The Birth of the Messiah at Bethlehem is the heart of Christmas, but this culture obscures our sacred truths. Advent is a time to contemplate the Four Last Things.
Death has once again touched my life. Back in 2013, I wrote a Christmas post for These Stone Walls entitled, “Christmas in the Midst of All that Really Matters.” Its setting was an annual Christmas concert that has taken place behind these stone walls for each of the 25 years that I have been in prison for Christmas. The driving force behind that concert each year was Father Bernard Campbell, a Capuchin friar from Brooklyn, New York.
Father Bernie had an unusual side line as the bass player in a jazz band ensemble. He recruited his band to come to prison for the annual Christmas concert that became legendary here. For just one evening each year near Christmas, Father Bernie’s band took us out of prison with soulful music and traditional carols.
Father Bernie has also been coming to this prison to offer Sunday Mass for 25 years. For my first few years in this prison, I was not in a place where I had access to the chapel. I wrote of that deprivation in a two-part post: “The Sacrifice of the Mass: Part 1” – “The Sacrifice of the Mass: Part 2.” It was Father Bernie who helped arrange for me to offer Mass in my cell. Once I was in a better place, Pornchai Moontri and I also liked to attend his Sunday morning Mass.
Forty-five years ago, I began religious life as a member of Father Bernie’s New York / New England Province of Capuchins called the Province of Saint Mary. From 1974 to 1978, Father Bernie and I lived in the same Capuchin community in Hudson, New Hampshire. These were some of the happiest years of my life. Father Bernie was in his 30s then. He was a renowned expert in sign language who traveled throughout New England as an interpreter for the deaf community. I sometimes drove him to assignments.
On the Solemnity of Christ the King this year, Father Bernie stopped me and Pornchai as we were exiting Mass in the prison chapel. He asked if we were coming to this year’s Christmas concert which, he promised, “will be the best EVER!” I told him that he sounds like President Trump and he grimaced, and then erupted in the solid laughter for which I have long remembered him.
Father Bernie, just two weeks shy of his 84th birthday, shook my hand with an iron grip. He looked, acted, spoke, and moved like a 50-year-old. He left us smiling, as always. And then, just a day later, came the awful news. On the night of the Solemnity of Christ the King, Father Bernie went to sleep and never woke up. I will miss him more than he could have ever known. When I told Pornchai at the end of the day on November 26th, he put his head in his hands and said two words of exasperation, “Oh no.”
That summed up the feeling of everyone here left behind in the giant footprint, now empty, that was Father Bernie’s presence behind these stone walls. The next day, it was announced that the Christmas concert scheduled for just a week later is no more. The sadness that swept through this prison has been lingering like a shroud before Christmas.
Have you ever noticed how much the Obituary Page of your local paper fills up at this time of year? For many, this is the saddest time. It’s okay to be sad at Christmas. If we manage to join our sadness with the life of Christ, sadness is given meaning, and meaning is all sadness needs to give way to hope. Christmas can indeed be sad, but whether we know it or not it is also the door to all our hope. Bethlehem is the door to Eternal Life. The Cross is its key.
THE FOUR LAST THINGS
One of Father Bernie’s other passions was the study of Sacred Scripture, and his favorite among the scholars he often cited was my late uncle, Father George W. MacRae, SJ, formerly Dean of Harvard Divinity School and Rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem. So this post is in honor of them.
The season of Advent in the Roman Rite was originally concerned not with Christmas, but with the Four Last Things, and the first of them is Death. The others are the Parousia – the Second Coming of Christ – Judgment, and Heaven or hell. I wrote an Advent post back in 2014 that became popular again with newer readers this Advent. That post is “The First of the Four Last Things: An Advent Tale.”
It was about death, which is about the last thing anyone in our contemporary culture wants to think about at Christmas. But not thinking about it does not hold it at bay for even a second. Saint Thomas More thought about it a lot, and wrote,
- “The busy minding of thy four last things, and deep consideration thereof, is the thing that shall keep thee from sin.”
With Father Bernie’s passing to eternal life, I have been struck by how someone can be very much in this life one moment, and then suddenly life as we know it is trudging along in his absence. One of the most depressing tenets of faith I have ever read was attributed to the 12th Century Jewish scholar, Maimonides, who influenced St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274):
- “The first and last days of your Earthly life are the day you are conceived and the day there is no one left on Earth who remembers you.”
For on that day, there is only you and God. It always struck me as strange that one of the original emphases of Advent is not the First Coming of Christ, but the Second. It is also strange that the word used in our faith to refer to the Second Coming is “Parousia” which, in Greek, does not mean “Second Coming” at all. It means “Presence.” A seminary Scripture professor of mine characterized Parousia as simultaneously meaning both “coming again” and “never really left.”
Life begins on the day we are conceived. The First Coming of Jesus began, not on December 25, but on March 25, at the Annunciation, and with Mary’s Fiat, her assent to live in God’s Presence: “Be it done to me according to Thy Word.” Father Bernie was always fascinated by Christmas, and in a recent homily he affirmed something that I have written about in some of my posts of Christmas past.
