St. Luke ends the childhood life of Jesus with Mary and Joseph finding of the young Christ in the temple and he ends the public life of the Savior with the two disciples discovering Jesus in the breaking of the bread. The two stories are actually one. The details are altered certainly, but the lesson is the same.
The boy Jesus was lost and is found in Judaism’s most solemn locale – the temple. The man Jesus is lost and is found in Christianity’s most solemn milieu – the Eucharist. The similarities are consistent.
Both the finding in the temple and the sojourn at Emmaus occur in or nearby Jerusalem, the seat of Jewish piety. So the reader knows that St. Luke’s lesson is going to be very central to the Christian message. And both incidents occur at Passover. The Holy Family has journeyed to the heart of Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish release from Egyptian captivity. They enjoy their own paschal lamb reminiscent of that lamb whose blood splattered on the doorpost spared their forebears centuries ago. The two disciples were also at Jerusalem for the paschal holy day to witness the slaughter of true Lamb of God whose blood would take away the sins of the world. So the backdrop for both events is one of historic rescue, deliverance and freedom.
Both scenarios describe Jesus as being lost for three days. It was “after three days” that Mary and Joseph finally make their happy discovery. Likewise, the disciples lamented, “besides all this, it is now the third day since this took place.” Both parents and disciples were under great stress during their unhappy quest. “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety,” the worried but relieved Mary remarks to her son. The disciples who encountered the mysterious Jesus did not hide their feelings either: “They stopped, looking downcast.” Their dashed expectations are clear from their words: “But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” Neither the upset parents nor the discouraged disciples quite grasped what was transpiring before their eyes. Of Mary and Joseph, St. Luke writes, “But they did not understand what he said to them.” And concerning the disciples the Gospel writer notes, “… their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.”
St. Luke, however, does have a happy ending for his readers. The holy parents and pious disciples do finally discover Jesus. And they find him in almost the same place! Jesus questions his anxious parents, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?” In other words, always look for me in church. Or to use a Jewish reference, you should have known I would be at the temple. Here in the temple the revelation of God, the wisdom of the prophets, the rituals of the priests, and the traditions of the people are enshrined, experienced, available. Here at the tangible heart of Judaism is the most likely place to find the Messiah!
The two disciples enjoyed a similar experience. Although their eyes were held, Jesus begins to open their minds and hearts to his presence. The Master conducts a brief service of the Word. “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.” Then the Savior enacts his own primitive Eucharistic meal, “… while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” The Scriptures and the Breaking of Bread – the same sacred enterprise that is now called the Mass led to the rediscovery of Jesus after his death and burial. Again, it is at the tangible heart of the Christian religion, the Eucharist, that Jesus is perennially discovered.
The distressed parents and the two forlorn disciples both found Jesus Christ in the sacramental life of the Church, foreshadowed in the majestic temple, made real in the simple breaking of bread. The message is clear. If a believer has lost track of Jesus, the most logical and likely place to find him is at Church!
Christmas crèche calls us to contemplate the Babe of Bethlehem
Earlier this month Pope Benedict XVI continued the beautiful tradition of having the children of Rome come to St. Peter’s Square for the blessing of little statues of the Baby Jesus. Hundreds of children and young people, parents, teachers and catechists gathered for the joyful pre-Christmas celebration. The Holy Father noted, “The blessing of the ‘babies’ as one says in Rome reminds us that the crèche is a school of life, where we can learn the secret of true joy. This does not consist in having a lot of things, but in feeling loved by the Lord, in making oneself a gift for others, in loving.”
The Christmas crèche dates back to the year 1223, when St. Francis of Assisi, a deacon, was visiting the small mountain village of Greccio, Italy to celebrate Christmas. St. Francis realized that the chapel of the Franciscan hermitage would be too small to hold the congregation for Midnight Mass. So he found a niche in the rock near the town square and set up the altar. However, this Midnight Mass would be very special, unlike any other. He asked local farmers to bring their animals and villagers to imitate the Holy Family of the First Christmas. Thus was born the tradition of setting up a Nativity scene that would inspire the faithful to contemplate the mystery of the incarnation and to adore the Son of God born on Christmas. St. Bonaventure in his Life of St. Francis of Assisi notes that when St. Francis “preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.”
Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, in speaking to the many children assembled to have their Baby Jesus statues blessed reminded them all that “It is necessary to try to live every day what the crèche represents, that is, Christ’s love, his humility, his poverty: For that is what St. Francis did at Greccio: He represented the scene of the Nativity to try to contemplate and adore it, but above all to know better how to put into practice the message of the Son of God, who left everything behind and became a little child out of love for us.”
Although the story of St. Francis at Greccio is an old one, its message is clear for us even these many centuries later. Our own Nativity scenes resting under our Christmas trees or gracing our living room table tops are truly a visible reminder of that joyful night when our Savior was born.
May we never forget to see in our hearts the little Babe of Bethlehem, who came to save us from sin and death. May we never forget that the wood of the manger that held Him so securely would one day give way to the wood of the cross. This Christmas may we continue the tradition begun so long ago in Greccio and embrace the Babe of Bethlehem with the same profound love and deep faith as did St. Francis. Merry Christmas!