It was Saturday morning, the day before the First Sunday of Advent. The usual impressive size crowd was at the 6 a.m. Mass. The priest was giving the homily in which he was reminding everyone that the Church year would begin the next day. In the course of his words he mentioned the name of Jesus. Two seats in front of me the older man nodded his head, ever so slightly, almost imperceptibly.
For me, it was a sacred moment. As the priest spoke of preparing for the coming of Christ at Christmas, I was in wonder at this man, Jesus, who would make this gentleman in his 80s bow his head at the name of Jesus. Two thousand years after his birth, thousands of miles away from the place where Jesus was born, the Incarnation was alive in the posture of the man. The gesture of respect spoke more eloquently than priceless cathedral crèches or magnificent Christmas choirs.
“Keeping Christ in Christmas” is not just about wishing others “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” It is more than displaying images of the Nativity. Shocking as it sounds, it is even more than remembering the poor at this time of year. The essence of Christmas is Incarnation, the Incarnation of the Son of God in human flesh two thousand years ago in Bethlehem, and the presence of this same Son of God, Jesus Christ, in the heart and soul and body of every Christian. When we recognize Incarnation, the poor will be remembered, and artists and musicians will create and sing, joy will be present.
Just as the Incarnation of the Son of God was pure gift of God, so also is the divine presence of Jesus in each heart. More than human effort, beyond human capabilities, in spite of human frailties and sins, the reality of being Jesus in our time and place is also pure gift. Of course we have to desire it and cooperate in the way of Jesus, but it is still God’s work not our own.
The man in Church owns and manages a grocery store, which is known for its quality, and he is known for his graciousness and integrity. He is at the early Mass every day of the week. Who is this Jesus who keeps such a man so close to his heart? He was raised in the Church, but so have been so many others. He is kind and generous, as are so many other good people.
Most Catholics, especially those raised in Catholic schools, were taught to bow their heads at the name of Jesus, and some still do. It may be habit, certainly not obligation, or it can be something far more. It could be a sign of love, a gesture of unity, a moment of acknowledgment of God with us. Emmanuel means God with us. We thank God for the Incarnation of the Son of God and we thank God for all those people who proclaim the Incarnation through the ordinary moments of everyday life. Through them we are brought to the wonder and presence of God in our midst. Through them, we recognize divinity has taken form in humanity, and for this we bow our heads in gratitude.
“ Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
— Philippians 2:9-11.
Sister Patricia McCarthy currently teaches Math at a Catholic School. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.