“God’s sign is simplicity. God’s sign is the baby. God’s sign is that He makes Himself small for us. This is how He reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendor. He comes as a baby – defenseless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with His strength. He takes away our fear of His greatness. He asks for our love…” – Pope Benedict XVI, Midnight Mass 2006
Of all the decorations central to the meaning of Christmas, it is the nativity scene that is most indispensable. Christmas turns our gaze upon the simple manger scene and upon the humble birth of our Savior. The Gospel proclaiming His birth becomes visible in the figurines portraying Mary, Joseph, the heavenly choir of angels, the poor shepherds, wise men and the animals – all adoring the Holy Child, the Babe of Bethlehem, and the Savior King.
The manger of Bethlehem serves as a reminder that our Lord was born in poverty, humility, and simplicity. “For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for you He became poor although He was rich, so that by His poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). It is this radical gift of love and Divine example that can assist us in overcoming the Culture of Death, which seeks to distract our gaze from the holy Babe and Redeemer with worldly noise – individualism, deception, dissent, materialism, secularism, lust, and greed.
This simple scene provides hope to those of us who may at times be tempted to feel discouraged and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenges we face in ending abortion and other assaults on innocent life. At times, we may even feel that it is Herod, with his soldiers, and his power, and his willingness to do anything to get ahead, who is carrying the day. We may begin to feel anxious and fearful, and to despair at our own helplessness to stop the onslaught against life and the family.
At such times, we must turn our eyes upon the manger, and recall that within that manger, seemingly far more helpless even than ourselves, lay the incarnate God, the Savior of the world. Even in that moment Christ, by virtue of His perfect union with the Father, was accomplishing the salvation of the human race; and yet, to all eyes He appeared as a poor child, born to impoverished parents, in the most inauspicious of circumstances – lying in straw intended as bedding for beasts, as far as imaginable from the centers of worldly power.
The Silence of Bethlehem
The overwhelming impression of the nativity scene is one of silence: the silence of the sleeping God-Child; the silence of Mary and Joseph gazing upon the child with tenderness and wonder; the silence of the animals looking on, curiously; the silence of the worshipping shepherds who leave the jubilation of the angels in the hills behind for the silence of the stable. The silence, too, of poverty, of weakness, simplicity, and humility.
Cardinal Robert Sarah opens his recent book The Power of Silence with this quotation from Romano Guardini’s The Lord, a passage in which Guardini is meditating upon the Christmas story:
The greatest things are accomplished in silence – not in the clamor and display of superficial eventfulness, but in the deep clarity of inner vision; in the almost imperceptible start of decision, in quiet overcoming and hidden sacrifice. Spiritual conception happens when the heart is quickened by love, and the free will stirs to action. The silent forces are the strong forces. Let us turn now to the stillest event of all, stillest because it came from the remoteness beyond the noise of any possible intrusion – from God.
In the stable at Bethlehem we are worlds apart from sloganeering, from political activism, marketing, fundraising, and clever strategizing. All of the trimmings and trappings of worldly efforts and power are stripped away, and we are left only with the essential things: God, above all; and humility, and simplicity, and love.
Our efforts are necessary of course, and even Christ had his years of active ministry. But our efforts only have real value if in the midst of our labors, our hearts remain enshrouded in the silence and humility of Bethlehem; only if, as Christ would do during his brief active ministry, we constantly withdraw to commune with the Father. “In the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there” (Mark 1:35).
“When he drapes himself in silence, as God himself dwells in a great silence, man is close to heaven, or rather, he allows God to manifest himself in him,” writes Cardinal Sarah. “All activity must be preceded by an intense life of prayer, contemplation, seeking and listening to God’s will.”
Christmas and the pro-life apostolate
The Gospel story, beginning with Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, and then Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the nativity itself, and finally the massacre of the innocents by Herod, draws our eyes to the immeasurable value of nascent human life. By coming as a powerless child, Christ overturned the worldly calculus that only recognizes value in strength and power.
The Gospel’s recognition of the dignity of all human life once inspired the early Christians to oppose the prevalent pagan practice of abandoning handicapped or unwanted children to die. Today, the Christmas message continues to inspire Christians to oppose the new paganism and its sterile cult of child sacrifice. The modern Culture of Death denies the right to life of the vulnerable, poor and helpless child because “there is no room for him/her,” or because the child stands in the way of the ambitions and desires of those who are more powerful.
Our pro-life apostolic work thus thrusts us into the middle of this worldly mess to proclaim the Gospel of Life – a message of hope and promise. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free…” (Luke 4:8). But only if we stay close to Christ and imitate His humility and silence can we can make Him, the Savior, visible to a world blinded by self-absorption and consumption.
As we contemplate the wonder of Christmas, let us reflect on the humble and simple scene of Bethlehem – the wood of the manger that embraced the Holy Infant that would one day give way to the wood of the cross. Let us make for ourselves a permanent Bethlehem in our own hearts, where we might gaze upon the Christ child and grow in confidence that it is when we are weak that we are strong (2 Cor. 12:10). We dare to go where few venture and profess a message little desire. However, with trust and love in Him who came as a humble child and in the fullness of time would lay down His life for us, we proclaim and defend the sacredness of Life, Marriage, and Family.