I think that maybe the most inspiring and simultaneously challenging voice in the church today has got to be Pope Francis. We marveled at John Paul II because he was a man of heroic stature. We respected Benedict XVI because he is a theological beacon in a world of real confusion giving us clarity to the randomness of opinion and trend. But there’s something different with Pope Francis. The best way I can put it is that he is the pope who can inspire and simultaneously put us in front of the mirror and challenge us in ways we need to be challenged. He’s not particularly pious or exceptionally well-spoken or even a theological master…all three compliments he himself would shun…I promise you. Francis’ gift is that he’s real. He meets the world head-on as he is and as the world is and…in this way…he’s very much like the Nativity.
Here we are…bathed in the elegant Christmas decorations…the Christmas music…our own nativity scene in the chapel adorned with candlelight and snow filled noble firs from Montana. Family and friends dressed up in their Christmas best to celebrate Christ’s birth. It’s charming…and at the very same time…challenging...just like Pope Francis. Why? Focused Simplicity…that’s Francis…that’s his program for the church…focused simplicity…not accidental simplicity…focused simplicity...which is exactly what the Nativity is all about.
This week as I was considering what I might share this morning with you I came across the work of one of the Church Fathers…a bishop by the name of Athanasius who lived in the 300’s. He wrote a book…well, they didn’t write books back then like we think of books…it was really a long reflection called On the Incarnation. Athanasius understood this idea of a focused…quite purposeful…simplicity in the Nativity…a simplicity that…like Francis…both pull us in by moving our hearts and then sends us out with the challenge to live out the life of the characters in the Nativity. In fact…when I first read this excerpt from Athanasius that I’m about to share with you...it was almost as if Pope Francis actually wrote it…which is interesting because most people don’t generally bring Athanasius and Pope Francis into the same conversation. So think about Pope Francis…the Nativity…and this idea of a focused simplicity. Athanasius writes (I’ll paraphrase it a bit for our modern ear)…The Lord did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering people. Had he wanted to make a display he would have appeared and dazzled the beholders. But for Christ who came to heal and to teach, the way was not merely to dwell here…but rather to put Himself at the disposal of those who needed Him…and be seen as they could see him…not by diminishing the value of his Divinity nor by exceeding their capacity to see him. These four sentences…it’s as if they are a summary of Francis’ pontificate…wonderfully inspiring and totally challenging.
The Lord didn’t come to make a display [of himself]. What a great line. Francis would love this line. This is what Francis is calling us to…to imitate the example of Christ himself…to not make displays of ourselves. At Christmas…God could have made quite a display somewhere at the center of the world…Rome…maybe Athens…he’s God and it would have made perfect sense. He could have come in power and authority over emperors and kings and lords and show them that he is God and they would have feared him for it and all would have been made clear. But he didn’t. He came to them as he comes to you and me as a simple baby to be part of a family struggling under the yoke of an emperor who brought fear and a puppet king who was looking for them certainly not to worship the baby. Into this reality God came…not to rule…how could a baby possibly rule. Athanasius writes that he came to heal and teach suffering people. That’s inspiring…and it’s precisely what Francis asks us to do with our lives…over and over and over. It’s one of the most interesting skill sets of babies by the way. They’re quite adept at healing people…not by what they say or what they do…but merely by their presence. In my years as a priest, there’ve been many times when a couple has come to me struggling and careening helplessly down the road to sure divorce…and as God would have it…they get pregnant and have a baby and…oddly enough…it’s the baby that changes everything in their lives. The marriage heals in the focused simplicity of a baby. How many times has Francis talked about the value of babies…all the time. Athanasius’ then explains that he could have come and just dazzled the world with his greatness and the world would have feared him and followed him. But he didn’t…he came to be poor. Again…this is Francis…a pope who wants a church that is poor for the poor. Don’t think of this is monetarily poor per say…think of it as humble…focused simplicity. Athanasius then writes that the baby puts himself at the disposal of the world. Now, this is a very interesting connection with Pope Francis who speaks often of the disposable culture of our world where people use other people and then discard them. So what does God do at Christmas...just the opposite. He puts himself at the disposal of the world…the very world he created. God who has every right to dispose of us…puts himself at our disposal…the ultimate act of humility. And finally Athanasius’ last line…He allows himself to be seen. This is beautiful. In other words…God comes to us as a baby so that we might understand some part of him. Had he come as something massive…something other-worldly it would have been too much for us.
So…this is Christmas…this is what you and I ought to be considering…besides this beautiful crisp Christmas morning and the beauty of the church and chapel and the fun we will have celebrating today with family and friends. Christmas is a day to be inspired and challenged.
Listen again now to Athanasius’ idea of the incarnation and see if it makes more sense with the help of Francis. The Lord did not come to make a display of himself. He came to heal and to teach suffering people. Had he wanted to make a display he would have appeared and dazzled the beholders. But for Christ who came to heal and to teach, the way was not merely to dwell here…but to put Himself at the disposal of those who needed Him…and be seen as they could see him…not by diminishing the value of his Divinity nor by exceeding their capacity to see him. Now if someone were to come up to you today…a non-believer says…and ask…what is Christmas…this would be one of the best explanations you could ever give.
Last night in Rome Pope Francis presided at midnight mass. I think St. Athanasius would have liked very much Francis’ take on the Nativity. It’s inspiring and challenging. The Holy Father explained…little Child of Bethlehem…we ask that your crying may shake us from our indifference and open our eyes to those who are suffering. May your tenderness awaken our sensitivity and recognize our call to see you in all those who arrive in our cities…in our histories…in our lives. May your revolutionary tenderness persuade us to feel our call to be agents of hope and tenderness of our people. That’s classic Francis…wonderfully inspiring and simultaneously intensely challenging…which is the way it ought to be. Christmas should give us pause at the charm and loveliness of the Nativity. But Christmas…if we really understand it for what it is…should move us…challenge us to be Christ to the world…which as we know…is not an easy task. But it’s precisely in that challenge where we will come to receive the greatest gift of all time…salvation.