Christmas is the celebration of heaven descending into the abject poverty of the manger so that humankind could be raised to partake of the rich treasures of Heavenly existence. This mystery is revealed to us by St. Paul writing, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9) Christmas therefore unfolds to us the splendid hope that we can avail in this great love.
“God proves His love for us” (Romans 5:8)
St. Paul explains this as he writes, “Though he was in the form of God, He did not consider being equal with God… But He emptied Himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings.” (Philippians 2:6-7) This is the Divine act of love that saves us. As St. John tells us, “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) By this Heavenly descent, God has shown us the supreme and true nature of love. Love is the emptying of oneself in order to fill the other.
Every giving of one’s self implies the emptying of one’s self. Since God did not cling on to His own Divine Glory, He could come down to our utterly low level to enrich us with Heavenly Love. This mystery of Christmas reveals to us, once and for all, our mission on this earth to live for others by denying ourselves.
The life of Jesus on this earth was a continuation of this standard of loving. He did not come to establish a political kingdom on this earth and to rule in the majesty of a king. Instead, He went about seeking those who having lost the reason to live were groping in the darkness of despair.
“A Saviour has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord” (Luke 2:11)
St. John presents Jesus waiting by the side of a well on a scorching mid-day in the dusty town of Sychar for a woman in sin who was to come there to draw water (John Chapter 4). She did not even acknowledge Him but He seeks her out, approaching her as a thirsty man in need of water. He stood before this impoverished woman as a man in need. He was thirsty indeed to accomplish the Father’s Will for her and save her soul. He bore with her insolence and the empty arguments that she raised. He was fixed on that redemptive purpose and He did not mind the humility it meant for Him. He knew her sinful life had drained her heart to the extent where it was so dried up that she was unable to experience even the slightest glint of Divine Love. She was inextricably entangled in the ways of sin and she found it impossible to release herself from it. Though her heart was longing for liberation from the grip of vice, she had given up on her lot as irretrievably lost.
Jesus knew very well the misery of her existence and the helplessness of her sin-ridden state that He went over and waited at the water-side for her coming. He did not react to her arrogant postures or answer her vain arguments. He was not concerned about proving Himself as the sole authority on the truth, which she had to surrender to. His only aim was to redeem her and restore her to the Heavenly Father. He had to gain her confidence to awaken in her the consciousness of her own sinfulness which was obstructing the light of truth from touching her. At a decisive moment, her heart opened to accept Jesus as the Saviour. The gospel records, “She said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things.”Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am he.’” (John 4:25-26) This revelation snapped the bondages of deception that had long held her captive. “Light shone in darkness and darkness could not hold out against it.” (John 1:5) She was overwhelmed with joy and became the first ever missionary to proclaim that Jesus was the promised Saviour to humankind, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (v. 29)
When Jesus humbled Himself, He could fill the heart of a woman with the living waters of the Holy Spirit. She in turn, rushed to the very people who had despised her and presented to them the treasure of heaven that had filled her heart.
Here is an individual lost in sin and as a captive of sin had reached a point of no return. She knew very well that her sinful indulgence would never give her life’s fulfilment and yet her cravings for sin would not leave her. She also knew that her sin had led her to an alienation from God and man. She stood helpless, alone, angry, defensive and defeated. Into that misery of the human heart God enters with grace, respectfully and gently to lead it to the fullness of life, holiness and reconciliation with God and humanity.
“Upon those dwelling in a land of gloom, light has arisen” (Isaiah 9:1)
The gospels present us another personality who had reached the end of the road and feels resigned to give himself up to the failure of his past. The event of the Resurrection had come to pass and still the Apostles remained in hiding. They were reeling from the extraordinary sequence of events from the condemnation and conviction of their Master, to a cruel death and finally the Resurrection that they were yet to comprehend.
In this dark hour, Simon Peter was the first to give up. “’I am going fishing’ he said.” (John 21:3)It was a declaration to the rest of the company of Apostles that he was done with the waiting and the hoping. Though he had encountered the Risen Lord, the entire series of events was lost on him and he was in a confounded state. The Passion and the Death ofJesus were too deeply etched in his mind and all he knew was that his was a bleak future. He was shocked by the manner in which his cherished hopes of a kingdom were shattered with the Master now eliminated. He was haunted by his own failure to stand up for Jesus. He had no confidence to be identified with the rest of the disciples. He regretted for having quit the Sea of Galilee leaving his securities – the boat and net.
