Light When It Comes

Light When It Comes
Chris Anderson
(William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016)

I had started on this book when I received Fr. Henry Siew’s booklet Encountering the Lord in Daily Life, in which he recommends the Consciousness Examen as one of three “simple forms of prayer”, and which I decided was something I should finally take seriously. I am still struggling with it. It may be simple but it takes a lot of discipline and I have yet to develop the mindfulness to do it properly.

Light When It Comes is serendipitously the practical application of the Examen and so it is a great help for me. What Anderson is showing is that one needs to be attuned to the Lord – that is how to recognise Him in everything. It is such an enjoyable lyrical [just look at the pretty cover!] collection of snippets from the ups and downs, questions and answers, and doubts and hopes of daily life. In both light and darkness, God is always present; it is just that we miss the point sometimes.

I found the sections on “darkness” particularly helpful. They reminded me of reading Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son and coming to the awful and somewhat discouraging realisation that the morose, brooding older brother was me. Everything the father had was his but he wasn’t aware of it – we can only imagine the joy and love that would have been in his heart had he known this, but he was stuck on the darker side of things, where he saw patches of light without catching its full brilliance. The older brother and I have some trouble recognising the light when it comes.

There were parts of the book that struck me like they were written just for me, and I include some of them here, with their chapter titles. I see them as glimpses of light that I need.

Seeing the Light

And the first words that Adam speaks? … the first recorded words of the first man—are poetry.

This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh.

Dying to Ourselves

To pray the examen doesn’t just mean to revel in the light. It means to face the darkness, too: the darkness of suffering, the darkness of our own limitations.

The cross is a lens… It’s our formula for interpreting every situation. What should we do? Whatever conforms us the most closely to the cross. Whatever turns the situation upside down…

What should we do? Whatever empties us. Whatever silences us… Whatever gives us the chance to die.

Holding On

I thirst for praise, but praise doesn’t satisfy. I thirst for order, but order doesn’t satisfy. I thirst for certainty: never to be troubled, never to be confused, never to have to wrestle with things in my mind. But certainty doesn’t quench the thirst, and it’s not possible anyway. None of this water is clean and pure. None of this water is the living water.

But we’re being healed of leprosy all the time, and we’re always failing to realize it.

Going Wild

Sometimes where we find ourselves is in the desert. More and more, I think, life is about letting things go, or trying to. It’s about giving things up. It’s about holding things in memory and believing in them still.

Completing Creation

What value is it to the people in our lives if we spend the morning writing a poem, or walking in the woods, or weeding the front flowerbed?

What worth is our joy?

A worth beyond price.

I have said these things to you,” Jesus tells his disciples, “so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”

But this is the night before the Crucifixion, this is the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John, and sadness fills the room. Fear.

How can joy be possible?

Jesus saith to her: Did not I say to thee that if thou believe, thou shalt see the glory of God? (John 11:40)

May we see the Lord of joy and light in all we do!

Excerpts of the book can be found here.

♫ Makes me think of In My Heart


Exploring Our Faith

Exploring Our Faith
by Rev. Anthony Hutjes (2015)

Fr. Anthony explains a range of familiar topics such as the Bible, the Trinity, prayer, sacraments and Mother Mary as well as topics specific to his ministry, with the intention of making “certain aspects of the Catholic faith somewhat more accessible for a broader public” rather than to “say anything new or original about my religion or to create a handbook which tries to cover all details’. Indeed, he clearly explains the teachings, theology and application of some foundational aspects of our faith.

What I will say about the familiar topics is that it is always instructive to revise and revisit what we should know. At the very least, every presentation of these topics encourages a little re-think of how we understand them.

Here, I will focus on the chapters that are particularly significant to his order, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (SS.CC), and the chapter on laypersons.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus
Devotion to the Sacred Heart draws us into the very heart of Jesus – His “innermost life” and the depths of His being that were the source of everything He did and said. This devotion encourages the “patient meditation” by which we know Jesus better and this is important “because how can you love what you do not know?” We also come close to Jesus through adoration and Communion, and bring Him to others through our imitation of His life.

