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I remember Jesus as a baby

children nativity scene Christmas boys

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Tom Hoopes - published on 12/11/23

Thanks to liturgy, contemplative prayer, and nostalgia, I remember it all because I was there.

I remember the Baby Jesus. I remember the frustration of finding the inn full. I remember the smell of the hay, and Joseph handing him over to Mary because he needed to nurse. I remember how surprised everyone was when the shepherds arrived — but no one more than them.

I remember it all because I was there.

The Church tells us that each Mass enters into the fullness of time when Jesus came.

“The Church, especially during Advent and Lent and above all at the Easter Vigil, re-reads and re-lives the great events of salvation history in the ‘today’ of her liturgy,” says the Catechism.

We celebrate Christmas each year as if it were the first time Christ came, because it is. God is outside of time, and so is Mass, giving us access to Jesus’ salvific events in God’s eternal now. 

Fulton Sheen said this is especially true of the baby Jesus:

To each and everyone he comes as if he had never come before; in his own sweet way he is the Child who is born, he, Jesus the Savior, he Emmanuel, he Christ at Christ’s Mass on Christmas.

I experienced this encounter with Jesus as a boy at church.

I was in no way a pious child. I spent most of my time at Mass staring at the ceiling, imagining how I would climb across it if I were Spider Man. But I was in the presence of the “today” of Christ’s coming in the Liturgy, and it touched me more deeply than I knew.

Jesus was there, and I could feel it. Especially at Christmas. I could see it in my mom’s eyes and in the glow of the faces of the family that brought up the gifts. I knew he was there because on Christmas day, when Mass was so inconvenient with so much going on, more people went to church than on any other day.

And the Gospel words made it through my distracted child brain somehow:

“He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him,” John reported, and I wanted to right that wrong.

“This will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger,” Luke said, and I looked for the sign — and found it.

The Nativity scene was a time machine that worked every time I approached it after Mass.

I remember how the chipped paint of the plaster statues, the shiny angel and the Italian looking shepherds became real. Staring at them transported me immediately to Bethlehem and I was there with the ox, the lamb, and the donkey (my family didn’t say “ass”). I knew exactly what it was like to live in an ancient Jewish stable, if only temporarily. 

I remember how Bethlehem at the time of the census was chaotic, with people milling around at the Inn even late at night. We could hear them from the manger — they sounded like people putting on jackets and murmuring after Mass. But all was quiet there in the stable. 

Jesus was like an oasis of silence. I could feel how his presence quieted Joseph, the shepherds, and me (I grouped myself with the male characters).  We stared at Jesus in wonder and he asked us to change: to become both smaller and greater for him. This was my first experience of the unitive heights of contemplative prayer.

Now, Christmas has the same effect on me — because nostalgia is a time machine.

I am almost certainly remembering Christmas Mass wrong. I’m sure I was irritated, distracted, and demanding much more often than I was immersed in the eternal reverberations of the incarnation.

But I am also remembering it absolutely correctly. Nostalgia does a beautiful thing for us, by reaching back in time and presenting to us an event stripped of all the imperfections and failures from the situation.

There is a dangerous nostalgia that remembers the past as if it were perfect and becomes disgusted with the present. But there is a blessed nostalgia that re-presents the essential beauty of an experience — then our memory becomes graced with what Pope Benedict XVI called a “nostalgia for God.”

God wants to meet each of us at Christmas again this year. 

I really do remember the Baby Jesus — above all because he remembers me. He came to Bethlehem and knew each of us there.

“No one, whether shepherd or wise man, can approach God here below except by kneeling before the manger at Bethlehem and adoring him hidden in the weakness of a new-born child,” says the Catechism.

I’ll see you there.

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