Here we are in the third week of the Advent Season and the Church invites us to “Rejoice. … The Lord is near” (see Phil. 4:4-5). I don’t know about you, I want to rejoice, yet I am struggling a bit. This year I have had to say farewell not only to my own mother, but it seems to many others who have been part of my life and ministry. I confess that this reality coupled with the stress of the pandemic and the viciousness not only of weather, but also of people, puts a damper on my Christmas spirit.
Nonetheless, one line of Sacred Scripture that has been repeating itself over and over in my head is this one: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Is. 9:1). On Saturday evening and Sunday morning this past weekend, I had the privilege of celebrating Holy Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church in Marcellus. I enjoyed my visit to this rural faith community of our Diocese and felt very much at home. The bright sunshine of Sunday morning gave me the opportunity to examine the beautiful stained-glass windows that are part of the church building. I was first drawn to a window with the image of the Holy Family on a journey featuring Mary riding on a donkey with babe in her arms and Joseph walking alongside in accompaniment.
Yet, as I turned to the window to the right of it, there was a beautiful depiction of the Nativity of our Lord. What particularly caught my eye was not only the hat Joseph was wearing (not a usual feature), but even more the lantern he was holding over Mary and the Christ Child as a shepherd knelt in adoration. It reminded me of words that Cardinal Dolan had spoken to me in his homily when I was ordained and installed as bishop of the Diocese of Syracuse. He said that not only would I carry a crosier (the shepherd’s staff), but that I would also carry a lantern to light the way for the People of God here in Central New York.
Also in the window scene was a beautiful rendition of the star of Bethlehem with its rays like the fiery column that had accompanied the Israelites on their journey out of slavery from Egypt. Both the lamp and the star made me recall the words of the prophet Isaiah I had been contemplating most recently: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. … A light has shone.” In the moment, I realized that it was this “light” that is the remedy for my melancholy heart. That no matter what is going on around me the Light of Christ has shone upon us to cast everything into a new light.
This is what we read of in the opening chapter of the Gospel of John. The evangelist proclaims: “What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (Jn 1:4-5, 9). Maybe if everything seems so unsettled, it is because I (we) have not settled on Christ as the light of our lives.
Pope Francis in his Angelus message on the Third Sunday of Advent in 2020 stated: “As you see, in the Square the Christmas tree has been raised and the Nativity scene is being set up. In these days, also in many homes these two signs of Christmas are being prepared, to the delight of children … and adults too! They are signs of hope, especially in this difficult time. Let us be sure we do not stop with the sign, but get to the meaning, that is, to Jesus, to the love of God that he revealed to us; get to the infinite goodness that he made shine on the world. There is no pandemic, there is no crisis that can extinguish this light. Let us allow it to enter our heart, and let us lend a hand to those who need it most. In this way God will be born anew in us and among us.”
This Advent and Christmas 2021, these prophetic words of Pope Francis cause me to pause, take a deep breath, and reflect upon what the lights and decorations are all about—the One who comes to be the Light of the World, a Light no darkness can extinguish. Under such circumstances I am challenged not to give in to the darkness, but rather to embrace even more the full meaning of the Christmas event: “God saves!”
It was in the wilderness, that we find John the Baptist announcing the coming of the Messiah and eagerly pointing out the Christ to all who came to hear John preach. In this arid and barren domain John proclaimed to all the Mighty One who was coming into the world. In preparing for this coming, those around him would ask: “What should we do?” (Lk. 3:10-14) In addressing this question, I would summarize John’s response to his inquirers with three words: Share, Care, and Kindness.
In confronting the darkness that might seem to want to envelop all of us in the present moment, cannot these words cast away the darkness and allow the lantern of God’s love to shine into the cold, frigid and seemingly hostile world that confronts you and me?! The word “kindness” in itself is defined as, “the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.” Again, in the Scripture readings for Christmas morning, St. Paul writes: “When the kindness and generous love of our God appeared …” (Titus 3:4a). The Christmas event is all about God’s consideration for you and me. In turn, how do we reject “godless ways” (cf. Titus 2:11) and show the same consideration to those around us?
This is my last printed column for the year 2021. Therefore, I want to take this opportunity to thank the many readers who offer me such encouragement in having a weekly column. I wish to them and all the faithful of this Diocesan Church my prayerful best wishes for a blessed and merry Christmas! It is also my prayer for 2022 that the “kindness of our God” will be evermore found in the hearts of all who call Central New York home and indeed in the world community!
Christmas and New Year’s Greetings! “God bless us, Everyone!”