Saturday, December 24, 2016

Dignity or delight?

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11:6)
One Sunday morning, as I stood at the entrance to the church, waiting for Mass to end, I stood near a mom bouncing her small child.  The little fellow had already finished his worship of the Lord in the Holy Eucharist, obviously, because he was making inarticulate shouts of curiosity or desire in various directions. 
So, being a typical grown-up, I started making faces to get his attention.  He was transfixed.  The combination of the silly faces and the silly hat with the pompom took everything else off his mind, if only for a while.  It was great fun, and very reassuring, to know that this little child found me worthy of his attention.  That scenario replays itself over and over as otherwise dignified adults make goofy fools of themselves, in public or private, when confronted with a baby. 
And so Our Lord comes to us as a baby, as a little child.  He Is not impressed by most of the things by which we set such great stock.  No, He takes delight in us, in the very reality of our existence.  He more than repays any attention we manage to give Him. 
Even from his very birth, then, Jesus, the Word become flesh, reveals His Father to us, showing us the God that takes delight in our being who we are, being present and attentive to Him.  The child in the manger is not only the fulfillment of God’s desire to save us, He is the expression of His eternal desire to be with us.  He wants to be with us because He knows us and loves as and, yes, finds each one of us deeply delightful.
Back in the early 1400’s in Italy, Gentile da Fabriano captured this truth in his art.  In his painting of the Adoration of the Magi, the Virgin Mary is dandling the child on her lap as the three richly robed kings approach, each proffering his costly gift.  The first of the kings to reach the child, having doffed his crown, is crawling on his hands and knees, in obvious reverent awe of the newborn king.  He lifts his lips to venerate the tiny, royal toe.  The child Jesus, meanwhile, looks back at this dignified, respectful figure, and cooing with amusement, reaches out to pat the patriarch’s shiny bald pate. 

The juxtaposition of the dignity and the delight is marvelous.  Now, if that king had any vanity at all – pretty likely, I’d say – he did not glory in his baldness.  No matter; Jesus glories in it, because Jesus glories in him.
One of the blessings of having been your pastor here for so long, is that I can follow children from the time that they are simply “good news” joyfully shared, to miracles bundled and presented, then as they grow and blossom into much, much more.  What I get to see is not only splendid individuals taking shape in the sight of God and man, but also families transformed.  I see mom and dad, brother and sister taking new shape in relation to this one soul whom they once welcomed as almost an alien. 
Because of the child -- sibling or son or daughter -- every member, every life, becomes more itself: stronger, brighter, and more beautiful.  And suddenly it is impossible not only for us to think of them without their younger members, but also they could not think of themselves otherwise.  Because from this one who came to them small and helpless, who required that they put aside their plans and their dignity, and give over their full attention, they have received something they cannot name or quantify.  It is the experience of being loved.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."  (Isaiah 9:6)
Once years ago, we had a parishioner here who had come to Washington to work for the good of the nation at the center of her governance.  He had married his college sweetheart shortly after their graduation, which set him apart from most of his coworkers, who included some married folks, but they had married much older.  Then, he told me, when he had his first child, there was outright shock and some ridicule, for almost none of them had children at all.  These are the people who are running our country, he emphasized in alarm – the staffers and advisors who make our government do what our government does!  I thought it explained a lot, actually.
In this world that for some people is too crowded, and for some people is too lonely, the Christ child lying in the manger is both liberation and reassurance.  The eyes of a child liberate us from our own pretensions, and reassure us of our true identity.  When the child’s eyes see with the light of God’s own knowledge of us, there is no possibility of pretense, and we know that we are seen for who we truly are, and loved. 
Thank God we have so many families here who welcome children as a gift and blessing.  It takes our attention, all of us, off our own selves and our own self-image, and helps us to brighten up and open up and rejoice in the gift of being seen by a little child.  So many times, a couple with their first child has approached us for Baptism, and expressed nervousness about attending Mass.  I laugh and assure them, oh, don’t you worry.  There is room at Saint Bernadette for your baby!  I think you know what I mean.
We as a parish, as a family before God, receive insight from all these children into who we are in the eyes of God.  And whether it comes from their total dependence, or from their ability to make us look like fools, it is a gift I am so glad you share with me.
So in this holy time, as you kneel down the living God, know that He is in fact looking back at you.  That is why He came, to see you and be with you and find joy in you.   Don’t be self-conscious about your hair or your teeth or what you have to say.  Just give Him all your attention, because that is the best way to hold His attention.  And know that the God of heaven and earth is transfixed by the wonder of your existence, and wants this intimacy of delight never, ever to end.
And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."  (Luke 2:9)
Now, I am not the only one around here who can be a little silly sometimes, and who is grateful to if there is a baby nearby to serve as an excuse.  But I won’t name names -- about that, anyway.  Nonetheless, Father Gallaugher and Father Markey, Delfina, Jackie, Carol, Norma, and Dao, and the whole lot of us here in the rectory, want you to know of our joy to be with you, and our prayer that you be graced to bask today and always in the joy of God-with-us, the child Jesus.  May his tiny hand and sparkling eyes bless you and all your dear ones with confidence in His love.  Merry Christmas!
Monsignor Smith