29 Nov Christmas Letter of the Minister General 2017
God becomes human so that humans can become god
Lets go to Bethlehem to see what happened
This year the Holy Land Custody celebrated 800 years of its foundation. The Order of the Friars Minor could not ignore this event that moved it to mission. I wanted to be present, I and the Vicar general, amid the friars, because the message of the Holy Land challenges every Friar Minor today. The word of God pitched his tent among us and became the Son of Man to help human beings understand God and to help God make his dwelling among humankind according to the will of the Father. In Bethlehem God took a human face.
Saint Francis asked the Friars preachers to use few words (Rb 9,4). His reasoning is this: quia verbum abbreviatum fecit Dominus. In the past, God spoke in many times and in varied ways through the prophets. His word has reached out for centuries. Now instead God speaks through the Son, who is a brief Word. This Word becomes flesh in Jesus and sums up all revelation in itself: God is love. Guerric of Igny, a Cistercian monk, writes: “He is the abridged word, in such a way that the fulfilment of every word of salvation is found in it, for he is the Word which itself accomplishes and sums up God’s plan. We must not be surprised if the Word has summed up all the prophetic words for us, seeing that the Word wanted to ‘abbreviate the message’ and in a way make itself small.” Even for St. Francis the Friars Minor must proclaim the word of God incarnate, the Verbum abbreviatum. Shrinking God’s Word corresponds to Francis and his brothers making themselves small: the style of the Franciscan Proclamation will be that of making ourselves minors, that is, the least, as did the Verbum abbreviatum.
The Incarnation of Christ even if Adam had not sinned
Duns Scotus, a disciple of Francis, unlike many Christian thinkers of his time, defended the idea that God’s Son would have become human even if humankind had not sinned. “To think that God would renounce this work if Adam had not sinned,” Duns Scotus writes, “would be completely unreasonable! Consequently, I affirm that the fall was not the cause of the predestination of Christ, and that-even if no one, neither the angel nor human, had fallen, -in this hypothesis Christ would still have been predestined in the same way” (Reportata Parisiensia, in III Sent., d. 7, 4). For Duns Scotus, an optimistic theologian, the incarnation of the Son of God is the fulfilment of creation. This concept changes the way we look at all creation, which God elevates to His own level. Consider the consequences of this vision regarding ecologically and the environment. It changes the way we look at the world and social relations, in a perspective that our Pope Francis calls “integral ecology”.
Born in Bethlehem, land of paradoxes
Bethlehem was the land of Ruth. She would go collect the ears dropped from the reapers in the Booz’s fields. This caught the landowner’s attention who came to like her and eventually married her, even though she was a Moab, a foreigner. Their love gave birth to Obed, who was the father of Jesse, who in turn became the father of King David. In the genealogy of King David and the son of David there is a foreigner, Rut the Moab.
The Prophet Micah had predicted that the Messiah would come out of the humble village of Bethlehem and the prophet Isaiah claimed he who would be born of a virgin (in the LXX Parthenos version) of the lineage of David and she would call him Emmanuel, “God with us.”
The prophet Samuel came to consecrate the king of Israel in Booz’s fields where Ruth gleaned, where David grazed his flock. There the shepherds of Bethlehem who spent the night in the open to guard their flock, received the joyful proclamation of the birth of Christ: “Today a Savior is born for You”.
The Emperor Augustus commanded the world with all his power, and ordered a census, while God’s Son of God was being born in fragility and weakness, like all other human beings. He was born as an anonymous child, in the poverty of a grotto in Bethlehem. The angel who brought the Good News did not appear in the palaces of the Herodium to the influential people of this world, but rather to shepherds, to those despised by the rich and powerful.
The scandal of God’s incarnation
The prophecies had foretold and acclaimed the Messiah, precisely at his birth, as the “child on whose shoulders is power, whose name is admirable Counsellor, powerful God, Father forever, Prince of Peace.” But, instead this child appeared weak, born incognito. In a cave, a pregnant woman birthed a child. No one noticed, none of those who counted paid attention. Mary, the mother, after childbirth wrapped him in swaddling cloth and laid him in a manger.
A birth like many others, yet it was the birth of a person only God could give us, an individual who was the very form of God (Phil 2.6), a human being who was God’s Word made flesh. From that moment God was not only present among us, he was one of us, human in our humanity, in fellowship with every human being.
