Delivered on 24 December 2019 at the Church of the Gesu, Ateneo de Manila University
A little poem I wrote for Christmas is the starting point of our reflections tonight. Let our asking these questions lead us more closely to the Child in the manger.
have we lost the wonder,
forgotten whose we are,
how love awakens love,
who to us does matter?
no wonder God came to us
as a child in a manger.
Have we lost the wonder?
Cosmos is a word we use for the universe. It means order, world. Sometimes we use it to mean beauty. The ancient Greeks looked at the night sky and they saw order and beauty.
We look at our world, our lives. What do we see? More importantly, what do we choose to see? Do we see glimmers of cosmos? Or do we just see chaos?
We need to see everything as a sign again. Even the most prosaic and most ordinary of things are dense with signs. Stars are signs. The person beside you, his face, her eyes are a sign. Your life is a sign. Words and gifts are signs. Bread and wine, this altar, the manger and the cross, all these are signs.
Disorder descends when we no longer see signs and the deeper realities they signify. Chaos scatters us when we forget that life is layered, life has depth, life is poetic, it is sacred. When we choose to dwell on the surface, on mere appearances, we lose our sense of cosmos and we confuse true beauty with what is merely cosmetic. When we no longer sense signs and depth, we lose our sense of cosmos.
To miss our sense of cosmos is to lose our sense of wonder.
Have we forgotten whose we are?
The young person asks, who am I? The question of identity is a question of belonging. Whoever I am, I am always the child of, the spouse of, the parent of, the friend of someone. I may be my own person, but in truth, I am of some family, some fellowship, some community. I may be self-possessed, self-determined, self-made, but in truth, I also belong to someone.
We need to discover again our sense of belonging. The painful loneliness of our time is the loneliness of the orphan. There can only be terrible sorrow and anxiety when we forget whose we are, to whom we belong. The one who seeks to live, seeks to belong.
Belonging is the why of love. Why does a mother love the child she bore in her womb? Because that child is her own. For all the child’s tantrums and running away, that child is still her own, her very own. Why does a child seek its parents? Because for all their weaknesses and broken promises, they are still his or her very own. Why does God love you? Because for all your tantrums and runaway schemes, you are still God’s own, God’s very own. Before the manger, we ask, whose is this child? Before the same manger, we pray, whose are we?
When we forget the God to whom we belong, we lose our sense of who we are.
Have we forgotten how love awakens love?
How does love begin? Love starts with love, as life comes from life. Love cannot start from nothing, from emptiness. We learn to love from love we have received. We pay love forward because that is how love moves us; love inspires and enriches love. Love awakens love.
We are to be wary then of whatever it is that deadens our desire to love and offer mercy. We need to be careful about losing love and not loving again. A loveless place is all emptiness, if not numbness. We wonder if love can ever grow again in such a deserted place.
The Incarnation is the wonderful mystery of God loving us first, of love taking flesh, taking root in our soiled lives. Now we know that there is no place, not even deserted and loveless places, where love cannot grow.
Just by gazing at the infant in the manger, we sense that we are redeemed not by force of judgment or by coercion of fear. We are saved by the love that wakes up inside us, the love that stirs to life when we awake to this first love of God for us in Jesus Christ.
Love can only awaken love. Enforce or coerce love and it vanishes. Let us train then our hearts in patient waiting and wakefulness. When we lose the habit of patience and watchfulness, we allow the numbness to take over; we thwart love’s attempt to awaken love.
Who to us does matter?
There are many things that matter to us. We fight over the things that matter to us. We exert much effort over what matters to us. If you do not know what matters to you, you only have to look at what occupies or worries you, what robs you of your sleep, how much time you spend on whatever it is you think is important to you.
We say money matters to us. Money sustains our life and family. Work matters to us. Work fulfils us, gives us a sense of accomplishment. And so we work to have money. Nothing really wrong with that, save for those times we go overboard when our wants become needs, when our accomplishments become addictions. And so we work harder to have more money. Before long, money and work become idols that consume us.
And yet, we sense in our heart of hearts that what truly matters are not things but people. Not what but who. God coming to us as this Child, as one like us, reminds us once more that we matter to God. Nothing is more liberating and redemptive than this our mattering to God. We are saved not by things such as infinity stones or powerful rings or righteous cleansings, not by wealth or honor or power. We find redemption in God to whom we matter. We find redemption in people, in those to whom we matter. We are saved by people, by those who matter to us, by those who challenge and draw the love out of us. Ultimately, we are redeemed by the person of Jesus Christ whose love incarnates itself in every human love that is borne in this cosmic universe.
To bank our lives on things alone is to lose sight of those who should truly matter to us.
My dear friends, in closing, let our asking these four questions lead us to adoration before our God in a manger. If we have lost our sense of wonder, forgotten whose we are, how love awakens love, who in the end matters, we only need to come close once more to the Child in the manger.
Even if our world should swirl in hate and disorder, in indifference and forgetfulness, we will not let these get to us. We will not let the darkness matter.
There is a child who is God, there is love awakening, there is belonging, there is cosmos and wonder to be found in this crib of a manger.