingly insignificant, great traumas or smaller nagging ones
- Jesus our kind Lord notices and offers us accompaniment and a way out. You
and I are more than our fears. This is why he comes for us, to save us from all
that would paralyze and hurt us. We can hope, we can dream with Isaiah and be
“confident and unafraid,” daring to discover our “strength and courage” in the
Lord, our Savior, and so come to draw the water of hope and life and joy flowing
from his wounded open side. Jesus comes to show us that we are deeply,
indescribably loved and even liked by our Father God, a God who is very
interested in us, on our side. We are loved more than we can imagine.
in these darkest days of the year, the shortest days, “as the year grows older
and the chill sets in,” let us make a place for Christ, a place where hope can
grow in us, as he did in the womb of his Virgin Mother. Perhaps the best way to do this might
be to be honest about our own fear and helplessness and dare to open
this creaky, low door to the Divine Child of Hope, “the Child of ecstasies and
sorrows;” and see fear as an invitation, an opportunity, a great open place
where we can welcome him. From this most unlikely of places - like
the smelly stall and the crib of straw in Bethlehem - a
tiny hand reaches out toward us. God is crying a message that “we are able not
to be afraid.” Like that little boy in Port-au-Prince, we can point each other
in the right direction, toward love and kindness. We can be unafraid; we are
dearly loved by a God who dares to become a little Child. Photograph by Father Emmanuel. Meditation by one of the monks.
In darkness and the gloom of these shortest days of the year, we pray for Christ's nearness, even as we know he is never far. He is always, always with us, within us. Still, in these days we want to deepen our desire, stoke our yearning, remembering with broken hearts our desperate need for the God who dwells within. We pray then for attentiveness to the One who is always and everywhere "toward us," drawing us to himself. We beg to be more and more deliberate in our awareness of our own desperate desire for him and his even more desperate longing for us. For as Saint Augustine reminds us, God thirsts to be thirsted after.
In light of our commitment to monastic silence and solitude, these journal entries we share with you have not been designed for comments/responses to be made to them. The tiny envelope icon provided below each entry allows you to send that particular journal entry to a friend.