The three years with Jesus seemed like a vain dream – a meaningless empty sojourn. The exhilarating memories of the miracles and healing done by the Master were all lost in the thick cloud of the tragedy of the Cross. The fate of his friends no longer connected to his own. Peter was determined to go his separate way and be rid of every share and string that linked him to the Kingdom of his dream, his Master and the company. If he could erase the three years of his life with Jesus, the hopes and plans he had, he thought he would have erased the deep grief that cut through his heart. He was prepared to eke out his livelihood as it was before he met Jesus.
The dark waters of the sea seemed to be the only reality before him. It mirrored the raging waves of pain and despair that filled his inner self. To Peter who determinedly turned away from the privilege and experience he was singled out for, the Risen Lord reaches out to him – calling out beyond the roaring waves to guide him to a dawn of hope and restoration.
Peter was being tossed from one failure to another. Even when he abandons the call and gets into the boat with a few other disciples, they fail to make a catch. The Lord however did not abandon them to their faltering choice. Jesus calls out from the shore, “Children, haven’t you any fish?” (John 21:5) He then directs them to cast the net on the other side of the boat. He leads them from failure to a new direction of life. Peter gets an abundant catch of fish. More importantly he gets restored to what he realizes is most precious – His Master and the mission. He commits his life definitively and completely, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” (John 21:17) The Lord had won over the lost disciples and won for them their true and glorious destiny. They would feed His lambs, tend His sheep and follow the Master in fulfilling God’s great commission of salvation.
“You are my disciples if you love one another” (John 13:35)
This is the way of the Divine Love that saves others. This is what we need to follow and take up in our life’s mission. What was inaugurated at Christmas must continue in our life – the descent of Heaven to light up the dark alleys of human frailty. Indeed Christmas is to be experienced, celebrated and lived in our daily lives – the manger where we exist and in the places where we find ourselves in discomfort and at a loss. We celebrate Christmas when we let Heaven descend into the painful circumstances of our life by responding with love in the daily encounter with the arrogance and suffering that surrounds us.
Here at the Divine Retreat Centre, every week thousands come in on Sunday with their load of distress, hurts and troubling complexes. We often must face situations where God is challenging us to live the Christmas mission of loving even when it hurts. An incident comes to mind. On a Friday when the weekly retreat ending, I was in my room meeting a few of the retreatants who were to leave that day. A man strode into my room and in a rather loud, accusing tone, said to me “You should not be thinking that you are the greatest preacher in the world for you definitely are not.” I was taken aback to hear someone accuse me of such foolishness to make such an absurd claim. I was disturbed, being occupied with other retreatants. I was inclined to correct him, but I paused for a moment in prayer. I felt that some incident elsewhere must have provoked him to this unwarranted outburst. I asked him to be seated.
As I finished counselling the departing retreatants, I called him to my table and asked him how I could help him. He said he had been forced to come for this retreat. On arrival with his family, those at the reception said that he could not get a room until evening as the retreatants have to leave and the rooms had to be cleaned. They also told him that he had come two days ahead of the retreat schedule. He was tired and irritated and wanted to leave immediately. I listened to his angry assessment of the Retreat Centre, those of us serving here and of the church at large. Meanwhile, I had a room arranged for him. I told him to rest since anyway he had made a long journey to reach here.
On Sunday night, he came to me after the evening session. With tears in his eyes, he thanked me for letting him stay and have the experience. He shared with me his struggles – how he had been through a long, difficult patch in his business, had taken to drinking and soon other problems had crept into his life. His wife had forced him to come for the retreat hoping this would save the family. He made a sincere retreat and experienced God’s Loving Touch powerfully. Heaven had entered his family. I recounted my first encounter with him and my immediate human inclination to react to his arrogance. God however reminded me to put aside my natural impulse and take the stance of kindness and compassion Jesus felt for him. That allowed Heaven to begin its descent into the life of this hurting man and his family.
Christmas is the Promise of God that He is waiting to usher in Heaven to every manger on earth. He is searching for followers who will keep His mission on-going. They will empty themselves of their rightful claims to worldly importance and stoop down to enter the mangers of impoverished human situations with the Saving Light of Heaven.
Let us pray:
Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your great Love that saved us. You have seen the misery of sin and death that burdened humankind and You reached out with compassion. Lord we open our hearts and pray that Your great compassion may be poured into us that we may reach out as You did to us.
Lord Jesus, You treasured the Father’s Will and You emptied Yourself without counting the cost and humiliation, the pain and rejection you must face. You won for all of humankind life and salvation. Lord we pray, walk with us and lead us to love and save the people who come into our lives.
May the gift of Your Love and Presence fill our hearts and homes and this world – that this Christmas may bring the glorious Light of Heaven into this broken world.