After Mass on the day before Christmas we gather in a beautifully decorated Chapter Hall for Solemn Chapter, during which the Roman Martyrology is chanted. After, the nuns prostrate on the floor in the venia asking God pardon for our sins. Then the prioress gives a homily. Following is Sr. Mary Martin's homily for this year's Christmas Chapter.
My dear Sisters,
Last week, Fr. Anthony, who almost never gives me anything tangible, gave me a piece of stationery, one of those glossy museum reproduction cards with envelope. He said some friends gave him two boxes containing just this one card. It was a print of the Annunciation by the American artist, Henry O. Tanner. It shows Mary as a young girl with Palestinian features, roused from sleep by the advent of the angel and sitting, frightened, unsure, but receptive, on the edge of her rumpled bed with its covers hastily thrown back. Father pointed out that not only is the bed disheveled, but also the rug at her bare feet. He said that this was a symbol of the messiness of life, where everything is not neatly in place and perfectly ordered.
No, this is not a sermon about the Annunciation but about Christmas. But the point is the same. What happened when the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the perfect Word of the perfect Father, was made incarnate by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the most exquisitely perfect woman who ever lived? Why, everything went wrong! First there was the nasty business with Joseph, which was cleared up only because Joseph also saw an angel. (But scripture doesn’t say that Mary ever saw an angel again!) Then the baby couldn’t be born in the safety of his own home in Nazareth, because the Roman powers-that-be declared that everyone should go somewhere else for a census. Then he couldn’t even be born in a decent human habitation because they arrived at Bethlehem so late in the day that every last space in the inn was already taken. (Oh, I’m sure a private room in town could have been made available, if they had "known people" and had had enough money to grease palms with. But they had none of those things.) So, they ended up out in the cow barn and the baby’s first crib was a feeding trough. At least the animals were real and not ceramic. The donkey had two ears and the ox’s horns were both in place!
But that wasn’t the end of their troubles. Thanks to the jealousy of the local government, the little family had to flee in the middle of the night and all the other boy babies in Bethlehem were slaughtered. Imagine having to grow up thinking that you were somehow responsible for that! And now they were farther than ever from the safety and security of Nazareth, huddled among the other homeless on the outskirts of a foreign country. Yes, eventually they got back where they belonged and things settled down for awhile into the routine of a normal family life. But for Jesus life was never a bed of roses. His dad died and he had to leave his mother in the care of other family members, who not only didn’t believe in him but thought he was crazy! The members of the religious establishment, that should have welcomed him, were instead lethally hostile. The ordinary people sucked him dry, for whatever he could give them. His most intimate friends never quite understood him and, in the end, one of them sold him to his enemies for far less money than he could have gotten if he had not been so desperate to get the sleazy business over with. All his companions ran away and he died by crucifixion, one of the most awful deaths that human cruelty and ingenuity could invent. He died alone, seemingly abandoned even by his Father.
The point is that this is exactly what his Father wanted, from Jesus’ mother and, most of all, from Jesus. Human life, since Adam and Eve were tossed from the Garden in confusion and disarray, is messy. Things don’t always go right and sometimes they go horribly wrong. The Father wanted his only Son to share human life to the full, to be "like us in all things but sin." That meant sharing the messiness as well, so that he could give meaning and redemption to the constant frustration that we humans have to suffer. If "what is not assumed is not redeemed," then surely this aspect of our lives had also to be assumed. In his resurrection, all the frustration was made right for Jesus and it will be made right for us too in the end. Until that blessed day comes for each of us, we can look at Jesus in the manger and take consolation from the fact that he is truly, in this as in everything else, Emmanuel, God-With-Us.