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A Christmas Message from the President

Fr. Donald Senior, C.P., reflects on the human need to seek Jesus

December 22, 2010

This past August I was in Bethlehem, the city we think of this season. With me were twenty-four pilgrims, a special group of people with disabilities: several in wheelchairs because of paralysis, one woman without a larynx who could speak only in whispers, one woman who could not hold up her head, one young man who had Down’s syndrome, although it did not dim his radiant smile or his mother’s devotion to him.

Armed with portable ramps and aching muscles and determination we went everywhere in the rather formidable terrain of the modern Holy Land and then we found ourselves in the city of Jesus’ birth. 

I have led memorable trips like these many times in my life and on each one of them the most difficult and the most emotional experience of all is always in Bethlehem.  Through a narrow doorway and down a long series of very narrow and steep steps in the crypt of the battered but beautiful 6th century Basilica of the Nativity is the place that marks the birth of Jesus, the ancient cave that has been venerated almost from the beginning as the site where Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, was born.  A silver star, worn smooth from an infinite number of kisses, is embedded in the floor under a small altar.  Pilgrims get down on their knees and venerate the spot.   The cave is stuffy and crowded and full of emotion.

In all the times I have gone there with a group of pilgrims with disabilities, I have advised them ahead of time about the formidable steps and the narrow passage and the difficulty of getting down to the crypt.  No wheelchair can fit.  But I have also said if anyone wants to go down we will make sure they do.  In all those years, not a single person with a disability has ever decided not to go.  Sliding down with their buttocks on blankets, crawling, carried in the arms of attendants, down they go. Trembling with emotion, tears flowing, sweating with exertion, they kiss the spot where the almighty and transcendent God was born as a vulnerable human being.  I will never forget those scenes.

Why this determination to touch and kiss the spot where the divine became human for our sake? It reminds me of the gospel scenes where the sick and the confused come from near and far to seek Jesus out and to touch him.  To learn from him, to be healed by him, to be accepted by him and to be given new life.  As people of faith and fallible human beings, I think we, too, take our place in that motley crowd.

But perhaps there is something more that compels my pilgrim friends to struggle their way down the steps to kiss that star.  Like the crowds in Galilee long ago, like the modern pilgrims with broken bodies determined at all costs to touch the place where the Word became flesh--what drives them is love.  We need to be stirred by a deep love of God, just as God’s own love for us gives ultimate meaning to our lives.  We need to be stirred by a deep love of Christ, the one who embodies the divine presence and reveals the face of God to us.  And, as Christians, we realize that this is the quality of love we are called to offer each other, as astounding as that is: accepting, warm, compassionate, forgiving love.   This, we know, is the ultimate meaning of the Christmas story.

Paul the Apostle said it with force to the Christians in Corinth: “If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.  And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

Our whole mission here at Catholic Theological Union is to prepare men and women of character and quality who also desire to kiss the star, who are also motivated by God’s consuming love, who want to spend their lives proclaiming and teaching that love to our fractured world. 

May the Star of Bethlehem pour its warm light into your hearts and bring peace to you and those you love.

Fr. Donald Senior, C.P.