Message for Christmas 2004 and New Year's 2005

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Most Rev. Brendan M. O'Brien

My thoughts for Christmas and New Year’s are influenced by the theme for World Youth Day 2005, “We have come to worship him” (Matthew 2.2). With this phrase, the Holy Father invites young people and all of us to reflect on those words of the Magi and to come to an ever greater realization of the impact of the Incarnation on humanity.

The Gospel traditionally used during Christmas Day proclaims that “the Word was made flesh” (John 1.14). The Word is God’s saving message, which shines through the darkness and enlightens all people.

The Holy Father has remarked on several other occasions that in the Incarnation we see the human face of God and the divine face of humanity (see Ecclesia in America, 67). As the Prologue of the Gospel of John indicates, the Word is the eternal plan of God by which “all things came into being”. It is the divine invitation which, when received, gives “power to become children of God”. Full of grace and truth, the Word is the intimate unfolding of the heart of God. It is the way to God, the truth about God, and the meaning of life with God. Since the beginning, even before the world came into being, the Word was with God and is God.

The “flesh”, on the other hand, is a biblical expression for the weakness and frailty of human nature. In and of itself, the flesh is futile (John 6.63). “All flesh is grass,” we read in the Prophet Isaiah, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of God stands forever” (40.6-8). In the weakness and frailty of infants and the elderly, the sick and the starving, the destitute and the dying, we recognize how frail and dependent is human nature. When this human nature degenerates into thieving, killing and destroying (John 10.10), we see the depths of our human condition in all its darkness and blindness.  

Yet when united with the Word of God, our frailties and hardness of heart can be transformed, not only into human but even into divine tenderness and yearning. “I will remove their heart of stone … and give them a heart of flesh…. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 11.19-20). As the Gospel of John goes on to describe, the Word made flesh is the Lamb of God, giving his life for others, weeping when they suffer, opening the eyes of the blind, and feeding the hungry. Jesus is the bread given for “the life of the world” (John 6.51).

In his reflections on World Youth Day 2005, Pope John Paul II says that “the Magi found Jesus at ‘Bêth-lehem’ which means ‘house of bread’.  In the humble stable in Bethlehem on some straw lay the ‘grain of wheat’ who, by dying, would bring forth much fruit” (see John 12.24).

The deepest meaning to the signs that Jesus worked was not that he provided the hungry with the bread that perishes, but the revelation that he is “the true bread of God … which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6.33). Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and this bread is his flesh (John 6.51). 

The recent Apostolic Letter Mane Nobiscum Domine announces a Year of the Eucharist, beginning in October 2004 and ending in October 2005. The Holy Father in his letter meditates on the meaning of the Bread of Life. He points out how Christians can celebrate this mystery, and how we can deepen our awareness of God’s presence in our midst – in the sacraments and particularly the Eucharist, in Scripture, through sacrifice and prayer, in adoration, and in ecclesial communion, and through testimony and evangelization.

Like the Eucharist, Christmas too is a revelation of the Word of God. It is a summons to testimony and evangelization, inviting us to bear witness to God’s presence in the world; teaching us to promote communion, peace and solidarity; challenging us to build a more just and sharing society. Christmas reminds us that with Jesus, we also are to give life to the world. United with the Word of God made flesh, we are to transform our frailties and hardness of heart into divine tenderness and yearning. Following the Lamb, we are to give our lives for others, weeping when they suffer, opening the eyes of the blind, feeding the hungry.

Christmas manifests the same mystery that is made present in the Eucharist. It reveals not only the heart and mission of Christ, but also of his Church and its members. God has become one of us, that we may assist others to share in divine and eternal life. Enlightened by the true light that comes into the world, we also are to be a light shining in the darkness, even when the darkness knows us not. Recognizing the Father in Jesus, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to bring life and light to the world, and to do even greater works than Jesus (John 14.12). 

The Eucharist celebrates the meaning of God’s coming into our midst. May the grace and truth of the Word of God among us be our true meat and drink this Christmas, and may the glory of the Incarnation strengthen and enlighten us all as we begin a new year.

+ Brendan M. O’Brien
Archbishop of St John’s
Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops

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