On Christmas, we began our celebration of the birth of Jesus, who came into this world as the Prince of Peace to save us from our sins and from all the sins of this world through His grace. It is a season, not a day, and lasts well beyond December 26th. Two ways to help us grow in God’s grace are tolerance for authentic religious expression in words and deeds, and opening our hearts to the mercy of God.
The late Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago, once said, “Our society permits everything, but forgives nothing.” There is great irony is this statement in that society often criticizes the Church for saying that certain actions are sinful and not morally permitted, yet, unlike society, the Church is willing to forgive everything through God’s grace. The refusal on the part of some in our society to forgive certain things that they consider to be wrong has been called “the new intolerance.” An example of the new intolerance can be seen in the “Guidelines for Inclusive Seasonal Holidays” issued by Cornell University, which state that winters scenes with snowflakes, trees and holly are acceptable, but the following are NOT consistent with the University’s Commitment to Diversity and Inclusiveness: Nativity scene, Menorah, angels, stars on top of trees, Star of David and crosses. Apparently these religious symbols are not to be tolerated or included in the modern secular, tolerant and inclusive university!
In referring to “selective intolerance,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington, phrased it slightly differently, saying that tolerance, if it is to be authentic and true, cannot be selective. Unfortunately what we see too often in our country today under the guise of political correctness is “selective intolerance.” We have recognized in our country in recent years a strong lack of tolerance for Christians — Catholics in particular, and the Catholic Church; this is evident when it comes to our faith, our religious freedom and Bible-based teachings. We hear of college campuses and city parks where authorities seek to ban Christmas on the grounds that recognizing Jesus’ birth would be “divisive.” This claim seems to be particularly out of place in a land where we Americans don’t seem to find the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day divisive. The Catholic Church’s appeal to the Scriptures to explain the definition of marriage, as “a commitment between a man and a woman,” is regularly decried by some in our country even at the highest political levels as discrimination, not to say bigotry. It’s no small wonder why all of the voices that so regularly decry intolerance and violence have been silent in the face of the ISIS persecution of whole communities and villages of Christians and other minorities and the televised execution of Christians. This holy season should be a time for all of us to review in our hearts how selective is our tolerance. We should also, as citizens of this great nation, question why our nation is so selective when it comes to religious persecution and religious freedom.
As we still enjoy the freedom to celebrate Christmas in relative safety, we should count our blessings. But, we should not forget our Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world that are not so fortunate, and for whom Christmas is not so joyful. Nor should we be so complacent or naïve as to think that only people in the Middle East or other parts of the world need to be concerned about attacks by extremists against Christians. Sadly, some deadly attacks by Islamic terrorists in our own country now show how close to home that concern can become.
We now might ask how we should live out our Christmas gifts from God into this New Year. This affords us an opportunity to have a renewed encounter with God’s love for us, and which awakens us to our constant need for conversion by casting off those burdens that slow us down on that journey leading to eternal life. If we allow it, this prospect of undergoing a life-altering change due to our encounter with God’s mercy should stir in our hearts real sentiments of excitement and hope.
While God’s merciful love is indeed powerful, He will not force it upon us. We have to be willing to accept it, first of all, by recognizing that we are in need of mercy, that we are all sinners. Admitting this makes us aware of our need for mercy in order to remedy the illness caused by our sin. The Church, in her motherly tenderness for her children, offers us that assistance in an extraordinary way in the sacraments. We are encouraged to rediscover the powerful gift of healing that is made available to us through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This great sacrament of renewal reconciles us to God and one another through a power that only Christ can exercise.
Yet, so many people stay away from this sacrament. One of the reasons for doing so is that so many people are convinced that they do not have any sin. Even when that lie has been exposed, people still avoid this sacrament due to a variety of fears that they harbor in their hearts. But, countless numbers of the faithful throughout the history of the Church have experienced a remarkable change in their lives thanks to a personal rediscovery of the power of this great sacrament. The Church invites each of us to that rediscovery in our own way. We have absolutely nothing to lose, but everything to gain!
It is not enough, however, just to receive this great gift of mercy. With the gift comes an expectation. The expectation is that we will share this gift of mercy with others through a committed life of discipleship. We should strive to spread the good news of God’s mercy to others by the way that we live our lives. There is never a situation in which we cannot live our faith visibly and so be a sign of hope for others to do likewise. This is a means to bring the meaning of Christmas hope and joy to others.
As we continue to celebrate Christmas, we turn our attention to Bethlehem, which in Hebrew literally means “house of bread.” We are reminded that the Word becomes flesh in a very real and powerful way each time we celebrate the Eucharist, for He comes to us in His Body and His blood. By our partaking of this great gift of His love, we welcome His light into the dark places of our hearts, pointing out the way for us to follow Him. In this bread of life, we are also nourished and strengthened for the journey that lies ahead, and with that strength from on high, we have confidence that no matter how challenging the circumstances may be or how dark the future may seem, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5) May its spirit dwell in us not only throughout the season but, well into this New Year! Have a happy, holy and healthy New Year!