Just before Covid, I visited Bethlehem with a pilgrimage group. We were able to go right down to the Grotto that Tradition says is where Jesus is born. It is marked by a large 14-point silver star on the marble floor of the Grotto bearing the words “Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary”. When we got there, the group I was with, just remained in silence. It was a lovely moment of stillness, contemplation, recollecting the great and yet simple event of the birth of the baby Jesus, an event that took place off stage, as it were, in terms of the political influencers of that time, and yet an event that was to touch the lives of millions over the centuries.
I’m thinking of Bethlehem today. There is a forced silence. There are no pilgrims. The people feel abandoned. War is raging. The terrible war of Hamas and Israel. Such a contrast from the tender compassionate scene of the nativity. One pastor of Bethlehem has written that if Jesus were born today, he’d be born under the rubble. Such a shocking statement. But we’ve all witnessed the evidence of so much evil in recent months that we find ourselves this Christmas bewildered, discouraged, despairing almost, and wondering – will there ever be peace on earth?
800 years ago St. Francis arranged for the first crib to be put together – some animals, some hay and men and women representing Mary, Joseph, the shepherds. It was Francis’ way of making a statement in a world at that time where there were many cities at war with one another in Italy. He wanted to put a visible reminder before people.
Because we can forget the message. We need to see and hear it again and again. The message that is the truth of things – God has come to be with us, no matter how dark our situation. And He who is the Light is stronger than the darkness.
The truth is that we all live in a darkness of one kind or another. We think of God’s question to Adam and Eve – where are you? They were naked and so had hidden themselves away from God. They had forgotten God. Or at least they wanted to forget him. They lived in a darkness. And yet in hiding from God, they ended up hiding from themselves, who they really were and how they were truly meant to be. God needed to help them come to their senses, come into the light, re-establish their relationship with him, realise the one thing they had to do in life is to love. The whole plan of salvation is the story of God’s drawing close to us, culminating in the birth of God among us, Jesus Christ.
The crib scene is still here today with us too 800 years inviting us to stop hiding away from God and hiding from ourselves. We need God. Our world needs the God who is Love come close to us just as we are. Christmas is like the invitation card to come to God and let his logic of love overcome all darkness in our lives and in the life of our world.
Yes, Christmas is the great invitation to come just as we are with our poverty, our vulnerability, our questions and our bewilderment and bow down spiritually before God and recognise who we really are and what really matters in a world cluttered with too much pride, self-assertion, revenge and hatred. The Christmas message prompts us to draw new hope and inspiration to start again to believe that without God who is Love, our world goes astray, without God who is Light we are not ourselves, without God who is Truth, we are hiding even from ourselves. But with God who is Spirit and Life, we can believe that we can do our part to be builders of peace, hoping against hope, that our contribution can make a difference. God’s New Commandment of love, if put into practice, could transform our world.
A few years ago, Pope Francis put it powerfully when he said:
Jesus weeps, because we have chosen the way of war, the way of hatred, the way of hostility. This is even more glaring now that we are approaching Christmas: there will be lights, there will be celebrations, trees lit up, even nativity scenes... all decorated: (but) the world continues to wage war, to wage wars. The world has not understood the way of peace... A war can be “justified” — in quotation marks — with many, many reasons. But when the whole world, as it is today, is at war — the whole world! — it is a world war being fought piecemeal: here, there, there, everywhere, there is no justification. God weeps. Jesus weeps…. It will be good for us too to ask for the grace to weep for this world which does not recognize the way of peace…
A priest I knew lived for a while in Iraq during the terrible war some years ago. He recalls his first Christmas there. Outside there were terrible security checks, road-blocks, danger. But when he got to the Church, he discovered a packed congregation singing and praying – he realised there is an interior peace that people can have even in the midst of terrible wars.
Let’s pray for that peace – for ourselves in the first instance. Perhaps there’s something worrying us or weighing us down. Let’s hear the Christmas crib’s message – God has a human heart, he understands, he has come to be with you and share your burden.
But pray also for peace in our world. We think of the unthinkable situation of people in Gaza, the Holy Land, Ukraine, Myanmar, Sudan… So many people in situations of 54 points of war, hunger, displacement not to mention the local afflictions around us of addiction, domestic violence, homelessness… The cry of so many pierce our heart. Let’s bring their cry and ours, their questions and ours, their pleas and ours to the crib, our heartfelt plea for peace: “please Lord, let there be no more war, never again war”. And in doing this, let’s make a commitment that we ourselves will be ambassadors of peace starting with those around us. Yes, God wants to become flesh also in our lives and among us, in the smallest of ways through our love and our care of those whose alongside us. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “God’s residence is next to mine, his furniture is love”.
 EMILY DICKINSON, Poems, XVII