"The time came for Mary 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"
This was the moment that Israel had been awaiting for centuries, through many dark hours, the moment that all humanity was somehow awaiting, in terms as yet ill-defined: when God would take care of us, when he would step outside his concealment, when the world would be saved and God would renew all things.
We can imagine the kind of interior preparation, the kind of love with which Mary approached that hour. The brief phrase: "She wrapped him in swaddling clothes" allows us to glimpse something of the holy joy and the silent zeal of that preparation. The swaddling clothes were ready, so that the child could be given a fitting welcome. Yet there is no room at the inn.
In some way, we are still awaiting God, waiting for him to draw near. But when the moment comes, there is no room for him. We are so preoccupied with ourselves, we have such urgent need of all the space and all the time for our own things, that nothing remains for others, for our neighbour, for the poor, for God.
It used to be said that while populations expand exponentially, food production expands only arithmetically, leading to inevitable starvation. However, thanks to agricultural technology, the world's capacity to feed itself has confounded the pessimists. In many places, what drives malnourishment is not overpopulation or insufficient food, but corruption.
That is also what lies behind what is emerging as the biggest threat to economic progress across the globe, namely the ability of man-made-institutions like international financial markets to destroy wealth rather than to create it. When this is coupled with the ability of the rich and powerful interests to grab an ever larger share of the spoils of economic activity, grassroots movements of social unrest and protest are inevitable.
St. John, in his Gospel, went to the heart of the matter, giving added depth to Saint Luke's brief account of the situation in Bethlehem: "He came to his own home, and his own people received him not" (Jn 1:11).
This 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,:as he through whom the world was made, enters into the world, but he is not listened to, he is not received.
St. Luke's account of the Christmas story tells us that God first raised the veil of his hiddenness to people of very lowly status, people who were looked down upon by society at large, to shepherds looking after their flocks in the fields around Bethlehem. Luke tells us that they were "keeping watch".
This phrase reminds us of nature of our Advent preparation but also a central theme of Jesus's message, which insistently bids us to keep watch, to stay awake, to recognize the Lord's coming, and to be prepared.
The expression seems to imply more than simply being physically awake during the night hour. The shepherds were truly "watchful" people, with a lively sense of God and of his closeness. They were waiting for God, and were not resigned to his apparent remoteness from their everyday lives. To a watchful heart, the news of great joy can be proclaimed: "for you this night the Saviour is born." Only a watchful heart is able to believe the message. Only a watchful heart can instil the courage to set out to find God in the form of a baby in a stable. Let us ask the Lord to help us, too, to become a "watchful" people.
At Christmas we draw near to the child of Bethlehem, to the God who for our sake chose to become a child. In every child we see something of the Child of Bethlehem. Every child asks for our love.
This advent, let us think especially of those children who are denied the love of their parents. Let us think of those children who do not have the blessing of a family home, of those children who are brutally exploited and made instruments of violence, instead of messengers of reconciliation and peace. Let us think of those children who are victims of the industry of pornography and every other appalling form of abuse, and thus are traumatized in the depths of their soul.
Let us also think of the mothers of these children who are also often the victims of poverty, abuse and exploitation. Let us stop funding abortion agencies, at home and aborad, which suggest to mothers that in order to save their own lives they must kill their babies, rather than provide them with safe comprehensive maternity care.
The Child of Bethlehem summons us once again to do everything in our power to put an end to the suffering of these children and their mothers; to do everything possible to make the light of Bethlehem touch the heart of every man and woman. Only through the conversion of hearts, only through a change in the depths of our hearts can the cause of all this evil be overcome. Only if people change, will the world change. In order to change, people need the light that comes from God, the light which so unexpectedly entered into our night.
And so we watch, we wait, we prepare, we pray and think of moms and their children.
☩ F. B. Henry
Bishop of Calgary