The Spirituality of St. Damien of Molokai

Now this was something I never knew – that Mahatma Gandhi knew about Fr. Damien. Gandhi said this about him: “There have been few lives in history or legend who lived on the completely spiritual level of Father Damien.” What was it that gave him the capacity to serve God’s people so selflessly and tirelessly? The “source of the heroism of Father Damien” (Gandhi’s words again), Fr. Anthony explains, was the combination of his family background, the Christ-centred spirituality of the SS.CC and his orientation on the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the love of His heart.

The SS.CC Mission in Asia

Evangelisation is a “fundamental duty of the people of God” and this non-negotiable inevitably means tackling these elements of modern life – “consumerism, individualism, secularism, relativism, hedonism, materialism”. It needs to be done sensitively, with openness to “dialogue”, and understanding and respect for specific societies and cultures. The SS.CC can do this in their mission in Asia by building upon their charism – celebrating the Eucharist, adoration and contemplation of Christ’s Sacred Heart, with “utter, personal conviction”; by “walking the talk”; “in a life of loving communion”; “with preferential love for the poor”; “in a spirit of dialogue and persuasive adaptation” and “proclaiming an everlasting life”.

The Mission of a Layperson
Fr. Anthony explains what is ultimately and practically important for laypersons, all of whom are called to mission. We build our sense of mission and the strength to carry it out in these ways:

In prayer
prayer is “the breath of faith” and we must search for God “with all your mind, with all your heart, with all your might and all your strength”

In self-sacrificial love towards others
through forgiveness and service

In marriage and family life
by being a sign of Jesus’ love – every marriage in Christ “has to reflect… every single line, every disposition, every moral value of the gospel”

In our love for the poor and those in need
this is a must, and we must love those who are poor materially as well as those poor in other aspects of life, such as the lonely and the rejected

In evangelisation
it is Jesus’ command to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 17:18) – it is not just priests but all of us who are called to be “alter Christus” to others, hence “our deepest wish should be that we may become truly Eucharistic people, like Jesus Christ Himself – we may become people, more and more willing to be eaten up by our loving and self-sacrificial concern for God and neighbour.”

In an interview included at the end of the book, Fr. Anthony discusses some challenges of being Christian in our world today. He cautions that one can get “flabby” and “weakened too much by an over-indulgent, egocentric and pampered way of life”. Thus, we must be disciplined and must focus on God and His Kingdom. In addition, “there is no point in people who merely flip through the Bible back and forth” – we need true “conversion” and “much more missionary zeal”.

God, our source of life, has to be our focus.

♫ Makes me think of Seed, scattered and sown


God Is Near Us

God Is Near Us
The Eucharist, the Heart of Life
by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, translated by Henry Taylor
(Ignatius Press, 2003)

This collection of Ratzinger’s sermons enlightens us about the Eucharist and explains how the Eucharist essentially means that God is not just near us but also with us – Emmanuel.

God comes to us and dwells with us
“… the immeasurable Word, the entire fullness of Holy Scripture, has contracted itself…”

God came “from eternity into time”, to dwell as man among men. How much nearer could He be? Thus, when we receive Holy Communion, we receive our God who “puts himself into our hands”, and so the result of this awesome direct contact should be a reverent and submissive spirit, and a heart open to His coming.

God’s Presence is real and abiding
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you… My flesh is food indeed.” (John 6:53, 55)

At the moment of Incarnation, Mother Mary gave Jesus His first earthly dwelling place. The overshadowing Holy Spirit created the new “place of meeting” between God and man, the Annunciation scene echoing the holy cloud resting over the Tent of Meeting, and our God who “cannot be contained within the world” came to “dwell in his entirety in one person”, as a real person. Jesus, as man, became the Paschal Lamb Who fulfilled what the Temple of Jerusalem stood for and henceforth dwells among man.

Thus, whenever and wherever we celebrate the Eucharist, we come together to worship God in the “holy tent”, with the Holy Spirit overshadowing us, and Jesus is truly and wholly there.

He Himself said in no uncertain terms that He is the Bread that we eat. When He explained that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood, He did not attempt to appease the agitated listeners by saying that His flesh merely “signifies” food. Instead, He said that His body is “food indeed”.

