December 2023 Allocutio

Bethlehem - birth in the Lowest Place

Fr. Paul Churchill, Concilium Spiritual Director

We can all get trapped into the ideology of the perfect. And when you belong to a community that wants to proclaim good standards, seek to do all things well, to do the small and ordinary things extraordinarily well (as e.g. Therese of Lisieux and Frank Duff), there is a risk of demanding perfection in others, or that everything work out. And then you are not far from being frustrated because plans do not work out or that some person is unreliable. That world in turn can lead to a world of judgementalism, knocking, criticising and ultimately discouraging others and, indeed, maybe yourself as you judge yourself a failure.

One great antidote to all this is to reflect on the story of Our Lord’s birth. St. Paul, a self-confessed zealot, commented about Jesus that he humbled himself and became humbler yet. Jesus spoke to all of us about seeking the lowest place. And in his birth he makes an early statement against expecting perfection.

It would appear that the decree requiring Mary and Joseph to head for Bethlehem was not in their original expectations. So we see Joseph, leading the donkey carrying Mary, heading off at perhaps a slower pace than he might normally have done so as not to make the journey harder. End result: they arrive late in town. There is no place for them to stay. But somebody has a stable. At least it will provide privacy. There, in that habitation made for animals, Jesus enters our world. God, through whom all was made, who has come on a mission to the human race, has a less than human place to start, due to a strange combination of events. Far from perfect but very okay with God.

In our new world of modern technology and internet connections and systems that synchronise, that manger reminds us of what is most important. There are two human beings there who love this little lad. His mother holds him close to her breast and feeds him not just the milk of nature but also of the human spirit. That love in her, of a special quality in her due to her being so aligned with the Holy Spirit, feeds him something crucial for any child, namely love. St. Joseph too in his ancillary role loves him, delights in the little lad, and will help him understand in human terms what Father means.

My experience of life in so many ways and in so many cases has shown me that if a child suffers a deficit of love, gentleness, attention and time, but suffers instead harshness, they may turn out a cruel tyrant or a serial killer or many other expressions of deviancy. You could provide a child from the start with food, toys, money, the best of education, but if it does not receive a warm love of gentle care it will not bear as healthy a fruit as it was made for.

The Bethlehem stable was as backward as you can get for a birth, yet the place chosen by God. He is teaching us a lesson. To make that even clearer the first visitors are dregs in the society of the time: poor shepherds. That they were poor is made plain by the words, “lived in the fields”, not in houses. And so the King of Heaven is welcomed, not by the highest echelons, but by the lowest, by rough uncouth sorts, who were despised and looked down on by their society.

God came into the world that was as messy as you can get, into a messy human space, a mother who was found pregnant before she was married, taken on by a man who at first was hesitant about her, messed up in the manner of the birth of her child and also very far from the support of family. But God works in a messy world that at times can be disorganised, imperfect, far from ideal, less than basic standard, but yet procures the best outcome. Lesson for us all!

Mary wants her Legion to be ready to go into the messiest of situations, ones that are riddled with imperfections and to bring the love of God to that world. She wants her Legion to seek out the most lost souls and show them her Son who came for them with his love, and to reassure them of that reality. And lost souls can also include those who have everything perfect, good organisation, pillars of society, but who live in a world they can control, even with no need of God and deep down not the slightest care for anyone else.

And finally that poor soul may be you and me. We must be like that publican who said, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner”. Or, borrowing from the Beatitudes, “Lord I am poor in spirit”. I can be judgmental about all kinds of people, with my heart ruled by the world driven by anxiety and dark prognostications. Or maybe like the earlier St. Paul who persecuted others, I demand standards that in fact are not in harmony with the true God.

Let us all kneel before the humble manger and say to Jesus, “Lord, I am a poor shepherd. I have notions about myself that need a divine reality check. I judge others without your eyes of mercy. May the circumstances of your humble birth show me your values. May gentle Mary help me see myself as you do. Amen”