Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Devil Whispers About Weakness, But God Enters Into Weakness

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and among the sites we visited was the Church of the Nativity.  In the Church of the Nativity there hangs a Russian icon that portrays the Birth of Christ.  At the center of the icon is the Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child.  In the bottom corner of the icon is St. Joseph.  He is speaking to what appears to be a shepherd, but it is actually the Devil. The icon attempts to show how, from the very beginning, the Devil sought to discourage Joseph. He is whispering in Joseph's ear, "You are a failure.  You aren't even the real father.  You are wasting your life."

On Christmas Day, many people find themselves like St. Joseph in that icon.  Maybe they have tried to do everything right, but still have encountered difficulty and turmoil. Or, perhaps they have failed greatly in their life.  The Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child are right there, but the Devil is luring people away.  He is convincing them that they are failures.  He attempts to discourage each person according to their fears.  "You're spouse doesn't really appreciate you. You're a failure.  Your life is meaningless."  "You've committed terrible sins.  You are a failure.  There's no hope for you." To the one who was not able to have children, he whispers "You are a failure."  To the one whose children have been a source of disappointment in one way or another, he whispers, "You are a failure."  To the old, he whispers, "You have failed." To the young, he discourages them so that they never dare to hope, "You are a failure." To those who struggle intellectually or physically, "You are a failure."  He tries to undermine priests and religious, married and single, young and old.  "You are a failure."

Each Christmas, the scriptures have us return to that encounter between the shepherds of Bethlehem and the angels of Heaven.  The shepherds were men who lived on the outskirts, not only of town, but of society.  They were outcasts and, in the eyes of the world, failures.  And yet, when the Savior was born, it was to them that God first revealed this good news.  God did not first send out a diplomatic cable to the world leaders or release a statement to the media.  He did not choose a method of communication that would eliminate all doubt and all risk for failure.  Instead, he chose to entrust this message to the shepherds, to those who were without stature.  God is not intimidated by our failures or by our weakness.  He gladly chooses it!  So much does he choose our weakness, that in the fullness of time, he became weak for our sake.

After they had received the message from the angels, the shepherds were still shepherds.  It was not like winning the Powerball where they could leave behind the shepherd's cave and buy a mansion.  They were still poor. They were still men of weakness. They were men who had failed in life and would likely fail again.  Their circumstances were largely unchanged. What then was different?  God had drawn close to them in their circumstances.  They were not alone in their circumstances.  They were not alone in their difficulties.  God is now with them.  Into their darkness, the light had entered.

Today, many who will hear the joyful message of the angels may feel as though this message is not for them.  They may feel that this message is for those who are successful, but not for those who have failed or who are weak.  This is the lie of the Devil.  God chooses the weak and those who are of no account.  God chooses them as the very first witnesses and messengers.  He does not merely include them in some superficial way with the Gospel.  He makes them the first trustees of the Gospel.

On Christmas morning, I was privileged to offer two Masses at a local jail.  It was so awesome to be there and to read the Christmas Gospel.  The announcement of Jesus' birth and of God's nearness belong especially to men like these.  Like all of us, these men must often find themselves being pulled to the side so that the Devil can whisper in their ears to remind them of their weakness and to discourage them by their circumstances.  The Devil tries to use our weakness to lure us from God.  But, in front of every circumstance, humiliation, failure, weakness, and evil, man can now stand with hope and courage.  The Devil can whisper all he wants about our weakness and our circumstances, but his whispers cannot change this fact: The Word Has become flesh and has chosen to dwell in our weakness.  Just ask Joseph and the shepherds.

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