Adoration, then, becomes a natural and essential response to the Eucharist because “it is the majesty of the living God that comes to us with him”. The fourth century records of Cyril of Jerusalem tell us that candidates for baptism were taught to make a “throne” with their hands to receive Communion. The monks of Cluny (around 1000 AD) took off their shoes when they received Communion – because they were coming face to face with the “burning bush”, “the mystery before which Moses, in the desert, sank to his knees”.

Jesus gives Himself
“Jesus died praying, and in the abyss of death he upheld the First Commandment and held on to the presence of God. Out of such a death springs this sacrament, the Eucharist.”

The Eucharist arose out of Jesus’ giving of Himself in His actions from the Last Supper to the Resurrection – His sacrifice, death and saving work.

In washing His disciples’ feet, Jesus performed the work of the slave who washed the master’s or guests’ feet so that they would be ready to sit down for a meal together. At their shared meal after the washing of feet, He continued to give of Himself, not just in the words that after that come to us as the words of consecration but the entire sequence which we now celebrate as the Triduum, culminating in the Resurrection, is what the Eucharist means.

Thus, the Eucharist is “the act of self-sharing love” and “the presentation of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross”. By this, Jesus becomes “both the giver and the gift”, giving Himself to us “that we may give in turn”. Learning from His sacrificial attitude, we understand that “the sacrifice pleasing to God is a man pleasing to God.”

The Eucharist and the other sacraments
“… all sacramental acts have their origin in the Paschal Mystery of the Lord’s Cross and Resurrection.”

Jesus’ words at the Last Supper move us towards His death, and it is His word + death + Resurrection, the “mystery of Easter”, that completes the institution of the Eucharist, and also becomes the root of the sacrament of Baptism and gives birth to the Church.

The Eucharist is also closely related to the sacrament of reconciliation, which it “presupposes”. The early Church was keenly sensitive of the need for a person to to repent and confess before receiving Communion. In the 2nd century celebration of the Eucharist, the priest would say before Holy Communion, “Whoever is holy, let him approach – whoever is not, let him do penance.”

From Passover to Eucharistic celebration
“He gave himself to enter into the “fruit of the earth and the work of human hands”… It is the royal privilege of the Christian to share in paschal fellowship with the Lord, in the Paschal Mystery.”

The Mass grew out of the “heart” of Jewish worship, the Passover meal that intimately remembered, in the family setting, God’s saving action. Jesus transformed the Passover as the “true Paschal Lamb”. The Eucharistic celebration took shape from His final earthly Passover, following His command and centred on His redeeming sacrifice. Thus, His words are the “heart” of the Eucharist and the Mass is His gift to the whole Church for all time.

The Eucharist in the context of Church
“The celebration of the Eucharist is not just a meeting of heaven and earth; rather it is also a meeting of the Church then and now, a meeting of the Church here and there.”

The priest celebrates Mass not from a personal perspective but “represents the whole Church.” Thus, the Mass is not a private celebration for a priest or a particular group or congregation but at every Mass, it is the whole Church that celebrates and prays together. This is underlined by the specific naming of the bishop and Pope in the Eucharistic Prayer, showing that we celebrate the “one Eucharist of Jesus Christ, which we can receive only in the one Church”.

The entire Church lives because of the Eucharist, and this life must carry on outside of the Mass. Being in communion with the Lord requires us to be in communion with each other as well.

The Eucharist and our mission as Christians
“The Lord gives himself to us in bodily form. That is why we must likewise respond to him bodily. That means above all that the Eucharist must reach out beyond the limits of the church itself in the manifold forms of service to men and to the world.”

Receiving Christ, we have to carry Him in our daily lives and service to others. Holy Communion is a personal and spiritual communion with the Lord, and the words of the Liturgy change from “we” to “I” accordingly, yet we receive Him Who by His life and Resurrection leads us out into the world to “transform” it with our lives and actions. In Him we have the food that gives us strength to live our lives for others.

Daily, we move towards heaven, and we will get there if we remain with Him and walk “with Him Who came among us as bread and Word”.

♫ Makes me think of  O Bread of Heaven

The Other Yes

The Other Yes

When you are troubled and perturbed,
your plans are falling apart,
would you follow His promptings
when you can’t imagine where you could even start?

His answer was “yes”.

When you are worried and weary,
everyone is turning you away,
would you trust that He will sustain
and see you through, come what may?

His answer was “yes”.

