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 December 15, 2008   •   VOL. 46, NO. 21   •   Oakland, CA
Bishop's Column

The grace of Christmas: The Word
became flesh and dwelt among us

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

With this column coming to you mid-way through Advent, I want both to confirm for you that I continue to pray that this season of expectation is filled with grace and blessings for you and to assure you of my heartfelt prayers and good wishes for your celebration of Christmas. When that great feast day dawns, may your homes and hearts be bright with the splendor which dawned in the world when Jesus Christ was born.

As I compose this column, I am very mindful of all the obligations that press upon each of you this time of year: the duties of hospitality, decorating your homes, preparing the food for your celebrations, organizing travel, and being sure that Christmas is for your children and grandchildren the special time it was for you when you were growing up. All of this consumes a great amount of your time.

And yet, you’ve put aside a few minutes to read what I write. I feel both honored and obligated. Especially obligated to say something that makes good use of the time you are giving to my words — something that will help you to focus on the great event we celebrate and to take hold of the graces the Holy Spirit offers us during Christmas and the days leading up to it.

One way to fulfill my pastoral duty to you is to offer a short saying that encapsulates the grace of Christmas. These words from St. John’s Gospel have served this purpose for every generation of Christians: “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14). (Each of us should know this Bible text by heart and say it to ourselves every day.)

At Christmas we remember that the eternal Word of the Father, his only begotten Son, took flesh from the Virgin Mary and as man came to be with us.

The great mystery

The term the Church uses to name this great mystery of God becoming man is the “Incarnation.” As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “The Incarnation is therefore the mystery of the wonderful union of the divine and human natures in the one person of the Word” (n. 483).

The Catechism offers a clear and readable exposition of what the Apostles taught the Church about Christ as the God-Man (nn. 456-483). The Catechism explains both what the Incarnation means for Jesus as an individual and what he accomplishes for our salvation through his taking on our human nature. If you can’t get the time to read it before Christmas, it would be good to look at it in the “down time” that often follows the holidays for many folks. The Catechism is easily accessible on line at the Vatican’s website: www.vatican.va/archive/ccc).

One particular aspect of the Christmas mystery, the mystery of the Incarnation, that I want to hold up to you for your reflection is that in Jesus it is God’s Word that becomes flesh and dwells with us from now on.

Restoring the relationship with God

First, I want to underscore that this truth means that God has come to be with us, as one of us, so that he could communicate with us. God’s Word became flesh so that he could enter into a relationship with us. Or, more accurately, so that he could restore that relationship that he had wanted from the beginning of creation, but that had been ruptured by the originating sin of our first parents.

We chose to break off the dialogue. Adam and Eve did that in our name right at the start, and each of us has made that attitude our own every time we sin. We are the children of sinners and sinners ourselves; it is almost second nature for us “to hang up” on God when he is trying to reach us and invite us to love him more completely.

The ‘disconnect option’

We use “the disconnect option” because we don’t want to have to make the sacrifice of our own comfort and own self-sufficiency that it would take in order to be in loving communion with God.

Christmas means that God has not ever and never will take our “no” for a final answer as long as we are alive in this world. God’s word became man and dwelt among us and he will never go away.

This truth about the Incarnate Word has a very important practical implication for how we follow the Christian way. One of the implications of this truth is that Christ is always seeking to contact us. Every person or event that comes into our lives is, by the working of his Providence, an occasion for him to call us to respond to his love with our love.

One of the consequences of his death and rising is that after this victory there is absolutely no situation or individual through which he cannot be working to restore us to the communion of friendship with him. If God could be acting and loving us in the very murder of Divine Love himself, there are no places in which he cannot be speaking to us: loving us and giving us the strength to love him in return.
So, the truth of the Incarnation has a tremendous impact on authentic Christian spirituality, and the way we live that out. St. Therese the Little Flower was spot on in calling this her “little way.” Every thing that comes into our lives — the good things and the bad, the monumental and the trivial — contains a “word” from God: a pledge of his love for his and a call to love him back in the same measure.

Part of the grace of our Christmas celebration is the gift of being renewed in this “little way,” being moved to make a recommitment both to be on watch to hear Jesus speaking in all the aspects of our daily lives and to answer him generously.