In the Roman Empire in which St. Paul became the Apostle to the Gentiles, there was a tradition that people destined for greatness are also destined to die on the date on which they were conceived. With this influence in the early Church, someone calculated the date of the Crucifixion and determined it to be March 25 which is the Feast of the Annunciation.
Counting nine months forward from that date is what some scholars believe to be the origin of Christmas Day. The Birth of the Messiah – cited as December 25 as early as 325 A.D. – may actually have been determined by the date of both the fiat of Mary’s to be Theotokos, the God-Bearer, and the assent of Jesus to bear the cross at Calvary.
Jesus did not die alone at Calvary. In my recent post, “Crime and Punishment on the Solemnity of Christ the King,” I wrote of how Saint Dismas died alongside Him and thus became first to be redeemed through his confession of Christ the King. It is one of God’s ironic hints that in the earliest forms of the Roman Calendar, the date assigned to honor Saint Dismas was also March 25. In ancient times, the date of the Annunciation was shared with the date of Calvary.
Bethlehem and Calvary are really a singular event – the “Christ-Event,” and we all live in that reality. Death, even at Christmas, strikes hard at the hearts of humankind, but I believe it is not to be feared, and the losses we mourn are not to be feared either.
When a loved one dies, the absence is sorrowfully felt, but it is felt as “A Holy Longing,” a suffering that is given meaning only by the reality that we will join that absent person in death – and in hope for new life.
The sorrow in our hearts after the death of a friend or loved one is a reflection of that person. A life free of such sorrow would be a terrible tragedy. It would be to never love another enough to feel such sorrow. I developed this understanding of death more fully in a post that touched many more hearts than I had thought possible. It was “The Holy Longing: An All Souls Day Spark for Broken Hearts.”
COME TO BETHLEHEM AND SEE
The Nativity accounts in the Gospels of Saints Matthew and Luke are filled with reminders of the Four Last Things. There has been much debate among modern Scripture scholars whether the Nativity stories are historical or are a “midrash,” legendary stories recounted, not for their history but for their meaning. Much of the debunking of the Nativity accounts has itself been debunked. There is no reason not to understand and accept these stories in both their literal sense and in their deeper meanings.
There is a lot in those deeper meanings, however. The Nativity Accounts of Matthew and Luke are filled with gems of symbolism and the one literary trait that I share with God. We both love to write with irony. These gems are waiting to be discovered by believing hearts.
The two nativity accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are similar in parts, but also very different in others. Only Matthew has the story of Herod, the Magi, the slaughter of the Innocents – Christianity’s first martyrs – and the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Only Luke has the account of Gabriel’s Annunciation, Mary’s assent, and her visit to Elizabeth.
But their differences actually lend some weight to the historical truth of the accounts. For example, the Early Church at the time the Gospels came into written form was sensitive to any hint of Ancient Near Eastern astrological religion. The story of the Magi and the Star of Bethlehem would likely not have been included if not for strong belief in its integrity and foundation in truth.
What these Gospel accounts have in common are the virginal conception of Mary, an understanding of her perpetual virginity, the Birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, and the humble setting in which He entered this world. Both accounts in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 take great pains to place the Holy Family in Bethlehem for the Nativity of the Christ Child. This is most important, and it is both historically accurate and filled with deep theological meaning.
Matthew’s Nativity account begins with a genealogy of Jesus. Historians have challenged it because the account has fourteen generations between Abraham and King David, fourteen generations between David and the Babylonian Exile, and fourteen generations between the exile and the Birth of the Messiah. However, there is a possible symbolic puzzle to be solved in this, and David is its key. In the Hebrew alphabet, consonants have a numerical value. The consonants of the name, David (in Hebrew, Dawíd) have a combined numerical value of fourteen.
The Gospel of St. Luke reports the census of Quirinius as the cause for the Birth of the Messiah at Bethlehem. Joseph, revealed in both Gospels as belonging in lineage to the House of David, is moved to bring his betrothed and child to Bethlehem for the census. God’s reason for this was much more important than the plans of any Earthly power. Bethlehem was also the original home of King David 1,000 years before Christ. It was there that he fed his flocks as a child, and where he was anointed king (1 Samuel 16:1-13).
The Prophet Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, revealed seven centuries before Christ:
- “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephratha, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose reign is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is bringing forth a child has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel, and he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.” (Micah 5:2-4)
The Gospel of John, which has no narrative of the Birth of Jesus, has an awareness of these accounts:
- “Has not the Scripture said that the Christ is descended from David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” (John 7:42)
O Come, O Key of David Come
And Open Wide our Heavenly Home.
Make safe the way that sets us free,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.
+ + +
Editor’s Note: Please share this post on your social media and with others. You may also like these related posts of Christmas past from Father Gordon MacRae and These Stone Walls:
- Joseph’s Dream and the Birth of the Messiah
- Christmas in the Valley, and on the High Places
- Silent Night and the Shepherds Who Quaked at the Sight
- Upon a Midnight Not So Clear, Some Wise Men from the East Appear