When you are frightened and anxious,
pursued, and running from your foes,
would you let Him lead you His way,
and follow where He goes?

His answer was “yes”.


Years on, they asked –
Is not this the carpenter’s son?

The answer was “yes”.


Abraham – Father of Faith and Works

Abraham – Father of Faith and Works
From the Footprints of God series

The Footprints of God DVD series takes us through the landscape of our faith, with each title focusing on a Biblical personality. The passionate presenter Stephen Ray combines the familiar stories of these personalities with explanations and links from the Bible as well as the teachings of saints, the Church Fathers and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. All of this is shot on—beautiful—location in the Holy Land and other important sites.

The first title in the series, Abraham – Father of Faith and Works, explains how God sets His plan of salvation in motion with the calling of Abraham. It emphasises how Abraham is saved not just because of his faith but also his obedience to God and his good works. At each significant step in his life, he is faced with a challenging call, for example, to leave his family’s home and go to the unfamiliar Canaan, or to sacrifice his son Isaac, but he obeys. While Abraham is thus our father of faith whom God made His covenant with, the overarching assurance is that God has a plan, it will prevail and He will keep His promises.

This title also highlights the instances of typology found in the story of Abraham. For example, the offering of bread and wine by the priest Melchizedek prefigures the Eucharist, and the wedding of Isaac and Rebekah prefigures the marriage of the Lamb (Christ) and His bride, the Church. There is also God’s visit to Abraham in the form of the three men, who are seen as representing the Holy Trinity. Here, Ray asks us to reflect on how we receive the Lord. Are we sons and daughters of Abraham in welcoming the Lord or are we like the chief priests and scribes who rejected Jesus?

Places featured in this title include the Temple of Ziggurat (main temple in Ur, where Abraham came from), Bethel (where he built an altar to God), Hebron (where he settled) and Mamre (where God visited him), and Mount Moriah (where Isaac was supposed to have been sacrificed).

written for Spotlight (May 2016)

♫ Makes me think of Yahweh, You Are Near

Other titles in the Footprints of God series include:  Jesus – the Word Became Flesh, Mary – the Mother of God, Moses – Signs, Sacraments, Salvation, Paul – Contending for the Faith, and Apostolic Fathers – Handing on the Faith.

Making Sense of Saints


Making Sense of Saints
Patricia Ann Kasten
(Our Sunday Visitor, 2004)

This is like a handbook on a variety of “saint” topics, with clear and lively explanations, and lots of examples.

The making of a saint
“Saint” comes from the French seinte, which comes from the Latin sanctus (“holy”) and sancire (“consecrated”). The original Greek word was hagios (a word used for holy and sacred things).

In the early days, it was usually “popular outcry” (vox populi) that led to people being declared saints. The public practically demanded the recognition of a “saintly” person, based on his or her well-known holiness and life of good works.

The earliest formal canonisation on record is that of St. Ulrich of Ausburg, canonised by Pope John XV in 993. In 1234, Pope Gregory IX brought the process under the Pope’s purview and in 1588, Pope Sixtus V instituted the Sacred Congregation for Rites, the precursor of today’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Therefore, the process now formally included “ecclesiastical authority”, with a “competent bishop” in charge of each case, but the sensus fidelium (“sense of the faithful”) is still important in modern times, as in the case of the sainthood causes of, for example, Frs. Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney and Damien of Molokai in the 19th century, as it was in the sainthood causes of, for example, Lydia of Thyatira in the 1st century and Nicholas of Myra in the 4th century.

The earliest saints
The first groups of people who were recognised as saints were those in direct contact with Jesus, such as the Apostles, and, naturally, His earthly family members, Mother Mary and St. Joseph, as well as those who spread the Good News in the Apostolic Age, such as St. Paul.

The first formal saints were martyrs, with St. Stephen the first among them. “Martyr” is from the Greek martus (“witness”), originally a term referring to the Apostles, and our history tells us there were countless martyrs in the early centuries, mostly victims of Roman persecution.

The next group that was recognised were the “confessors of the faith” (from the Latin confiteor, meaning “profession”, which is also the name of the “I confess” prayer at Mass), those who had suffered for the sake of the faith, hence also being “witnesses” in publicly confessing their faith, but were not killed for it.

