When my husband and I visited his cousin in Germany this past September, Stjepan happily arranged a luncheon for us with his friend, Father Ludger Moliter. Stjepan knew this priest had studied parish life in Chicago and he hoped that we and Ludger would have many common interests to discuss. As it happened, we became fast friends who continue to keep in touch via email these days. Ludger shared that he made my book of reflections a part of his Advent and Christmas observances which certainly sealed our friendship for me!
Father Ludger has generously shared his faith journey with the good deacon and me as well. A few weeks ago, Ludger sent us Christmas greetings which included some thoughts from his Christmas homily. He’d drawn his inspiration from a fifteenth century painting by Konrad von Soest. The artwork, entitled “Christi Geburt” (Birth of Christ), depicts Mary holding the child Jesus, completely in awe of the babe in her arms. At the same time, Joseph bends over a small fire on the floor of the stable. Joseph’s cheeks are puffed up to capacity as he prepares to fan the flames with his breath. The scene seems almost comical until one realizes the significance of Joseph’s activity. If Joseph hadn’t seen to it that Jesus was kept warm, he and Mary might not have had to worry about Herod’s eventual threats after all. If Little Jesus had not been well cared for, he might not have survived this night much less the days and years that followed. Father Ludger’s point was that, yes, we need to adore, but we must also keep the fire burning.
I admit that Father Ludger’s words startled me into considering the realities of Jesus’ birth. Though the crèches in our churches and homes indicate otherwise, there wasn’t much beauty in that cold and dingy stable. Mary’s impending delivery likely left the stable preparations entirely to Joseph. Imagine poor Joseph running between Mary and the animals whom he attempted to position a safe distance away. Imagine Joseph spreading hay and then perhaps laying his own cloak over it to fashion a bed for Mary. Imagine Joseph searching for the fabric Mary had packed. It had to be ready to swaddle the baby upon his arrival. Imagine Joseph glancing back at Mary every few seconds, watching as her labor progressed and wondering if he was prepared to help her give birth. And, in the midst of all of this, imagine Joseph blowing on that fire with all of his might to keep the stable warm. That hectic Christmas night began a lifetime of awe and fire-keeping for Mary and Joseph. Their love for Jesus never wavered, and the demands of living out that love never wavered either.
The same is true for all of those who affiliate themselves with God’s son. The Magi, whom we celebrate this Epiphany Day, gambled everything to follow that amazing star because the promise of the King they sought was worth everything to them. Though the Magi eventually fell at Jesus’ feet, they didn’t leave their troubles there. In order to spread the news of Whom they found, the Magi had to evade an angry Herod who promised to rid the world of this special child. Though the Magi escaped Herod, they didn’t escape the lengthy journey back to their homes or the risky business of sharing news of this new king to their contemporaries. The scriptures tell us that those who came afterward to walk with Jesus had a tough time of it as well. Each one who embraced Jesus’ message also embraced the trials and tribulations that came with living out that message in a hostile world.
It seems to me that the painting which inspired Father Ludger offers inspiration to you and me as well. It seems to me that you and I need to take on both Mary’s and Joseph’s roles as they are depicted in von Soest’s artwork. Like Mary, we must acknowledge the gift of God in our lives. What unfathomable and generous love it is that caused the Creator of the Universe to become one of us! Indeed, we have much reason to sit in awe before the Lord. Still, the same generous love which gives us pause also compels us imitate it in our daily lives in all that we say and do. Only then will we be like Joseph and the many who followed him in nurturing God’s presence in this world. Yes, as Father Ludger observed, we need to adore, but we must also keep the fire burning.
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