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from issue no. 11 - 2006

The Simplicity of Christmas

«The crib is something very simple, that all children understand». A meditation from Jerusalem by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini

by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini sj

Jerusalem, December 2006

The crib is something very simple, that all children understand. It may be made up of many disparate little figures, of various sizes and measures: but the essential thing is that everybody in some way is drawn and looks at the same point, at the stable where Mary and Joseph, with the ox and the ass, await the birth of Jesus or adore him in the first moments after his birth.
Like the crib, all the mystery of Christmas, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, is extremely simple, and that is why it is accompanied by poverty and joy. It is not easy to explain rationally how the three things go together. But let’s make a try.
The mystery of Christmas is certainly a mystery of poverty and impoverishment: Christ, from being rich as He was, made Himself poor for us, to make Himself like us, out of love for us and above all out of love for the most poor.
Everything here is poor, simple and humble, and that why it is not difficult to understand for those who have the eyes of faith: the faith of the child, to whom the Kingdom of Heaven belongs. As Jesus said: «If your eye is simple also your body is all in the light» (Mt 6, 22). The simplicity of faith lights up the whole of life and it makes us accept with docility the great things of God. Faith is born out of love, is the new capacity for looking that comes from feeling much loved by God.
The fruit of all this comes in the words of John the Evangelist in his first epistle, when he describes the experience of Mary and Joseph at the crib: «We have seen with our own eyes, we have contemplated, touched with our hands the Word of life, because life has been made visible». And all this happened so that our joy might be perfect. Everything is therefore for our joy, for a full joy (cf. 1John 1, 1-3). This joy did not only belong to the contemporaries of Jesus, but is also ours: also today this Word of life makes itself visible and tangible in our daily life, in our neighbor to be loved, in the way of the Cross, in prayer and the Eucharist, in particular in the Eucharist of Christmas, and it fills us with joy.
Crib, Luca Della Robbia the Younger, 16th century, Dominican convent of Santa Maria Maddalena, Caldine, Florence

Crib, Luca Della Robbia the Younger, 16th century, Dominican convent of Santa Maria Maddalena, Caldine, Florence

Poverty, simplicity, joy: they are the simplest, most elementary words, but we are afraid and almost ashamed of them. It seems that perfect joy doesn’t fit, because there are always so many things to worry about, so many wrong, unjust situations. How, faced with that, could we enjoy true joy? But also simplicity doesn’t fit, because there are so many things to distrust, complicated things, difficult to understand, the puzzles of life are so many: how, faced with all that, could we enjoy the gift of simplicity? And isn’t poverty perhaps a condition to combat and extirpate from the earth?
But deep joy does not mean not sharing the pain for the injustice, for the hunger in the world, the great sufferings of people. It simply means trusting God, knowing that God knows all these things, that He cares for us and will awake in us and in others those gifts that history requires. And it is thus that the spirit of poverty is born: in trusting oneself in everything to God. In Him we can enjoy full joy, because we have touched the Word of the life that heals every sickness, poverty, injustice, death.
If everything is in some way so simple, believing must also be simple. We often hear it said today that it is difficult to believe in such a world, that the faith is in danger of foundering in the sea of modern indifference and relativism or being set aside by the great scientific discourses on mankind and the universe. It cannot be denied that today it can be more burdensome to show with rational argument the possibility of belief, in such a world.
But we must remember the words of Saint Paul: to believe the heart and the mouth are enough. When the heart, moved by the touch of the Spirit given us in abundance (cf. Rm 5, 5; John 3, 34), believes that God resurrected Jesus from the dead and the mouth proclaims it, we are saved (cf. Rm 10, 8-12). All the complications, all the deep thoughts that sometimes confuse us, all that has been superimposed through eastern and western thought, through theology and philosophy, is good thinking, but it should not make us forget that believing is at bottom a simple gesture, a gesture of the heart that leaps and a word that proclaims: Jesus lives, Jesus is Lord! It is so simple an act that it does not distinguish between the learned and the ignorant, between persons who have gone through the process of purification or who must still go through it. The Lord belongs to all, He is rich in love towards all those who invoke Him.
Rightly we try to deepen the mystery of the faith, we try to read it in all the pages of the Scriptures, we have parsed it sometimes in tortuous ways. But faith, I repeat, is simple, it is an act of abandonment, of trust, and we must find that simplicity again. It lights up everything and enables us to face the complexity of life without too many worries or fears.
Palestinian crib by Ivan Dimitrov

Palestinian crib by Ivan Dimitrov

It doesn’t take much to believe. It needs the gift of the Holy Spirit which he does not let our hearts lack and on our part we have to pay heed to a few well placed little signs. Let us look at what happened at the empty tomb of Jesus: gasping and in tears Mary Magdalene said: “They have taken away the Lord and we do not know where they have put him”. Peter goes into the sepulcher, sees the bandages and the shroud folded aside and still does not understand. But the other disciple, more intuitive and simple, whom Jesus loved, he understands. He «saw and believed», says the Gospel, because the small signs present in the sepulcher stirred in him the certainty that the Lord had risen. He did not need a treatise of theology, he didn’t write thousands of pages on the event. He saw small signs, small as those of the crib, but it was enough because his heart was already prepared to understand the mystery of the infinite love of God.
Sometimes we are in search of complicated signs, and it even goes well. But it can take little to believe if the heart is willing and if it pays heed to the Spirit who instills confidence and joy in believing, a sense of satisfaction and fullness. If we are so simple and open to grace, we enter into the number of those people to whom it is given to proclaim those essential truths that light up existence and enables us to touch with our hands the mystery manifested by the Word made flesh. We feel how perfect joy is possible in this world also, despite the sufferings and pains of every day.

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