Some martyrs and confessors were disciples of the Apostles.

Another group of early saints were the monastics, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, some of whom were also students of the Apostles, and students of these students. Monastics lived apart from the world, in imitation of Jesus’ life of “poverty, obedience and chastity”, with the aim of coming closer to God. Some lived in community while others lived and prayed in solitude.

Early monastics include St. Mary of Egypt and St. Jerome. The first formal monastic rules were drawn up by St. Benedict of Nursia in the early 6th century, from whom we have the Benedictine motto ora et labora (“pray and work”).

By medieval times, monasteries had become the centres of towns and from there emerged religious orders (for example, the Franciscans, Norbertines, Dominicans and Trappists), and more saints of course, such as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Anthony of Padua. Thus, with all the spirituality and teaching that came out of  monasteries, we all can track our way back to the monastics!


There is much evidence in the catacombs that from the early days, Christians venerated the relics of saints. For example, the first formal churches were built over or near the graves of martyrs. Early Christians also chose to be buried near or within the burial ground of martyrs.

The Second Council of Nicaea (787) ruled that all new churches should have relics of saints interred in their altars. (This was no longer compulsory after Vatican II.)

Relics are classified as follows:
First class     the bodies or body parts of saints, any instruments of Christ’s Passion
Second classobjects clearly associated with the saint, such as what they wore often or items they used
Third class    objects that had some contact with or which have touched first or second class relics or the graves of saints

Buying or selling relics is part of the sin of simony and the Church never approved this practice (nor the sale of indulgences).

The canonisation process
Canonisation is from the word “canon” (as in “canon laws”), from the Greek kanon (“straight”) and Hebrew kaneh (“need”).

The Canon of Saints is the list of all the holy people whose lives led them straight to God and what canonisation means is that the Church believes that this particular person is with God and can intercede for those still alive, and that his or her life and work are an exemplary model for us in our efforts in leading holy lives.

Servus Dei – Servant of God
When a “saint” is identified, the process to declare him or her a saint starts at the diocese where he or she died, under the charge of the bishop of the diocese (there are some exceptions, such as for John Paul II, for whom the process began in the diocese where he worked).

There is a waiting period of five years, to give time for excitement to die down and for the real picture to emerge (the Pope can decide to shorten the waiting time, as in the cases of John Paul II and Teresa of Calcutta). After the five years, the bishop seeks approval to start the sainthood cause.  When the petition is approved, the proposed saint is called “Servant of God”.

The diocese then collects proof of the “virtuous” life of the Servant of God, and also studies his or her writings (if there are formal works). When there is enough evidence, the bishop hands over the case to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which puts everything together and sends the Decree of Heroic Virtues to the Pope for his approval. Once this is approved, the proposed saint is called “Venerable”.

Evidence of a miracle attributed to the proposed saint is then sought, with the local bishop playing an important part here. The criteria are that the miracle must be “immediate”, “complete”, “permanent” and “unexplainable by scientific means”.

When the miracle is confirmed, the proposed saint is beatified (“raised to the altar”).

A second miracle (after beatification) is then sought, and when confirmed, he or she is declared a saint.

Doctors of the Church
“Doctor” is from the Latin docere (to teach, show, inform) and is a term for theologians of the highest order. All Doctors of the Church are saints who were the master teachers of our Faith.

The first four Doctors, declared at the end of the 13th century, were Sts. Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine and Gregory the Great, followed by St. Thomas Aquinas in 1568. The long gap between St. Gregory (1298) and St. Thomas shows the rarity of Doctors.

Patron saints
“Patron” is from the Latin patronus, which is from the word for “father”. During the time of the Roman empire, the patron was one’s “legal advocate”, and patronus also referred to senators and former owners of freed slaves.

It is common practice to turn to our patron saints for their intercession, and they could include the saints we were named after, saints whose feast days are on the day we were born, saints whom we came to learn about (and from) and became devoted to, or the patron saint of particular occupations or places.

Depiction of saints in art
Certain symbols are used for different types of saints.

