Christmas reflection 2017
I was privileged to spend a week in Bethlehem last January. I was able to sit alone in the cave which we believe to be the site of Jesus’s birth, beneath the wonderful Church of the Nativity. I was transported back there in my mind this Advent when I read Blessed Oscar Romero’s last Christmas homily. To discover the writings of Archbishop Romero has been for me one of the great graces of 2017, the centenary of his birth.
‘I don't think that even the poorest people are born in caves on a cushion of hay,’ he said, ‘but for Jesus there was not even a decent bed where his poor mother might bring him to light.’ Few of his hearers could have known that Blessed Oscar himself had never slept on a bed as a child.
What we behold on Christmas night, Blessed Oscar continued, is ‘the image of a God who humbles himself … what theology calls “kenosis”’: a God who empties himself of glory; a God who appears rather as a slave and will allow himself to be crucified and buried as a criminal. Blessed Oscar reminds us that, if we seek the true meaning of Christmas, then it is in this surely that it consists: in kenosis, self-emptying.
What brought me to Bethlehem was not pilgrimage or vacation but something about which Romero would have felt deeply: the plight of those who are the victims of the divisions with which the Holy Land is riven. I was there as part of the Holy Land Coordination, a group of bishops who have been visiting those territories these last two decades to monitor the Peace Process.
As we observed, ‘the Holy Land has languished for the last fifty years under occupation, a reality which violates the human dignity of Palestinians and Israelis alike. It is a scandal to which we must never become accustomed. So many people in the Holy Land have spent their entire lives under occupation yet still profess hope and strive for reconciliation. Now, more than ever, they deserve our solidarity.’
In solidarity we shall return there in the New Year. This time we shall stay in Jerusalem. The words of the psalmist will surely ring in our ears: ‘for the peace of Jerusalem pray’, especially at this time when rights to the Holy City are contested more than ever. To linger in the Holy Places of Jesus’s Passion, Death and Resurrection will fill me with emotion. But it will be our return to the cave of his birth which I shall anticipate with the greatest expectation.
As I contemplate the place of his birth, I shall do so with a new word in my heart: a Romero-given word, kenosis, self-emptying; and pray for Blessed Oscar’s intercession that the Christ-child might inspire in men and women of goodwill the radical self-emptying which is required of all parties for there ever to be a just peace; inspire in them a profound yearning for the respectful and necessary coexistence for which the stones of Jerusalem cry out.
(Photo of the Eighth Station of the Cross, Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem, by Jean Cocteau in Notre Dame de France Church in Leicester Place, by Mazur/Catholicnews.org.uk)