In his homily for Christmas, Fr. Stephen Hamilton uses a broken nativity piece as an image of Jesus coming into our world and lives broken by sin.
This past Thursday was a surreal day with tragic news about a friend from years back. The day was sort of spent in a fog. My mind was elsewhere throughout the day, sort of just passing through the day with strained focus. I came over to the church for confessions and Mass in the late afternoon. Church decorating was already underway. And so I stopped to look upon our Nativity Scene in the narthex. For a moment it gave me some comfort about the message of Christmas, whose celebration was only days away. And then I saw the ear broken off the ox! Given the way the day had gone it was sort of like a last straw. That broken nativity piece took on more weight and became more disappointing then it otherwise would have been if that day had been a regular day.
A spontaneous complaint surfaced in my mind and heart. Muttering under my breath I said, “Now this too? It’s ruined.” All the serenity I was expecting for Christmas, all the beauty and prayerful focus I had wanted to provide you… I found myself saying, “This won’t work. I can’t use this. It’s not right. The scene isn’t perfect. It’s tarnished.” What was rising in me was an uncritical, irrational desire for an idyllic scene. This expectation had crept in without my even being aware of it or seeking to foster it. It’s as if I had this innate expectation that the scene of Jesus’ birth is supposed to be like a Bethlehem version of a Norman Rockwell painting. The complaint about the broken ear that bubbled up so immediately in me after a rough day showed me in that brief moment of reflection standing over the scene, that I was expecting or wanting a scene that was washed of all the reality of the historical scene, void of the reality of life as it really happened at Jesus’ birth. By necessity, a Nativity Scene does not communicate the sounds and smells of the actual scene. And, at least as regards the smells, we can be thankful, no? It is only a snapshot of the reality of the birth of a Baby in humble setting, a Baby Who is also God. The scene can only give us a glimpse, albeit, an incomplete one; one that is supposed to draw us to think and reflect and pray about the full image of the scene and its fuller meaning. Even though the scene in our churches and our homes can only give us a snapshot, it doesn’t mean we honor the scene any less, just as we value pictures of loved ones even though they cannot communicate the full meaning of the person.
And so that broken ear became a symbol for me and a gift of sorts, to draw me into deeper reflection about the full import of what God chose to enter when He took human flesh in Mary’s womb and was ultimately born into our world, into our history, and into our less than perfect lives. I hope you can identify with a broken nativity piece and perhaps it can serve to draw you into some reflection about where Jesus can come into your life. You see, the broken nativity piece quite literally is a reminder that the Son of God, Jesus Christ, came into a broken, wounded, less than ideal, less than perfect world. So, in the beauty of this Holy Mass celebrating Jesus’ birth, in your own prayer time in our Adoration Chapel before the Lord’s Real Presence, in your prayer before our Nativity Scene, or before your own at home, I ask you, What is your “broken ear?” Figuratively, of course. What in your life is broken, wounded, less than ideal, and less than perfect? Certainly, there is more than one thing. Is it something into which you can permit Jesus to come? Or, like my innate reaction on a bad day, do you sort of war against the notion that Jesus should be present there? Do you push back against Jesus entering into your reality, as it actually is? Do you want to give Jesus sort of just a snapshot of your life? When you enter prayer and things of faith, do you sort of adopt this fantasy that only the pleasant things of your life are places where Jesus can be?
The “broken ears” of our lives are many and on different levels, not only physical, but also spiritual, emotional, and psychological matters. When we experience brokenness – our own or someone else’s – we can sometimes become so focused on what is broken that we lose sight that God can be present there. We can’t see beyond or around or through what is broken – it consumes our vision making us become more narrowly focused. People of faith are called to remember that God comes to brokenness. It is a consequence of His choice to enter our world in our flesh. And more than just remembering, people of faith are called to invite God into our brokenness and even to make a place in our brokenness for Him to come to deeper birth, so that divine wholeness and healing can bring new life to what is less than ideal in us.
So, what are the “broken ears” in your life? Maybe you or a loved one has a serious illness or chronic suffering. Perhaps you face a tragic development of some kind. Maybe you can’t conceive a child. Perhaps there is loss of income or unemployment. Maybe addiction plagues you. The broken ear can be more internal too. There may be darkness and depression. Perhaps you face fear and anger, even toward someone close, a spouse or a child. Look deep within and perhaps the broken ear is some defect of character or some inclination or tendency that, if allowed, would direct you in ways unhealthy and unholy. Maybe the brokenness is more spiritual. Laziness in Mass attendance or poor discipline in personal prayer. Maybe there is a real lack of zeal for things of the Lord. A spiritual “broken ear” might be a struggle with some temptation or a habit of serious sin. Doubts and coldness toward God may afflict some. Still other examples of brokenness would be mourning, sadness at a failed relationship, the feeling of isolation, confusion about your future, or the weight of some betrayal.
The Christmas message captured in part in our Nativity Scenes is that God desires to enter all these disappointing, less than ideal places. He wants us to catch ourselves where we uncritically adopt the idea that He doesn’t belong there. And He wants us to dismiss the tendency to refuse Him permission to see and to enter our broken lives. If we will open these places to God and raise them to Him in prayer they can become places where the grace of God appears (to borrow St. Paul’s words to Titus). Identify and name what in yourself is like a broken piece of a Nativity and rejoice that God can be made visible and can be born there today! After all, a place just as unlikely and seemingly inappropriate as a stable for animals was the very place centuries ago where God arrived. At the Bethlehem cave-stable the smallness, the weakness, the defenselessness, the dependency of a small child was God’s sign. Think of what had transpired centuries before and recorded by the Prophet Isaiah: The Lord spoke to Ahaz and said, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” We often assume signs must be big, grandiose, and profound, deep as the netherworld or as high as heaven. But Isaiah went on to report, “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” With this prophecy as a backdrop we can learn the lesson of permitting God to be in what seems too small, insignificant, or even weak and broken within us. The angel declared to the shepherds on that holy night, “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” For me, at the Lamb of God when the priest fractures, breaks the Sacred Host, a new meaning and power is communicated. God made Himself so small, so simple, so defenseless, so susceptible to limitation and brokenness that He even wills to literally be broken for our salvation, broken on the Cross, a brokenness made present at each Holy Mass. In the beauty and attractiveness of a newborn baby, God beckons us to come close even to brokenness – to our own – and there to let Heaven and nature sing.