Palm branch, a symbol of victory (Rev 7:14) – for martyrs

White clothing, symbolising purity, a lamb or crown of flowers – for virgins, e.g. St. Agnes

Books – for the evangelists and Doctors of the Church, e.g. St. Teresa of Avila

Church – for those who founded a church, diocese or abbey, e.g. Sts. Jerome, Ambrose, Cyril and Methodius

Crown – for those who were royalty on earth and also to show “heavenly reward”, e.g. St. Elizabeth of Hungary

Shells – for pilgrims, e.g. St. Augustine

Lilies, symbolising purity of heart, e.g. for Mother Mary, St. Joseph, St. Anthony of Padua

There are also other recognisable symbols, such as the religious habit of the saint, or objects specifically related to the saint, e.g. the green shamrock for St. Patrick, the arrows in St. Sebastian (the instrument of death), and the key in St. Peter’s hand.

Halo is from the Greek halos (“disk of the sun”), and is a symbol appropriated from ancient Egypt and Greece.

Halos started to be used for Jesus around the 3rd century, usually when representing Him in a “royal” context. By the 5th century, halos were also used for Mother Mary, angels and saints.

Why bother about the Saints?
It is important to note the difference between the honour we give to God and to the saints. The book explains the Greek terms dulia (connoting obedience) and latria (connoting homage). Latria is always and only used for the honour we give to God while dulia refers to the honour we give to other human beings, in this case the saints (hyperdulia for Mother Mary). What the phrases “pray to Mary” and “pray to saints” really mean is to ask Mary or the saints for their help in praying for us (intercession).

The CCC explains that saints “show the power of the Spirit alive within the Church and sustain the hope of believers through their examples and intercession.”

The familiar phrase communion of saints (communion sanctorum – “the participation in holy, spiritual things”, “the participation of the holy ones”) encapsulates the universality of the Catholic context we are all a part of, in which the Church Militant, Church Suffering and Church Triumphant are one.

source: Happy Saints

Some prayers composed by saints have become so famous and inspiring that they have been turned into song.

Prayer of St. Francis (Make me a channel of your peace)



Jesus of Nazareth – The Infancy Narratives


Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives
by Joseph Ratzinger, translated by Philip J. Whitmore
(Bloomsbury, 2012)

 This book follows Ratzinger’s two earlier Jesus of Nazareth works, From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration and Holy Week: From the Entrance in Jerusalem to the Resurrection. In it, he explains the theological, contextual and historical significance of the infancy narratives from the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke.

Here is a selection of the points discussed.

“Where are you from?”
Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies end with Joseph. Mary marks the point of the “new beginning”, carrying Jesus, Whose origin is no man but Who is a “new creation”. Through Him, we have a new genealogy that we can trace back to God.

The Annunciation of the Birth of John the Baptist and the Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus
Zechariah, an ageing priest, hears the angel’s message during the Temple liturgy, while Mary, a young almost-nobody, receives her message in a personal setting in a small town. The contrast of the circumstances of the two annunciations begins the different missions of John the Baptist and Jesus.

Annunciation and Birth of John
John’s story begins in the Old Testament world, with his parents both from priestly families. As a representative of the Old Covenant priesthood, John points the way to Jesus.

Annunciation to Mary
“Rejoice, full of grace!” The angel’s greeting does not begin with the expected Hebrew shalom (“peace be with you”) but the Greek chaire (“rejoice”, “hail”). This is the same “rejoice” that appears in Luke 2:10 (“I bring you good news of a great joy”); John 16:22 (“I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you”); and John 20:20 (“The disciples were glad when they saw the Lord”).

In Greek, “joy” and “grace” share the same root, highlighting this combination in Mary as well as the joy-cum-grace that is to come through her – Jesus and His message.

The Birth of Jesus in Bethlehem
Luke situates Jesus in a concrete place and time: the “eternal logos”, our true God, truly became man.

Jesus’ birth
Historically, this is during the reign of Augustus Caesar. An inscription indicates that Augustus (Greek: “worthy of adoration”) was expected to be the one to bring about “universal peace”. He was called “saviour” and “redeemer”, titles that belonged to gods like Zeus. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, these terms refer exclusively to God.

By his decree for “all the world” to be registered, Augustus Caesar indirectly sets in motion the fulfilment of Micah’s prophecy that the “shepherd of Israel” would be born in Bethlehem (5:1-3). Unknown to him, this is the “fullness of time”, the time for the appearance of the true Saviour and Redeemer of all peoples, and so Augustus’ reign ushers in the period of peace foretold by the Old Testament prophets, but brought about not by him but by the Son of God.

