The angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a Savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’ And, 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.’ (Luke 2:9-14).
As Catholics complete our pilgrimage during the Advent season, we come face-to-face with the unfathomable mystery of the Incarnation: God-made-man, taking the form of a tiny infant dependent on the care of his mother and father. The love and protection offered by the Messiah’s parents, Mary and Joseph, would be sorely tested.
After Herod sought to put to death every firstborn Israelite son under 2 years of age, the family fled to Egypt. The lamentations of the children’s parents cast a shadow on the earthly pilgrimage of the Holy Family. Their own deep joy was tinged with apprehension regarding Jesus’ future, as Mary silently pondered dark prophecies issued by Simeon and Anna.
But the angels told the shepherds that the birth of the Messiah brought tidings of "great joy." And this is the same joy that Pope Francis asks us to share with every person who crosses our path.
In his newly released apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis states, "The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ, joy is constantly born anew. In this exhortation, I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come."
That joy does not come cheap. It requires time in prayer, reception of the sacraments and service to those in need.
"The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures and a blunted conscience," Francis writes. "Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit, which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ."
Long ago in Bethlehem, no one would give Mary and Joseph a room, and Jesus was born in a manger, near the animals.
Yet the glory of the Incarnation could not be contained, and the shepherds and the Three Kings from the East followed the star until they found the Divine Child and knelt before him.
Today, our faith serves as a kind of star that leads us to perceive the often hidden needs of others. We are called to affirm the luminous dignity of the homeless man and the undocumented worker, the elderly woman with Alzheimer’s and the unborn child whose future may depend on our loving protection.
Recent and growing threats to the free exercise of religion have also cast a shadow on the joy of this liturgical season and reflect a new era of aggressive intervention in the internal administration of Catholic hospitals and other Church-affiliated institutions. A recent lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) targets the U.S. bishops’ "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services" — guidelines that govern crucial decision-making in Catholic hospitals. The lawsuit charges that the U.S. bishops’ ethical standards were responsible for the negligent care of a pregnant woman in Michigan, and the ACLU alleges that physicians at a Catholic hospital did not tell the patient of the risks associated with the premature rupture of uterine membranes and that an abortion was a medically appropriate option.
John Haas, the president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, which advises the U.S. bishops on a variety of moral questions, told the Register that the ACLU lawsuit reflected "a fundamental misunderstanding — if not a misrepresentation — of the ‘Ethical and Religious Directives.’" He noted that Directive 27 deals with "informed consent" and requires physicians to provide "all reasonable information about the essential nature of the proposed treatment … its risks, side-effects, consequences and cost … including no treatment at all." If the physician did not do that, then he was in violation of the directives themselves.
Moreover, Haas said, "Directive 47 provides for medical intervention to address a serious and present pathological condition in the woman that cannot be postponed." That pathological condition, he said, "can be addressed even if [medical treatment] results in the foreseen but unintended death of the unborn child."
During a discussion Dec. 4 about the ACLU lawsuit on National Public Radio, Haas asked the ACLU lawyer if the group’s lawsuit cited Directive 47, and the lawyer admitted that it had not. This obviously leads to a distortion of actual Catholic teaching and to grave misunderstandings in the larger society. This effort to intervene in the internal administration of Catholic hospitals marks an ongoing campaign by abortion-rights supporters to present Catholic hospitals as outliers who violate standard medical practices.
As we prepare to receive the Christ Child on Christmas Day, let us take time during Advent to pray and fast for religious freedom, so that "God’s voice" is still heard in the emergency room and elsewhere, and "the quiet joy of his love" is shared with those who suffer and fear death. And in the midst of these disturbing times, we carry the firm resolve that "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5).
The editors of the Register wish all of our readers a blessed and joyful Christmas.