It is an argument familiar to many mothers and children on the night before Christmas:
Go to sleep, Yves my darling, go to sleep my child…
Mother I want to see Him!
He wants to be loved without being seen…You know, don’t you, that in the Mass, the moment when He descends to the altar, all heads are lowered…
It is Jesus of whom they are speaking. The mother in Bordeaux over a century ago had taught her son that the baby Jesus brought him gifts, placing them in shoes that he had left by the fireplace. The great French Catholic novelist François Mauriac (1885-1970) is drawing on his own childhood recollections in his story, A Christmas Tale.
Jesus wants to be loved without being seen, the mother asserts. At one time, He must have wanted to be seen; for at Christmas we celebrate His birth in the flesh, allowing Him to be seen, and heard, and touched, lying at first in that manger in Bethlehem. It is for us now, she seems to indicate, to believe without seeing him; though she knows that He comes on the altar, and can be seen and touched there.
She departs for midnight Mass, leaving him in his bed, plunged into this very mystery; as he tries to keep his eyes open to learn whether it is Jesus who comes, or simply his mother. In the latter case, that very mother would have “fooled” him, lied to him.
Our children these days still want to see Him. As parents, we respond with different answers, trying as hard as the French boy’s mother to lead the child to truth. While the discussions of who brings gifts down our chimneys go rather otherwise, children still admit to a desire to see Jesus that we all can acknowledge, not only in childhood.
Because of this desire, we set up a crèche or Nativity scene both inside and outside our church, and ideally in our homes as well. This makes it possible for our children and us, and for all who pass by this way, to see if not Jesus, at least how He looked when first He was seen. The reality of His circumstances is shocking but credible, foreign but familiar. We delight to see the soft infant face of God.
You will notice that this year that our own crèche here in the church has changed. Our old sets, though not without their charms, are made of plaster and simply disintegrating. Finally, finally, after years of looking, I found on my last trip to Rome something that seems suitable. The figures are beautiful, approachable, and human, and in a style not too florid for our mid-century modern church. They are carved of wood, so they will last for future generations as yet unborn to marvel at the mystery they present. And honestly, for all that, they were reasonably priced.
The manger scene will look almost deserted this year, with only the Holy Family and none of the other characters in that midnight drama; no cattle are lowing, no shepherds watch. And on the Epiphany, the Three Kings will seem to have missed their star. But that is a temporary condition. Because this is an Italian creation, there is no shortage of sheep and lambs and dogs and Magi and shepherds and even a camel available to fill out the entire cast.
Consider this my first plea for donors to offer the cost of as many of these statues as we can afford, as soon as we can manage. The donors will be commemorated both by notice as the statures arrive, and, I hope, by having names inscribed on the statues themselves. Remember, they will last for generations. I have a picture catalog, and am waiting for a list of prices from Rome. There will be a wide range: I know already that a sheep costs far less than a shepherd. The Holy Family statues are available for dedication as well; inquire at the rectory.
Nonetheless, when we come for Christmas we do not settle for statues or pictures no matter how compelling their presentation of the Nativity of Our Lord. We still come because, like young Yves in the story, we want to see Jesus – not simply see what He looked like when He was young.
That night in Bordeaux, the excited young boy took a major step toward mature faith:
If time seemed to pass quickly, it was no doubt because I was suspended in timelessness. Someone pushed open the door and I closed my eyes. Hearing the silken whisper of the dress, the rustle of paper, I told myself it must be Mother. It was she and it wasn’t she; it appeared to me rather that someone else had been transmuted into the form of my mother. During that midnight Mass, which I had not attended and which was beyond my imagination, I knew that Mother and my brothers must have received the little Host and that they had returned to their seats as I had seen them do so often, with their hands folded in prayer and their eyelids closed so tight that I wondered how they were able to find their way. To be sure, it was Mother. After having lingered at the fireplace, she approached my bed. But He lived in her. I could not think of them separately. The breath which I felt on my hair came from her in whom the spirit of God still dwelt.
Jesus took flesh because He wants to be seen. Behold the child laid in the manger, adore Him come on the altar; receive Him under your roof, that His flesh and yours become one.
The boy arrived at the truth his mother had wanted him to learn and love: But He lived in her. I could not think of them separately. That is my prayer for you, and for all whom you love and hope to help love the Truth. May the Christ born this night be manifest in your flesh, and your works of love make it possible for all who see you, to see Jesus.
On behalf of Fr. Gallaugher, Fr. Markey, and all the folks here who labor to make Christ visible to you and to the world, I wish you and all your dear ones a blessed and joyous Christmas.