Approval for Christmas – Pastor’s Reflection (December 20, 2015)
On December 22, 1216, Pope Honorius III gave formal “approbation” to the plan of life and mission St. Dominic had established for his Friars. Approval signified more than permission: it conveyed a recognition that the Holy Spirit had wrought a new thing in the midst of the Church. Seven hundred and ninety-nine years later this way of life continues to give life to us who live it. Our capacity to serve you comes from the wherewithal it provides.
The newness of the Order took several forms. St. Dominic founded a religious community with an apostolate of preaching, and its houses sprouted up in urban centers, not desert retreats. The Friars did not gain their sustenance from agriculture, handicraft, or rental income: they were to invest their productive energy in study, and ask people to support their way of life. At the same time, the Friars maintained the structures of intense common life that characterize monasticism. The Friars did not remain in one priory but moved about as needed. Finally, their houses were not autonomous, but were part of a Church-wide Order centered in Rome, and the superiors in the Order were elected from the bottom up. Each element of this plan served to help the Friar have an absorbing life of worship, study, and fraternity, and at the same time, to be free to preach the Gospel effectively to his contemporaries.
The approval given to the Order as a structure also extended to the content of its preaching, which was itself an approbation. Dominic took up the task of affirming for his age the goodness of human reason, and human bodily life. Simply put, he and his companions sought to convince people that their humanity reflected the goodness of the Creator, and that living a full human life, fortified by the sacraments, provided a reliable way to reach eternal intimacy with that same God.
Dominic’s is a Christmas message preached all year long. Christ’s Incarnation affirms the whole work of being human. At Christmas we will see Him making the vulnerability of infancy powerful for us all. The Word took flesh in a wordless child, showing that the human person bears God’s image at a level far deeper than language or discourse. Nevertheless, when Jesus grows up and gives the Sermon on the Mount, He demands that human reason struggle with the radical implications of the Law. He delineates our potential to live in a way far more radical than reason would have devised unaided. Reason would not counsel forgiveness of one’s enemies, or prayer for one’s persecutors, but life in Christ makes these things possible.
Perhaps the humanity of Jesus fails to convince because of its lack of experience. The Gospels present the Lord as a celibate, and yet the first of his signs was worked at a wedding (Cana), and if we follow the Gospels we recognize that the Lord’s regard for our whole race was spousal, with a love unqualified by cost, or by failure. Yes, Jesus walks the earth as a sinless, doubtless man, yet He constantly draws near to those who struggle with sin and perplexity.
God’s treasuring of humanity will climax in the mystery of the Lord’s Passion. On the Cross, Jesus reveals God’s powerful and saving presence to human life at the moment of its disintegration. Further, in this same mystery comes a rebuke for every force in human life, that belittles that life. The Resurrection and Ascension of the Lord reveal God welcoming a human nature that struggles to join the humanity of Jesus within His own, Triune life.
How then to celebrate well! Surely it’s to live fully. Our eating, drinking, and gifting during these days grasps this instinctively. The challenge lies in joining mind to practice. When we do, Christmas becomes a profound and joyous reverence for the humanity of our companions. The season’s festivities, like the Lord’s presence among us, challenge us through the very kind of love they foster.
The implication of Christmas is giving without manipulation, or pretense. At this season we celebrate things, and their capacity to express gratitude and love. This will call us away from trivial consumption, from shoddiness and vulgarity, and from ostentation and excess of every sort. Instead, the Incarnation invites us to affirm human craft as something speaks well of us all, in dedication, creativity, and precision.
In these days we will treat each other with God’s good things of the table, and we should. After all, we were made with the bodies and the senses to savor, even luxuriate, in the tastiness of creation, as worked on by human hands. As Jesus lived fully, so we are challenged not to compromise our pleasure through the loss of alertness.
Living this way, we truly celebrate Jesus, by continuing His work of “approbation.” It is not that we confer a seal of approval on others, or ourselves. Rather, we acknowledge that they, and we, are the work of His hands. Around the tree, we can take pleasure that all of us have been made and held in life, and that this life carries us to Him who knows and loves the body and soul of us each.
Finally, let me thank you in advance for the very tangible love you extend to the parish in gifts at Christmas and at the End of the Year. Your support made tangible allows the Community of the Parish to become more itself, and thereby put ever new flesh on Christ in the world.
Merry Christmas Indeed!
Fr. Walter Wagner, O.P., Pastor
P.s. Let me note that I found myself under the weather at letter writing time and had to adapt a letter from two years ago. My first rerun.