Ratzinger writes:
“God, who is the God of Israel and of all peoples, shows himself to be the true guiding force behind all history.”


From the historical and political context, we then look at Jesus’ birth in humble circumstances.

There is “no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6), and significantly, 33 years later, he is “crucified outside the city” (Hebrew 13:12). From the time He is born, Jesus is excluded from what would be considered “important and powerful”, but it is He who is the “truly powerful one”.

The exact spot of Jesus’ birth is still debated today but early Christians living in Palestine were able to point out the cave (one of many in Bethlehem that were used as stables) in which Jesus was traditionally believed to have been born. When the Romans overran Israel, they took this story seriously and turned the cave into a shrine for Tammuz-Adonis.

What we do know from Luke is that Jesus is placed in a manger. St. Augustine explains how the manger, the place where animals had their food, was turned into the “table of God”. Thus, from His lowly birth, Jesus brings about our redemption.

In addition, the first ones to hear of His birth are shepherds in the area, representing the “lowly” and also known for their “watchfulness”. In humility, silence and waiting, the Lord comes to us.

The Law required mothers to be “purified” 40 days after the birth, and first-born sons to be dedicated to God. Mary brought into the world the One who would purify it but she and Joseph still obey the Law. Families were not required to go to the Temple for the sacrificial offerings but Jesus makes a first public appearance in the Temple, with this event marking His dedication to God as well as Simeon’s and Anna’s recognition that hope had come. Their prophecies draw the “light” of hope that Jesus brings together with the way of the Cross.

The Wise Men from the East and the Flight into Egypt
The Magi show how the really wise are the ones who “search for truth, and for the true God”. A later Magi, mentioned in Acts 13:10, represents the result of resisting Jesus and His witnesses.

The Magi are outsiders, and they ask for the “king of the Jews”, using a Gentile form of reference; this is the same term that is used in Pilate’s inscription (the Jewish people would have used the term “king of Israel”). This is an early reference to the universality of Jesus’ kingship and a link to the Cross as well.

Although their arrival troubled “all of Jerusalem”, even Herod’s experts do not appear moved to respond to the new king, and it is the Magi, the Gentiles, who go on to search for Him and to pay homage. Hence, we have the coming of the King of all the universe, as indicated by the Magi’s gifts, who is rejected by the people among whom He appears.

Once the wise men find and adore Jesus, the star disappears. It was not the star that defined or determined His life – it is He who “directs the star”.

Flight to Egypt and Return to the Land of Israel
There has been some debate about whether the killing of the innocents actually took place. It is known that Herod executed three of his own sons, so it was not out of character for him to have ordered the murder of boys two years and under.

This put Jesus on the road to Galilee. Joseph is instructed to go there when they return from Egypt, and the fact that Jesus was from Galilee later becomes “proof” that people would cite when they argue that He could not possibly be the Messiah.

The 12-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple
Jesus’ parents went on the yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover, as part of the “great pilgrim community”.

The three days during which Jesus is missing and His parents keenly experience His absence anticipate the three days from His death on the Cross to His resurrection. From the human perspective, His wandering off from the family party could be seen as an act of “disobedience or inappropriate freedom” but in essence, this was Jesus’ obedience to the Father’s will and the work that the Father had set out for Him, work that He “must” do. Here, it is the same “must” that is used when the Gospels refer to Jesus’ “readiness to submit to God’s will”, for example, that He “must suffer greatly, be rejected, be killed and rise again” (Mk 8:3).

Nevertheless, He does return with His parents and “was obedient to them”, and grew in “wisdom” and “stature” in His family and community setting.

In contrast to Jesus’ focused actions to follow the will of the Father, Mary and Joseph do not understand clearly His words or behaviour. Mary’s response is to “ponder” and “(keep) all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:50-51), which she does earlier (Luke 2:19) as well, a useful pointer for all believers in their response to hearing the word of God.

In summary, the book explains what at Jesus’ birth was already clear about His identity, His fulfilment of the promise of hope and salvation for all mankind, and the Cross and resurrection that were to come.  God is with us.

O Little Town of Bethlehem