By ARCHBISHOP GREGORY J. HARTMAYER, OFM Conv. | Published March 3, 2023 | En Español
It seems no sooner have we put away the Christmas decorations for another year than we embark upon our Lenten journeys. It is good for us to reflect on the Lord’s Passion from the perspective of Bethlehem.
The Son of God was born in a cave in Bethlehem. We are told that his mother Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger. The manger was nothing more than a feeding trough for animals. From the very beginning, his life was in danger because of the jealousy of a neurotic king. Bethlehem was a busy place as people came from near and far to register in the census.
The census was a reminder to the people of the Roman occupation that sought to extract taxes from them in every way possible. In the midst of the frenzy, the Prince of Peace entered into our world.
Thirty-three years had passed since that most holy night. The setting is now Jerusalem. Jesus has incurred the wrath of the scribes and Pharisees. They will not be satisfied until he is dead.
The Gospels recount many plots that were afloat to have Jesus arrested, tried and executed. The religious authorities had witnessed his miracles. They had heard him teaching and preaching. They saw vast crowds following him. Like Herod, they saw Jesus as a threat to their power and social standing. However, the Pharisees could not put a person to death. As an occupied nation, they needed to go to Pilate and make the claim that Jesus identified himself as a king.
When pressed by Pilate, they shouted: “We have no king but Caesar.” Pilate took notice and had Jesus brought into the Praetorium for interrogation. He mocked Jesus and sent him over to King Herod Antipas. Once again, Jesus was mocked and ridiculed. He was sent back to Pilate, and to Pilate’s questioning, Jesus answers with another question: “What is truth?” Pilate, the moral relativist has no concern for the truth. He orders Jesus to be scourged as he declares “I find no case against this man.”
Once again, the crowds were not satisfied and shouted “Crucify him,” when Jesus was brought before them. Like the manger in which he was born, a wooden cross—that was not his own—is placed on his shoulders. Like Bethlehem on that first Christmas night, the crowds had descended upon Jerusalem. This time it was for Passover. Jesus had wept for Jerusalem, who would not accept him. In the midst of darkness, he was nailed to a cross. After much suffering, he breathed his last.
As at Bethlehem, his mother Mary was there as a sword of grief pierced her soul. The lifeless body of her Divine Son was placed in those same arms that had cradled him as a baby. However, death could not contain him and on the third day, he rose triumphant from the grave.
In the words of Pope Francis: “At Calvary, in her overwhelming grief, she understood the prophecy of Simeon: ‘And a sword will pierce your own soul too’ (Lk 2:35). The suffering of her dying Son, who had taken upon himself the sins and infirmities of humanity, pierced her own heart. Jesus suffered in the flesh, the man of sorrows, disfigured by evil (Is 53:3). Mary suffered in spirit, as the compassionate Mother who dries our tears, comforts us and points to Christ’s definitive victory.”
There is a profound likeness between Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and his death in Jerusalem. Both show rejection and estrangement. Yet God takes on our humanity in the birth of Jesus. He also accepts hostility in the suffering and crucifixion of his only Son. And for what reason does he come to us in our brokenness? To die for our sins. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13).
In spite of fear, Jesus accepted the cross willingly: “not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). What is our response to such great love? Jesus has told us: “if any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt 16:24).
The cross casts its long shadow over the manger where the Christ child lay. The cross comes into our lives in many shapes and forms. While our human nature would have us flee from the cross, God’s grace enables us to embrace the cross. Both the manger and the cross point to the same truth: that Christ came to die for us, so that we could have eternal life and to free us from the bonds of sin and death. And so, we are invited to walk in the footsteps of Christ.
During this holy season of Lent, as we make the Way of the Cross in our families and schools, in our churches and communities, may we truly enter into the mystery of God’s love for us. As we enter more deeply into the season by our prayer, penance and works of charity, may we unite our sacrifices with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and show to the world, the infinite love of God in the gift of his Divine Son. Recall the words from the hymn “Christians Awake” by the English poet, John Byrom:
“Oh, may we keep and ponder in our mind God’s wondrous love in saving lost mankind!
Trace we the babe, who hath retrieved our loss, from his poor manger to his bitter cross.
Tread in his steps, assisted by his grace, till our imperfect state God doth replace.”
And may the Lord grant you his peace!