Arms outstretched in mercy

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Given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde on the Solemnity of Christmas at the Cathedral of Saint Thomas More in Arlington December 24 and at St. Mary Church in Alexandria December 25.

What is one of the most familiar scenes at Christmas? Is it not the stable at Bethlehem or, as some say, the crèche? In homes, churches or lawns and even in public areas, that scene is so familiar: the Infant lying in the manger, with Mary His Mother and Saint Joseph at His side, along with shepherds. Often, the Infant has His tiny arms outstretched towards us. That very human gesture communicates a twofold meaning: the Infant Jesus desires to be held by us and to hold us as well in love. Recently, Pope Francis wrote: "Love, after all, can never be just an abstraction. By its very nature, it indicates something concrete: intentions, attitudes, and behaviors that are shown in daily living," (cf. Misericordiae Vultus, n.9). The well-known phrase rings true: "Actions speak louder than words."

So, what do we really see in these outstretched arms of the Infant Jesus? We see before us God's mercy: tangible, visible, concrete, real! Yes, the Birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, which we are reliving in this Christmas Liturgy, is the revelation of God's Mercy, the revelation of how loved each one of us is by God. As you and I kneel before the Nativity scene and fix our eyes on the Infant Jesus lying in the manger and surrounded by Mary, Joseph and the shepherds, we see a very clear sign of God's love for us: Mercy Incarnate.

The Infant Jesus is reaching out to each one of us as He speaks to our hearts: "Because you are loved by God Our Father, I have come to be among you and to save you from the permanence of evil, sin, suffering and death. These tiny arms outstretched now will once again be outstretched, later on a cross, whereby I will give My life out of love to win the salvation God Our Father desires for you." How can we ever doubt God's mercy? As Pope Francis so beautifully reminds us, "… mercy is a key word that indicates God's action towards us. He does not limit himself merely to affirming his love, but makes it visible and tangible" (cf. Ibid.).

So, gazing at Mercy Made Present in our midst, Mercy Incarnate, how will we respond? Since the only response to love is love, let us reaffirm our love to the Infant Savior. Since love by its nature is never just an abstraction nor even merely an affirmation in words, our response of love must, like that of Jesus, be concrete, visible, tangible.

Our love for the Lord must be made evident through our intentional reaching out to Him every day in prayer. Make time for the Lord daily. Words we sing in one of our Christmas carols must become real in us: "O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray: cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today" - the today of each day. Moreover, our love becomes real as weekly we take part in the celebration of Mass on every Saturday evening or Sunday. Jesus wants to dwell within us in His Eucharistic presence, to make His home in us!

But, love for the Lord is not authentic without love for others, especially for those in need, whatever their particular need: spiritual, material or psychological. Earlier, in Rome, Pope Francis said, "Amid a culture of indifference, which not infrequently turns ruthless, our style of life should instead be devout, filled with empathy, compassion and mercy, drawn daily from the wellspring of prayer" (Christmas Vigil Mass).

This is a two-fold gift we bring to the Infant lying in the manger with outstretched arms towards us: love for Him through prayer, love for others through the outreach of charity.

This Christmas, what was announced to shepherds in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago is again being proclaimed: "… good news of great joy … a savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord. … an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." This Christmas, we relive once again the Birth of God's Mercy made visible.

Precisely because of this good news, this gift of Mercy Incarnate, precisely because now God abides with us in Jesus Christ, we can journey together with enduring hope and abiding light, no matter what lies ahead. His outstretched arms promise that we will be held by Him securely in love. "Yes, Lord Jesus, Come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel!"

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016