Saturday, January 1, 2011

Octave of the Nativity of Our Lord

Titus 2:11-15 / Luke 2:21

There is for me something bittersweet about that moment when a Christmas gift is first used: when new shoes are first worn outside, a new journal has an entry first written upon its pages, a nice bottle of spirits is opened and enjoyed. The moment is sweet, of course, because these gifts are lovely in themselves, and making use of them recalls not just their own goodness, but also the generosity of the giver. Besides, no one gives shoes that they might remain in a box, or journals for the pages to remain blank, or bottles of spirits to remain unopened. Such gifts are meant to be used, knowing full well that the using of them leaves an indelible mark of their having been put to use — the scuff marks on the shoe, the pen marks on the journal's pages and the creases in its spine, the growing emptiness of the bottle.

This, however, is what adds a touch of bitterness to the sweetness. So long our presents remain untouched in their brightly wrapped box under the delightfully decorated tree, we seem to extend that happy moment of their first being opened. We can return quite easily in our minds and hearts to that time out of time that is Christmas morning. Once they are used, on the other hand, they are taken irrevocably from this suspended world of Christmas joy to the daily and quotidian. They become marked by the things of the world and enter into the daily course of our lives, filled with papers and projects, with unanswered e-mails and unpaid bills, not the happy cave of Bethlehem with the shepherds and the angels.

So it it with the Lord's Circumcision, which we recall this day. There is in some sense a bitterness here. The purity of the Lord's flesh taken from the Virgin, the untouched and unmarred joy of Christmas Day, becomes on this eighth day marked by pain and by blood, by submission to and fulfillment of the Law in consecration to the Father. The flesh of the Word will now bear a sign, a sign of fidelity to the Covenant, but a sign also of having chosen to share with the sons of Adam everything it means to live in this world. The open-ended character of beginnings is now in crucial ways fixed, directed from this eighth day by name and by knife to Golgotha and the Cross.

Yet, if the Circumcision calls our mind to the Passion, this is not cause for bitterness, but for joy. The Word took flesh, after all, not so that it might remain untouched and unscathed in the cave of Bethlehem, like some gift left in its Christmas wrapping underneath the tree. The Son of God assumed our nature not to guard it against the cuts and scrapes, the engagements and commitments of our daily living, but that by sharing in them, he might draw them up, and us with them, into the mystery of divine life. While even this first shedding of blood would have more than sufficed to cleanse the world and free us from sin and death, the Circumcision inaugurates, rather than completes, the Lord's life in the world. It signals for us a love which knowingly and willingly embraces in freedom what we must often endure unwillingly — pain and sorrow, oath and obligation — and like us has the scars to prove it.

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