Saturday, December 16, 2017

The course of things

Did you know that in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, a few blocks from principal train station in Rome, there is preserved in a chapel the manger in which the Christ Child was laid?  Because, well, of course it is.  That may seem untenable to us, but the Basilica itself dates to the fifth century, which gets us most of the way back to Jesus, so it is not impossible.  Most of us have important mementoes that originated in other centuries and even other countries that were cherished and handed down to us by our grandparents or other forbears.  Besides, if you think about the things that you have saved from your babies, your high school or college experiences, or even sporting events you’ve attended, how can you say it is unlikely that somebody would have held on to the manger?

It's hard to see the wood of the manger itself behind all the crystal and gold
of the reliquary that holds it, but the baby Jesus depicted on top
sure does look like He knows what is inside! 
In recent weeks, we have examined how the incarnation of the living God among us has resulted in the sanctification of times and of places.  What follows close on those heels is the making holy of objects, things ordinary enough in their origins but which become holy because of their contact with the saving God. The feed-trough in Bethlehem (“house of bread”) is the first best example of this.
Now, we keep in our sacristy and in a locked safe many vessels whose precious metal and craftsmanship make them attractive to thieves.  But their true value for us is the holiness that they have acquired by containing the infinite and ineffable God.  They have become the feed-trough for us sheep who munch the Body of Christ, the Bread of Life, and the Chalice of Salvation from which we drink His Precious Blood.
These sacred vessels are more than blessed by their contents; they are sanctified.  Yet not only these gilded objects, but also everyday ones have been touched and transformed by the Divine Presence at work in our lives.   
A few years ago, I was pleased to grant Holy Baptism to a young man who had come to the US from a Muslim country for the purpose of entering the Christian Faith.  After the liturgy and after the party, he asked if he could keep the towel with which I had wiped his head after the life-giving cleansing.  I was astonished at his sense of the holiness of that everyday object – and at his practicality in identifying the one sacramental that would incur no suspicion or punishment if he carried it back with him to his oppressive home nation.
It is a very human instinct to grab and hold on to some object that has been significant or transformative in our lives.  This dawned on me with new clarity while watching The Passion of the Christ, the film Mel Gibson produced a while back.  In a late scene, the camera panned from the grieving mother and friends of Jesus clutching His dead body, to a spot nearby where neatly stacked were the crown of thorns, and the spikes that had until just then fixed him to the cross.  Of course they gathered them up and saved them; of course they did.  So which is more likely, that a subsequent generation lost track, or lost interest, and left them behind?  Or that they were lovingly passed down in reverence until they came to be preserved in chapels and churches where they are still venerated to this day?
By His passion, saving death, and resurrection, Christ has touched our lives in ways that have left changed many objects that seem ordinary or even ridiculous to eyes without the Faith or knowledge of God.  This is the very holiness of God, still within reach of our fingertips, still abiding in the disguise of the mundane.  A holy thing is worthy of our veneration, care, and preservation, and a cause of joy and hope for future generations.  Because, well, of course it is.
Monsignor Smith

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