By Cardinal Justin Rigali
This Sunday, December 6, the Second Sunday of Advent, our Bless the Baby Jesus Devotion will be held once again. Let us reflect on its meaning this week.
The use of images
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council teaches the following concerning the use of religious images: “The practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they may be venerated by the faithful is to be firmly maintained” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 125).
Indeed, the use of images among the Christian people can be traced to the very beginnings of the Church. In those early places of hidden worship, the catacombs, used when Christians were being persecuted for their faith, we find the earliest examples of Christian images and symbols. These reminders of Jesus and the mysteries of our faith were expanded after the Church became free to worship publicly in the year 313. This flowering of religious imagery took place especially in Rome, with the construction of beautiful churches and artistic images, and spread wherever the Church was free to worship publicly.
We learned as children that religious images are not ends in themselves, but visible means of reminding us of the message of Jesus and the fidelity and care of His Mother and the saints who have gone before us. We may say that religious images are the artistic expression of the message of the Gospel. When we see a particularly tender image of our Lady, we are reminded of the Gospel of Saint John, in which we read of Jesus giving His own Mother to us to be our Mother. When we see an image of our Lord’s Sacred Heart, we are reminded of the words of Jesus: “Learn of me, for I am gentle and humble of heart.” We could continue with many other examples but these can give us a general idea of what we are speaking about.
The home as the domestic church
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council teaches that: “The family is, so to speak, the domestic Church. In it parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children” (Lumen Gentium, 11). Since the home and the family are also spoken of as “churches,” it is natural that the Christian people have also valued religious images in their homes for many centuries. These “holy reminders,” serve the same purpose as sacred images in the Church do, that is to lift the minds and hearts of those who view them to the things of God and the message of the Gospel.
One of the most beloved images is that which depicts the Birth of Jesus. In the year 1223, Saint Francis of Assisi popularized the depiction of the Nativity scene by recreating that event with live images. Remarkably, his words describing his purpose in doing this have been preserved. He said: “I would make a memorial of that Child who was born in Bethlehem and in some sort behold with bodily eyes the hardships of His infant state, lying on hay in a manger with the ox and the ass standing by.” Just as the first Nativity scenes were recreated for churches, it was natural for those scenes to appear eventually in the “domestic church,” the home, as well.
It is particularly appropriate that the scene of Christ’s birth be reproduced in the home because while the lessons of Bethlehem apply to all people, they are especially valuable for the home and the family.
During his visit to the Holy Land in 1964, Pope Paul VI spoke of the lessons to be learned from the childhood home of Jesus in Nazareth. Many of the lessons he pointed out concerning Nazareth also apply to Bethlehem and the lessons the family and the world can learn as they gaze upon the image of the Christ Child and the figures who surround Him.
Pope Paul spoke of the silence of the scene: “If only we could appreciate once again its great value. We need this wonderful state of mind, beset as we are by the cacophony of strident protests and conflicting claims so characteristic of these turbulent times.” He also spoke of the lessons of family life, learned as we look upon the scene of the Holy Family: “May it show us the family’s holy and enduring character and exemplify its basic function in society: a community of love and sharing, beautiful for the problems it poses and for the rewards it brings; the perfect setting for rearing children-and for this there is no substitute.” Finally, the Pope points out that the figure of Saint Joseph, a craftsman, helps us to learn the dignity of work, which is not an end in itself but “has its own dignity and deserves its proper respect” (Address, Nazareth, 5 January 1964).
What Child is this?
“What Child is this” is not only the name of a popular Christmas carol, but also a very good question to ask ourselves as we behold the Nativity scene. The Child in the manger is, of course, the Eternal Son of the Father. This Eternal Word, the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity, took flesh in the womb of His mother, Mary. After spending nine months in her virginal womb, which can be called the first tabernacle, this Eternal Word was born in time “and dwelt among us,” as the Prologue of Saint John’s Gospel teaches us. Being the Son of the Eternal Father, born of a woman, His Mother Mary, Jesus shows forth the example of family life which we explained in the previous paragraph.
It is important to recognize this Child for who He is. The Son of Man did not cease being the Son of God.
In his Encyclical on the Church, Pope Pius XII describes who this Child is. He writes: “The Word of the Eternal Father took to himself of the race of Adam a human nature, so that from the new and heavenly Adam the grace of the Holy Spirit might flow into all the children of the first parent. This Child is adorned with all the supernatural gifts which accompany the union of His spanine and human natures, and all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge of God abound in Him. The loving knowledge with which the spanine Redeemer had pursued us from the first moment of His Incarnation is such as to completely surpass all the searchings of the human mind. In the manger, on the Cross, in the eternal glory of the Father, Christ sees and embraces all the members of His Church” (Mystici Corporis, 48).
Uniting with your own families
Having given this brief explanation of the use of religious images both in the Church and in the “domestic church,” which is the home, and having reiterated who this Child we depict in the manger scene truly is, you can see my reason for instituting the “Bless the Baby Jesus Devotion” in the Archdiocese several years ago. It is yet another opportunity for me to affirm the Person of Jesus and who He is for us. It is an opportunity for me to encourage you to depict the Manger scene in your own homes, just as it is done in your parish church and as Saint Francis depicted it so long ago.
By bringing the image of the Infant Jesus from your own home and from the Nativity scene you recreate there, you are bringing the Image of Jesus from your own domestic church to the principal church of the Archdiocese, which is the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.
While I would like to visit the home of every Catholic in the Archdiocese, since this is not possible, blessing the Image of Jesus, which is then taken back to the homes of the faithful, is my way of uniting myself with all of you in giving thanks for Jesus, the Eternal Word, who was made Flesh for our salvation.
Just as the Holy Oils, which I bless each Holy Thursday in the Cathedral, to be distributed to all the parishes for the administration of the Sacraments, unite me to you and your parish priests, so to a lesser degree the blessing of the Image of the Baby Jesus is another way of being united to you not through a Sacrament in this case, but by means of what we call a sacramental.
Sacramentals such as religious images do not contain power in themselves, but they do attract us to the things of God, if we look upon them with faith and love. Let us look upon the images of the Baby Jesus, which I bless in the Cathedral, which you see in your parish churches and which you treasure in your own homes, with faith and love. In this way, to paraphrase one of the Prefaces of Christmas, “seeing our God made visible, we may be caught up in love of the God we cannot see.”
3 December 2009