The second particular aspect of the mystery of the Incarnation that I want to reflect on with you is that God’s Word in Jesus has not left the world after the Ascension. The Word still dwells among us. The Word came into the world not only for a particular people of an ancient time long past, but for peoples of all times and places. God sent his Son to address his word of love to everybody and to call them to love in return; and so he has provided for his Word to endure. The Word of God remains in our midst through the Church.

Perhaps the most eloquent witness to this truth about the Incarnation and the enduring presence of the Word in our world comes at the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus shares his authority with his Apostles and then commands them to go to all nations and “to teach them to observe everything I have commanded you” (Mt. 27: 20). At an earlier place in the Gospels Jesus made this same point when he simply said to the Apostles that “he who hears you hears me” (Lk. 10:16).

It is because of this commission to the Apostles — and through them to their successors, the popes and bishops — that St. Paul can call the Church “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tm.3:15). What the Church holds and teaches as God’s own word is, by the guarantee of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, that and only that: God the Father’s self-disclosure through his Word, his Son.

If you recall the Act of Faith you may have memorized when you were young, we affirmed this point when we said “we believe all the truths that the Holy Catholic Church teaches, because [God] has revealed them, and [he] can neither deceive nor be deceived.” The truth of God’s Word, the “truest of true words,” born in the flesh of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is just exactly what the Church proclaims.

Commitment to the Church

This aspect of the mystery of the Incarnation — how it, in some sense, endures through the Church — likewise has tremendous implications for our spiritual life and our following the Christian way. This gospel truth means that when people become members of the Church, by that very act of faith, they are saying that the Church knows better than they do what God has said; and they are committing themselves to shape their thinking and acting according to the mind of the Church, even when they might not understand the reasons for what she teaches.

Now, of course, it is better to be able to act with understanding, but if such understanding eludes us — as well it might since the truth of faith is divine, not human, revealed not discovered or invented — then we will act on the basis of our belief in the Church as Christ’s representative.

This submission of our private judgment to the judgment of the Church is part of what it means to be a Catholic, but at times it is very difficult for us to pull off, because we live in a culture that puts the highest priority on preserving our independence of thought and action. And so we often hear members of the Church, sometimes very prominent people, say that they consider themselves good Catholics but dissent from what she teaches with her authority. That’s a bit like someone saying to you: “I don’t speak a word of English.” The very act itself contradicts what is asserted.

The grace of humility

Another part of the grace of our Christmas celebrations of the mystery of the Incarnation of God’s Word is the gift of being renewed in our act of Catholic faith in the Word of God, being moved to recommit ourselves to all that the Church holds up to us as revealed by Christ.

This grace is a grace of humility, since it is never easy to say that somebody knows better than I. And yet, is it a surprise that just at this very season when God the Son humbled himself to become a man, we should have the chance to humble ourselves by embracing anew the teachings of the Church?

Finally, I ask you parents and grandparents to be the instrument of a special grace for the little children of your families this Christmas. Speak to them about the manger you have in your home. Tell them, in your own words, the story of the birth of Jesus. Assure them that God has come and will never go away. And be sure to tell them that God did all of this for love of us, and that you love him with all your heart in return.

One of the great blessings that this Christmas will hold for me is that it will be the first on which I am offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in our new cathedral. I will celebrate the “Mass at Midnight” at that very time (12 a.m.), and this celebration will be preceded by a one-hour concert of sacred Christmas music. On Christmas morning I will celebrate the “Mass during the Day” at 10 a.m.

The Solemnity of the Epiphany is also a special grace this year. This feast, which falls on Sunday, Jan. 4, is the patronal feast of our cathedral, since the mystery of the Epiphany is the manifestation of Christ as the light of all nations and peoples. I will celebrate Mass at 10 a.m.

And, since this is such a special occasion, I will make use of the faculty given to me and, in the name of the Holy Father the Pope, and offer at the end of the Mass the Apostolic Blessing, to which a Plenary Indulgence is attached, under the usual conditions.

I want all of you to know how welcome you would be to come to the cathedral for any of these liturgies. The cathedral is our Father’s House, and it is our house. You have built it by your prayers and your support. It would be great to have you with me in our beautiful new cathedral to celebrate together the gift of the Light of Christ.

Through the prayers of the Holy Mother of God, the ever-Virgin Mary, our Mother, may all of you have great joy in the celebration of the birth of her Son, Jesus Christ our Savior.


Previous "In His Light" Columns by Bishop Allen H. Vigneron

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