This is the mystery we celebrate at Christmas: The Most High lowered himself for us; the Eternal One became mortal, the Almighty made himself weak, the Holy One joined in solidarity with sinners, the invisible became visible. God has made himself human in Jesus, the son of Mary. This event brought into question (crisis) every relationship in which God is God and a human is human, because they were separated by transcendence. With the Christmas Birth humanity is in God and God is in humanity, and it is no longer possible to speak and think of God without speaking and thinking humanity. That child from birth to death would speak of God with his life, his words, his actions, with his body offered and handed over to evil doers.
After Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, no one insisted more on the humanity of Jesus and his incarnation than Francis of Assisi. This is an indispensable element of the Franciscan charism. After the birth of the God-human, humanity is more important than the Sabbath, the person is greater than the Law, rather than worshipping in Jerusalem, God is to be worshipped in spirit and truth.
Angels are the ministers of this revelation, first the angel who appeared to the shepherds, then the hosts of the Angels – the 70 angels of the Nations, according to Origen – who praise God and recognize His glory. They announced it to precisely to those shepherds, considered “the least” in Israel, because they did not observe the laws of purity in the wilderness. They were the first recipients of the Gospel. It was to them, the angel of the Lord announces the Good News of God’s today.
God becomes human so that humans can become god
Humans are called to be divinized, to be transfigured, to be clothed in light. To discover God’s Son in the simplicity of a newborn wrapped in swaddling cloth is a humble reality that should open our eyes.
This is our very human faith: life has manifested itself in the poverty of Bethlehem and the poor were the ones to welcome it. A word attributed to the patristic writers of the Church said: “You have seen your brother (or your sister), you have seen your God.” Because God is now seen, met, recognized, loved, adored in the man and in the woman that we meet every day. Divinization becomes possible when all Christians approach the table of the Eucharistic Bread and Bethlehem becomes for them the “House of Bread” (Hebrew etymology of Bethlehem “).
The earth has born its fruit
Christmas means that Christ wants to be born in the hearts of believers. Angelo Silesio, a mystic from the Netherlands, observed: “Even if Christ were to be born a thousand times in Bethlehem, if he is not born in you, you are lost forever.” A medieval Cistercian adds: “Christ is not yet born. He is born every time someone becomes a Christian.”
Francis of Assisi comments in his first admonition: “Every day he humbles himself (Phil 2.8), as when from the royal throne (Sap 18.15) he descended into the Virgin’s womb; daily he comes to us in humble appearances; daily he descends from the Father’s bosom (Jn 1.18; 6.38) in the hands of the priest at the altar.” Christ is born on the altar every time the priest presides over the celebration of the Eucharist.
Francis parallels the Birth of Christ (Christmas) and the Eucharist, so much so that in Greccio, where he recreates the grotto of Bethlehem, he does not want statues, but the celebration of the Eucharist on the manger, because there the Lord “comes to us in humble appearances.” Remember that, brothers and sisters, when we attend Mass on Christmas Eve, and let us recognize the coming of the Lord.
Light Shines in our darkness
Ignatius of Antioch explains to the Christians of Ephesus the symbol of the light shining in our darkness: “A star shone in the sky more bright than all the others, its splendor was indescribable and its novelty astonishing. And there was a great disturbance: what is the origin of this new star so different from the others. From this day forward all magic is dissolved, every constraint of perversity is broken, ignorance is dissipated. Satan’s ancient reign collapses because God has appeared in human form, to accomplish the new order that is eternal life.”
Today, in the globalized world in which we live, being a child of light demands great courage and sometimes we are tempted by discouragement. But his light continues to shine, humble and silent.
Today, in the liquid world that is ours, we are invited to rediscover the rock of God Word, incarnated in Jesus. He offers us a firm and secure support that strengthens us and brings peace to our lives.
Arabic Spring had lit a bit of hope in the east, a hope that all too quickly disappointed. Christmas that speaks to us of a light that rises, of a star shining in the sky, allows us to begin to hope once again. Christmas birth, in a consumer society, speaks to us of the Word that is made minor, which chooses for itself moderation and lowliness, and reminds us that happiness is not in owning or increasing, but in decreasing oneself to serve our sisters and brothers. Christ’s birth revives Christian Hope and removes our fear of the future.
Leo the Great wrote: “We give thanks to God the Father through his Son in the Holy Spirit, because in his mercy God has had mercy on us, and while we were dead in our sins, God revived us with Christ so that we might be new creatures in him, new works of his hands”
Merry Christmas. May the Virgin Mary’s Son fill your hearts with joy.
Rome, 29 November 2017
Solemnity of All Franciscan Saints
Br. Michael A. Perry, OFM
General Minister and Servant
Image: Charlie Carrillo. Commissioned for the OFM Provincial Curia, Albuquerque, NM