In the Psalm that Saint Francis composed for the celebration of Christmas he reminds us that: “the Most Holy Child has been given to us, and has been born for us on the way and placed in a manger because he did not have a place in the inn.” St. Francis, Office of the Passion, Ps. XV,7.
Every day in Bethlehem we contemplate the physical place, “on the way”, where Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary. There we daily venerate the manger where he was placed. The physical reality of this place reminds us of the fact that the Son of God chose to share our history and our life in a real manner. The mystery of the incarnation is not a reality show in which common people, in front of a television camera, act by pretending to live real situations. Jesus came from a royal lineage, and yet he found himself being born on the way, because in a real way he did not find a place of welcome or any hospitality. He found himself being born on the way as a son of immigrants – as we would say nowadays – more than as a descendent of a royal family.
This fact and this choice, which we daily commemorate in Bethlehem but which we live once more in the whole world particularly during this intense period of Christmas, remind us of the fact that the Son of God has taken our human condition very seriously. Jesus identifies himself with the condition in which he found himself “on the way” not out of a personal choice but out of necessity. He was born on the way because he was obliged to find work somewhere else. He was born on the way because he had to emigrate from a situation in which he was a victim of discrimination and which did not permit him to live in dignity in his own house. He was born on the way because an earthquake or floods have deprived him of his own home. He was born on the way because war uprooted him from his own Country and made him become a refugee. These are the ways in which the Son of God who is born in Bethlehem, on the way, identified himself and still identifies himself, because there is no place for him where we normally live and find our place.
This child, however, reminds us of the words of Saint Francis, who is echoing the words of the Gospel and of the liturgy: “he has been given to us, and he was born for us.” We can also find ourselves deprived of everything, along the wayside, but if we have received this gift our life is already full of meaning. Jesus is the true gift we wait for. Jesus is the only gift that can fill our heart. Jesus is the gift that fills our life. Without this gift all that we have will serve for our livelihood, but will not be useful to live in a full and authentic way. Jesus was born for us. “Pro nobis” are the Latin words, which make us grasp the reality that the entire life of that child was going to be a life given “for us”, a life from which we have received a great benefit: our salvation, the possibility to become, together with him, children of the same God the Father, the possibility to participate in the fullness of life and joy which make up divine life. He was born for us on the way, he was given to us on the way, he became for us the way leading to life, to happiness and to the fullness of love. Let us gaze upon the manger in the grotto of Bethlehem, and there we can already see in perspective Golgotha and the cross, where we will truly understand the meaning of the expression of that child who was “born for us.”
On behalf of the Franciscans of the Holy Land and on my behalf, I wish you the joy to feel moved not only in front of the small boy in the crib, but also in front of each and every child of flesh and blood, whose arms reach out to us and who asks to be accepted. In that child we can see how much the Son of God has become small for us. He became small in a real way, and not in a metaphorical sense.
I wish all of you, and above all those who feel that they are living “on the way”, in a fragile and vulnerable condition, to feel that you fall under the maternal and vigilant gaze of the Virgin Mary, and of the vigilant and caring presence of Saint Joseph who stands beside her.
I wish all of you to come to know how to pass from sentiment to action, in order to recognise, in this present moment, the Son of God who is still asking us to welcome him “on the way”, and who still risks not to find a place among us and to have to find refuge somewhere else.
Merry Christmas to each and every one of you, to your families and communities.
Fr. Francesco Patton, ofm
Custos of the Holy Land