Silent night, Holy night! / All is calm, all is bright / ‘Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child. / Holy infant so tender and mild! / Sleep in heavenly peace! / Sleep in heavenly peace!
All the colorfully glowing lanterns, the dancing lights, the flickering trees, all the hectic preparations, the hustling for just the right gifts, just the right foods, the caroling, the praying, and even Simbang Gabi, all that is “Christmas” in the Philippines that overpowers Advent, confounds the liturgists, but genially melds frenzied preparation with joyful celebration, all the mighty sacrifice blended with cheerful gift-giving, all lead to Child in the Manger, recalled for us by the “Christmas Crib” – the Belen. It is the quintessential Christmas symbol, that is certainly not just a decoration, but the Gospel message for this happy day. It is God’s Good News in tableau:
The angel, the star, the shepherds from afar, the stable, the cattle, the sheep, Joseph, and Mary. ‘… The time came for her to have child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Lk. 1:4). “Suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests’” (Lk 1:11).
How wonderful the great variety of Christmas Cribs! Some are of expertly carved and painted wood, others of delicately polished porcelain, others of antique ivory, yet others of lowly resins, out of which are coaxed preciously the sacred shapes of the angels, the shepherds, Mary, Joseph, and the Child, some in the baroque elegance of medieval Europe, some in the stark realism of ancient Palestine, some with the robust figures of Middle Eastern Caucasians, some in the stately figures and flowing tunics of Africa, some with the oriental eyes and cross-collared embroidered garments of China, some here looking like Filipinos, Joseph in a barong, Mary in a baro’t saya, shepherds in kamisa tsino and rolled-up trousers, the cow replaced by a carabao, the sheep by the kambing, and the three kings in the royal costumes of the Ifugao, the T’Boli and the Tausug. The diverse renditions of Christmas Cribs throughout the world, representing diverse cultures and beliefs, convey a simple message: at Christmas, “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” (Jn. 1: ), everywhere. It is often ignored, sometimes just noticed, at other times admired simply for its quaint artistry. But where there it faith, it draws people mystically to silent admiration and awe, or even, to worship and adoration, inviting others to do the same:
O come let us adore him! O come let us adore him! O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!
On this Christmas Day, when it is wonderful to sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come…!” it would be good to pause from the day’s merrymaking to look at the birthday honoree in the midst of the Belen surrounded by Mary, Joseph, and the other participants in this historic event. Go beyond the frozen images of man’s making, and contemplate the living event of God’s making. Enter into it, into the sacred presence of the Holy Family, Joseph quite relieved that in the stable he’d found all had gone well with Mary’s first childbirth, Mary filled with joy at the looking at the fruit of her labor after her first birth, and the Child, laid on the wood of a manger, asleep on the hay. One has to see Joseph caring for Mary, and Mary caressing her baby, and the Child breathing in peaceful sleep. But one must not only see from without. From within, one must be there.
Looking at the Child, one looks at the Word made flesh. It happened imperceptibly through the Holy Spirit nine months earlier, when Mary listened intently to the divine plan announced by the Angel Gabriel inviting her consent. She replied, “Let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). At that instance the Word was made flesh (Jn. 1:14). God’s incarnation took place. That was the cosmically stunning event. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). Now, in the Christmas scene, that Word is manifest in tender flesh and blood among us, there in the manger for Joseph and Mary, for the angels, the shepherds, and us all to see. But also for us to hear. It is a subtle Word spoken in the calm of this “Silent Night, Holy Night” where too often the din prevents its hearing. But it is precisely because of the deafening noise of this broken world, where harmonious melodies of diverse cultures sour into unnerving cacophonies, measured words of truth twist themselves into deafening lies, gossip, calumny, and defamation, hurrahs of scientific progress turn into explosions of mass destruction, pounding cadences of voracious industry bring on the howling super storms and devastation of climate change, sacred chants of restless religions morph blasphemously into cries in God’s holy name for the massacre of defenseless women, children and babies wailing, that this Word is spoken. It is a Word rejected by the innkeepers, ignored by the economists, scorned by the rationalists, suppressed by the pedophiles, but a Word spoken nevertheless. In the Child.
Do you hear this Child, laid on the wood of the Manger, crucified on the wood of the Cross, offered on the wood of the altar? This is Jesus, the Christ, he “who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality to God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:6-8). The wood of his cross is the wood of the altar on which “we offer”[i] with him his redemptive offering. He came “to lift all things to himself, to restore unity to creation, and to lead mankind from exile into [the Father’s] heavenly kingdom” (Christmas Preface). He came “to bring us life, and life to the full” (John 10:10).
Look again into the Belen. People, perhaps like you and me, focused intently on our matters of great frivolity, had rejected Joseph and Mary and the Child she carried. They were too ordinary to be bothered with, too poor. Too insignificant to merit a entry in my schedule! For them, there was no room in the inn. Herod wanted to kill the baby. In time, the world did. They’d failed to hear the Child, a Word of forgiveness in tender light, a word of acceptance in a silent night. It is a Word overcoming the noise, the rejection, the hatred, the meanness, the torture, the crucifixion, sin and death, that we might have life, and have it in its fullness. It is a Word spoken in love. The Lord is with us! Hear, and be happy!
“…Fall on you knees, O hear the angel voices! O night divine…!”
[i] Eucharistic Canon II, after the Consecration