If recent celebrations of Christmas are anything to go by, many thousands of the faithful and the not-so-faithful will flow through the Oratory Church this 24th and 25th December. In some churches those who roll in for Midnight Mass and never darken the doorstep of a church again for another 364 days risk public castigation. This would never happen at the Oratory, where the fathers are delighted to welcome all-comers – especially those who slip in at the back of the church just for the pre-Mass carols and then get swept up to the front by the crowd and end up stuck listening to the sermon.
The Crib excludes no one. The open stable is an invitation. It reminds us that the new born King of kings came to Bethlehem to establish His rule not by force but rather by winning a place in the hearts of His subjects. He comes in fragile human flesh as an innocent child to impress on us that, unless we become like little children ourselves, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We have to divest ourselves of the encumbrances of worldly sophistication, and clothe ourselves in the simple garments of meekness, poverty of spirit and purity of soul.
The circumstances of the Nativity are an invitation especially to the poor and the homeless. The poverty of the stable will surely speak with special poignancy to those Christian communities and individual Christians around the world who have been dispossessed through persecution and conflict, and who will have no church to go to this Christmas. The scene at the Crib should inspire us to pray for those of our fellow Christians who have been uprooted, and to donate what we can to excellent charities such as Aid to the Church in Need who support them.
Like the open stable, the manger is an invitation. To the Catholic sensibility the fact that the manger is a feeding trough and Bethlehem means ‘House of Bread’ must suggest a highly Eucharistic significance to the scene in the stable. For centuries the Preface used at the Mass of Corpus Christi, which is always celebrated during the height of summer, and at other Masses of the Blessed Sacrament, was always the Preface for Christmas. This served to emphasise the fact that the Eternal Word Who became Incarnate in Palestine two thousand years ago also comes to us in His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity at the Altar every time the Sacrifice of the Mass is offered by a priest.
The scene of a baby placed in a feeding trough in a draughty stable should move us to offer Him a home. And what better place to give Him a home than in our own hearts? This is what we do whenever we receive Him sacramentally in Holy Communion. We consume the Word made Flesh, so that He takes up His abode within us. And if the reception that the King of Kings receives from the world is often cold and hostile, we pray that within our hearts He may find an abode that is warm and tender.
The Church’s rules or precepts only insist that a practising Catholic must receive Holy Communion once a year, around Easter time, just as we are only bound to make a sacramental confession of our sins once a year. This is to ensure that when we do receive the Blessed Sacrament it is always in a State of Grace. Yes, Holy Communion is ‘food for the journey’ rather than a reward for perfection. But it is not something that we should ever dare to take lightly. If the light of grace has been extinguished within us through mortal sin, then the first thing we need to do is to have it rekindled in our hearts through the Sacrament of Penance. The grace that was given to us so momentously in the Sacrament of Baptism needs to be restored to us through the momentous action of the confession of our sins. If someone is living in an irregular relationship, then he needs to make the necessary adjustment to his life that is required for life ‘in the Spirit’. This conversion is a necessary part of the divesting of any worldly encumbrances that prevent us from being like little children. Repentance and restoration to grace turn our hearts into living tabernacles fit to receive the King of Kings.
At Holy Mass the Word is made Flesh by the transformation of bread and wine into Our Lord’s Body and Blood. And we are fed with this Sacrament – the Blessed Sacrament – so that we too might be transformed, and so that we might carry Our Lord with us into the world. We have to pray that when others encounter us, they see the face of Christ, and find the embracing warmth and acceptance that the shepherds found at the hearth of the Manger.
We might well ask ourselves: What does the world outside make all of those thousands streaming in and out of the Oratory Church over Christmas? Most probably, it says: ‘So what?’ and then carries on very much as before. That should bother us. It poses a serious challenge to us as disciples of a Saviour Who came to win a place in the heart of every man, woman and child. How can we attract these ‘outsiders’ and bring them towards discovering the Bread of Life Who offers us and them eternal life from the Manger?
What if our parish were to be a byword for the Corporal Works of Mercy – for visiting prisoners and the lonely and for extending the embrace of care and friendship to those who have nothing and no one? That would be a sign to the world that the Word Made Flesh is not only alive in the Tabernacle, but also very much alive and active in our hearts. The sight of the Christ Child in the frailty of human flesh, exposed in the stable to the cold of the night, should move us to want to minister to Him. He invites us to minister to Him in His poor and in those who suffer through the isolation of feeling unneeded and unwanted.
The Oratory currently offers various ways of ministering to the Christ Child in the needy, including support for the homeless, the possibility for families to adopt an elderly person or couple, and visits to the housebound. To find out how you might become involved, please see our website www.oratoryfriends.org or email us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fr Julian Large