My heart is at peace in following Jesus’ descending path to lowliness, which is really the ascending path to see God face-to-face.
It’s difficult to recall precisely how Christmas first left its marks on my young cognitive faculties. The earliest experience I can think of was the blurry image of my primary school teacher dressed up as Santa, holding a bagful of beautifully wrapped presents, blurting out “Ho-Ho-Ho” as he walked on stage in front of a rowdy crowd of hundreds of wide-eyed schoolmates. If my memory serves me right, I think my immediate reaction was one of apprehension. Who on earth was this strange character dressed in some outrageous outfits? Why was my teacher, who was normally composed and dignified, acting like a fool?
That was pretty much my childhood Christmas experience in a nutshell: presents, Christmas cards, funs, parties. Other than a small group of people from a Christian denomination nearby, who would come to my parents’ shop on Christmas eve - all dressed up, candles in hands, caroling cheerfully as they processed - Christmas to me was just a special time for social activities. But over the years, as my Christian faith deepened and my secular heart enlightened by the Holy Spirit, my perception gradually underwent a complete transformation. No longer do I see Christmas as a mere occasion for celebrations and festivities; I am convinced its deeper meaning lies in its religious solemnity. Nor do I enjoy much the delusional feeling of affluence that the Christmas presents bring; I believe the real affluence of Christmas can only be found in its spirit of humility and poverty, starting from the lowliness and destitution of the manger where Jesus, the “King of kings and Lord of lords”, was born (Rev 19:16).
Here we are, barely a month after the Christmastide, on this 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, the Christmas spirit of humility, poverty and lowliness is still very much alive and visible in the Mass readings: Take care of the hungry, the homeless, and the naked, Isaiah exhorts in the 1st reading (cf. Is 58:7-8). In the 2nd reading, we find Paul preaching to his disciples not “with sublimity of words or of wisdom” but “in weakness and fear and much trembling” (1 Cor 2:1,3).
According to Pope Benedict XVI, the Beatitudes are the best definition of Christian discipleship. Who are Jesus’ true disciples? The lives of the true disciples of Christ must exhibit the ascetic attributes of the Beatitudes, says the Pope. “They are poor, hungry, weeping men; they are hated and persecuted” (Jesus of Nazareth I, p.73). Not surprisingly, the life of Jesus is in itself the fullest manifestation of the Beatitudes (ibid, p.74). It is a life of simplicity, poverty, sorrow, and persecution that culminates or, the world would say, “bottoms out” in his death on the Cross.
In the gospel, Jesus asks his disciples to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world”; their “light must shine before others” (cf. Mt. 5:13-16). As Jesus will not ask from us anything that he himself doesn’t do, he himself is actually the light “set on a lampstand”, the light that “must shine before others” (cf. Mt. 5:15-16). As Jesus’ followers, we follow his example to “shine before others” when our lives manifest the same radicalism of the Beatitudes, the same poverty and lowliness that define the life of our Lord.
As I reflect on the years gone by, from childhood to old age, from primary school to senior community, from my first Christmas experience in Hong Kong to the most recent one here in Toronto; my heart is overwhelmed by a profound feeling of thankfulness: thankful because my understanding of the meaning of Christmas has really come a long way; thankful because with God’s blessing and unfathomable patience, I have managed to leave behind the culture of possession and delusional affluence to embrace the culture of service and inner freedom; thankful, most of all, because my heart is at peace in following Jesus’ descending path to lowliness (his destitution, poverty, suffering, and death), which, as my mentor Pope Benedict XVI has assured me, is really the ascending path to see God face-to-face (cf. Jesus of Nazareth I, p.95). As Christians, our conviction is that the only way to shine is the way of the Cross.
I’d like to conclude this reflection with this scriptural passage: “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness…he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him” (Phil 2:6-9).