CHRISTMAS WITH SAINT FRANCIS

cropped-gerard_seghers_-_st._clare_and_st._francis_of_assisi_in_adoration_before_the_child_jesus-2-1.jpgEmmanuel: God With Us!

By Cliff Garvey

In the Gospel for the Christmas Eve Vigil Mass, Saint Matthew shares with us that Joseph is worried about taking Mary as his wife because she is pregnant. But an angel appears to Joseph in a dream, counsels him to be not afraid, and says: “For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:20-21).” The evangelist then quotes Isaiah the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’ (Matthew 1:23).” In the end, Joseph follows the angel’s good counsel and welcomes Mary into his home.

These days, we have so many high-tech ways of connecting with family, friends, and colleagues: e-mail, facebook, facetime, skype, snapchat, texting, and tweeting. Sadly, each of these communication tools lacks something important. That something is intimacy. There seems to be less and less true intimacy, less and less personal interaction, and less real time spent together with friends and loved ones. There seem to be fewer and fewer real life encounters like sharing a family meal or a friendly cup of coffee with a neighbor or co-worker. In our hearts, we know that these are and always will be the best ways to build strong and lasting relationships. God knows this, too. Throughout salvation history, God seeks intimate connections with his children. In the scriptures, we read about how God speaks to his people: beckoning, calling, and pleading with us to return to him and love him. And in the lives of the saints, we read about how God enters into intimate relationships with those holy men and women who experience profound conversions, make miracles, and lead lives of deepest faith and holiness.

Last year, Pope Francis made reference in a homily to a passage from the Book of Zephaniah: “The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love (Zephaniah 3:17-18).” Pope Francis then said: “Yes, God loves us so much that he even rejoices and takes pleasure in us. He loves us with a gratuitous love, a love without limits, and without expecting anything in return. This merciful love is the most striking attribute of God.” Again and again, century after century, God reaches out to us with great intimacy: in friendship, love, and mercy. God desires to be with each and every one of us, no matter who we are or where we find ourselves on the journey of faith.

Sadly, we often fail to respond. We break the commandments. We gossip. We treat each other with contempt and disrespect. We look for mistakes and shortcomings in others and exploit them for some benefit. We tear down rather than build up. We search for other gods and idols to worship like money or sex. We treat addicts and orphans, lonely people and sick people with judgment or neglect. We pollute our planet. But God is not discouraged. He continues to reach out to us. He continues to reach out to each and every one of us with love and mercy and friendship and true intimacy. God offers us his hand, he begs us to take it, and he calls us to walk with him through the greenest pastures and the darkest valleys.

Matthew’s Gospel on Christmas Eve and John’s Gospel of Christmas Day remind us that God (creator of heaven and earth and master of the universe) sent his Only Son not to condemn us, not to judge us, but to love us, to walk with us, and to save us. At Christmas, we are called to celebrate God’s decision to become one like us (except for sin). We celebrate Emmanuel, God with us, God’s presence among us, God’s coming in the form of a child born naked and poor in a stable. At Christmas, we can truly see God face to face in the eyes, smile, and miraculous beauty of a newborn child. By becoming Emmanuel, God with us, God comes to know us even more intimately than ever before. He truly knows and understands our hopes, fears, successes, failures, good works, and sins because He is Emmanuel, God with us.

Saint Francis of Assisi rejoices in this Emmanuel, this God with us. Francis rejoices in the real presence of God with us: in the manger, in our daily walk of faith, and always in the Blessed Sacrament. Francis rejoices in Christmas, his favorite holy day of the year, the feast of feasts, when God humbles himself to become like us: to be born like us; to walk among us; to live among us; to suffer with us; to suffer for us; to die for us, and ultimately to lead us into eternal life. Francis rejoices in the reality that God offers each of us an intimate, personal, and lifelong encounter with himself, with Emmanuel, God with us, and with Jesus, the God who saves.

On Christmas Day, God’s great gift of intimacy, love, and mercy is not meant to be unwrapped, cooed over, then forgotten and placed on a shelf or in a drawer like so many other presents. Instead, God’s gift of Himself is meant to be shared with those we love: spouses, children, grandchildren, godchildren, friends, neighbors, co-workers, fellow parishioners, strangers, and even people with different faith traditions. God’s gifts of intimacy, love, and mercy are meant to be shared even with those we find it so difficult to love and forgive. Indeed, we are called to be ambassadors of God’s love, bearers of God’s mercy, and instruments of God’s peace: today, tomorrow, and always.

In his Early Exhortation, Saint Francis writes: “We are spouses of Christ when the faithful soul is joined by the Holy Spirit to our Lord Jesus Christ. We are brothers to Him when we do the will of the Father who is in heaven. We are mothers when we carry Him in our hearts and body through divine love and a pure and sincere conscience and give birth to Him through holy activity which must shine as an example before others.”

Likewise, Saint Francis encourages us to look for the face of the Christ child in the faces of those rejected by our society, of those rejected by our world, and of those sometimes rejected even by our church. Saint Francis encourages us to find the face of the Christ child in the faces of those we love; and in the faces of those we find it difficult to love, in the faces of those we find it difficult to forgive. And Saint Francis encourages us to become brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, mothers, and fathers of the Christ child by making peace, by healing wounds, by reaching out, and by sharing God’s love.

This Christmas, let us give thanks for the greatest gift of all: Emmanuel, God with us. Let us pray for the courage to take God’s hand and to walk with him. Let us pray for the grace to enter more deeply into a personal and intimate relationship with him. And let us pray for the spirit that helps us to share this greatest of gifts with others through acts of charity and words of encouragement, with open arms and open hearts.

About the Author

Cliff Garvey is co-founder of the Assisi Project, a fellowship of ‘Franciscans in Spirit’ with members, friends, and followers on four continents. In addition to this ministry, Cliff serves as an Associate Minister in the Catholic Community of Gloucester & Rockport (Massachusetts) where he coordinates faith formation programs for adults. Cliff has taught at two Boston area colleges. He earned degrees from the University of Southern Maine, Saint John Seminary College, and the Catholic University of America. He is an experienced pilgrimage & retreat director; and a certified spiritual director. Cliff can be reached at cgarvey@assisiproject.com.

About Us

Founded in 2007, the Assisi Project is an international fellowship of ‘Franciscans in Spirit’ with members, friends, and followers on four continents. We are dedicated to helping Christian believers of all ages more faithfully live the Gospel of Christ in the spirit of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi. For more information about the Assisi Project and our upcoming opportunities for faith formation, prayer, and pilgrimage in the Franciscan spiritual tradition, please contact Cliff Garvey at cgarvey@assisiproject.com. May the Lord give you peace!

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