Today the color of my chasuble has changed. I don’t wear violet, today I wear rose, not pink. This rose color is a visual symbol that Christmas is getting closer. Just as the dark night sky begins to glow with a pale, rose-colored light as the sun starts to rise, so too the color of my vestments goes from dark to light. The true light of the world is coming.
In our hearts too the color should be changing. For the first weeks of Advent, we’ve meditated on our need for God; we’ve meditated on our sinfulness, and on our helplessness in achieving salvation on our own. Today we switch gears. Without forgetting our need for a Savior, we focus our attention more on that Savior himself.
Christ came on the first Christmas into a stable in order to lift up this fallen world. And he wants to come again into our hearts this Christmas and every day for the same reason, to raise our fallen hearts. When Jesus came to earth, he met the blind, and gave them sight; he met the poor, and gave them hope; and he met the lame, giving them strength.
He’s begun the very same work in us, and he’s eager to continue it. We are sometimes blinded by ignorance and selfishness, and so he offers us light in the teachings of his Church. We are sometimes poor in virtue, and so he fills us with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We are sometimes lame and unable to pray as we should, or to bear witness as we should, or to love as we should, and so he heals and strengthens us in the sacrament of reconciliation and nourishes us with His very self in the Eucharist.
Today is Gaudete Sunday, and this word Gaudete means rejoice. And we rejoice because we know that Jesus came to open a path from earth into heaven. Even in the midst of pain and sorrow the joy of the Christian is the joy of a hope guaranteed by God himself. The joy of hope is a true joy, and Christ is its source.
This past Monday was the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. And for many years it’s been a tradition for families to set up their nativities right after this Solemnity. We do it to relive with Mary those days full of trepidation that preceded the birth of Christ. Now St. Francis set up the first live nativity in the year 1223. In that year at Christmas St. Francis found himself in the small town of Grecchio. This was a small Italian town built on the side of a mountain. And St. Francis wanted Midnight Mass to be celebrated in a place large enough so that all of the people in town could attend. Their Franciscan chapel was much too small. So St. Francis went looking for a larger place to celebrate Mass. And he found the spot. He found a cave like niche in the side of the mountain near the town square. “Perfect” he thought, so in this niche within the rock of the mountain he placed an altar. And then he was inspired, this cave like niche reminded him of the very first Christmas where our Lord was born in similar circumstance. He said to his brothers, “I want to make a memorial of that Child who was born in Bethlehem and in some sort behold with our eyes the hardships of His infant state, lying on hay in a manger with the ox and donkey standing by.” And that’s what they did. He found a manger for a crib and filled it with hay. He then found both a donkey and an ox and tied them up next to the crib. There were probably even a few sheep running around. And that’s where the people of Grecchio celebrated Midnight Mass in the year 1223. They celebrated Mass in a stable with a manger in their midst and with the townspeople crowding in and around animals. At that Christmas in a very profound way the townspeople of Grecchio mediated on the hardships and humility of our infant Lord born into a stable. They also meditated on his infinite love for us to be born in such a way just for us. This custom of making a Christmas crib was probably not unknown before this time, but this use of it by St. Francis is said to have begun its subsequent popularity. So we can thank St. Francis for this custom of setting up the Christmas crib. I can tell you I have five of them set up in the rectory.
I’d like to end with a poem that was sent to me last week. It’s about a woman named Bilfina.
Bilfina, the Housewife, scrubbing her pane
Saw three old sages ride down the lane,
Saw three gray travelers pass her door—
Gaspar, Balthazar and Melchior.
“Where journey you, sirs?” she asked of them.
Balthazar answered, “To Bethlehem,
For we have news of a marvelous thing,
Born in a stable is Christ the King.”
“Give Him my welcome!” she said
Then Gaspar smiled,
“Come with us, mistress, to greet the child.”
“Oh, happily, happily would I fare,
Were my dusting through and I’d polished the stair.”
Old Melchior leaned on his saddle horn,
“Then send but a gift to the small Newborn.’
“Oh, gladly, gladly, I’d send him one,
Were the hearthstone swept
and my weaving done.
As soon as I’ve baked my bread,
I’ll fetch him a pillow for his head,
And a coverlet too,” Bilfina said.
“When the rooms are aired and the linen dry,
I’ll look at the Babe,”
But the three rode by.
She worked for a day, and a night and a day,
Then gifts in her hands, took up her way.
But she never found where the Christ child lay.
And she still wanders at Christmastide,
Houseless whose house was all her pride.
Whose heart was tardy, whose gifts were late;
Wanders and knocks at every gate.
Crying, “Good people, the bells begin!
Put off your toiling and let love in.”
In these remaining days of Advent, don’t let busyness get in the way of meditating upon Christ in the crib, don’t hide Jesus until the 25th, keep him out in plain sight. Using the image of Christ in the crib to lift your heart and mind to the heights of heaven. Put off toiling and let love and joy in.
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley