Saturday, December 24, 2011

Some Have Unknowingly Entertained Angels

       It is often said that Jesus’ birth would be insignificant apart from the Resurrection. But is this really true? If we took the mystery of the Incarnation in isolation, could we truly understand it? Could Jesus’ birth have any meaning for us without any knowledge of the events that followed? Two thousand years ago, “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14A). This Word was the Logos – the meaning of life. In other words, God came into the world as a human person. At the very moment of his conception, Mary very literally became the Mother of God. How can such a miraculous birth be insignificant for us? That God didn't just suddenly appear on Earth as a fully grown man never ceases to baffle me. If Jesus hadn't died on the cross and risen victorious on the third day, his birth would have been just as miraculous as it is for us today. God would still have become man and many people would still have been healed. The trouble, though, with a hypothetical scenario like this one is that the event is just that – hypothetical. It fails to take into account the real experiences of the people who were contemporary with Jesus. It is true that Simeon and Anna recognized the real identity of the baby that they held in their hands, but always in full knowledge of what was to come. They were prophets who were given the gift of foreknowledge. On Christmas Eve two thousand years ago, the inn-keepers, centurions, and ordinary passers-by were not given the gift to recognize the true identities of the pregnant woman and her unborn child. For as Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.” What astounds me about the disciples is that without knowing the end of the story, they lived in obedience to Jesus, with only their faith to guide them. They dropped their nets, abandoned everything, and followed a man whose words they didn’t fully comprehend but who promised life and life to its fullest” (cf. John 10:10). The Gospels continually remind us of the ignorance of the disciples.

      Maybe, instead of creating hypothetical situations that disregard the ignorance of humanity, we should ask ourselves a different question. Namely, if life can only be understood backwards, how must one live forwards? The author of Hebrews writes, “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (13:2). Here, we are reminded of Abraham and Sarah who fed angels without recognizing who they were feeding. Without in any way undermining the importance of faith in the lives of the disciples, we must never forget that the reason why we care for the poor, the sick, and the prisoner is because Jesus had a unique kinship with such people. Jesus was born in a stable to poor parents, lived a life of absolute poverty, and died the death of a criminal. Good works are important not because they give us fuzzy feelings or are meritorious (even if they may do all these things) but because without them, one cannot truly have faith.

    The disciples did not fully understand Jesus’ life before the Resurrection. They did not understand all his parables or realize that his life was a fulfillment of the Law.  But it would be false to say that Jesus’ birth was insignificant before the Resurrection. Not for the disciples anyway. The disciples were able to follow Jesus without knowing what we know today because they realized that faith means obedience. They realized that it is only in being open to another’s needs that one is open to God and it is only in being open to God that one can truly know how to love his neighbor. Jesus shows us that a human person’s life has significance regardless of what we may or may not know about that person because only God knows the end of the story. Any one of the thousands of babies that Herod slaughtered could have been the Son of God. We do not always know the way God reveals Himself but our ignorance should only lead us to love more. And we can only love more if we trust God and live to serve Him. Pope Benedict reminded people in November 2008 that “faith is not opposed to charity.” In fact, apart from charity, faith is impossible. The inn-keepers, the centurions, and the ordinary passers-by may not have been fully able to see who Jesus was, but they (like us) were given sufficient Grace to follow God in obedience. The question is: Will we accept the Grace in faith knowing that faith requires obedience in love? “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” – or the Son of God.

                I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!! 

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