Growing up, as I did, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, it’s hard not to appreciate what has been described as “the law of the gift”: protect, defend, nourish, share that which we are given. Liberty is a great treasure. We had best understand that we have tremendous responsibility here.
Almost hidden in a corner of the famous Philadelphia Museum of Art is the image of an unmistakably extraordinary man. He seems to embody a tender authoritativeness. The artist described this particular image of Jesus as “a portrait of Jesus from life,” and publisher Pierre-Marie Dumont writes in the monthly devotional Magnificat that Rembrandt here “offers for our contemplation a face of Christ that is at one and the same time the most humanly human and the most divinely divine ever created by an artist, and he takes us along on the spiritual quest that drove him to contemplate the man Jesus in order to discover the true God.”
That God-man is the reason so many of us have Wednesday — and maybe even Tuesday — off work. He’s the reason we’ve decked the halls and will give gifts.
But what about the gifts we have? There’s life itself. And that liberty. Faith, for many, is another big one — and our culture is far from devoid of it, since we haven’t entirely removed Christ from the celebration of Christmas. And there is family. We may not all have the perfect models — perhaps we once did and lost it, perhaps it all fell apart with a bad decision or a sudden mistake or an abrupt end. Or perhaps it’s just foreign to many of us — and something we don’t even read about any more, because we all too often give priority to making room for “new normals” instead of the old standbys that do seem to make natural and demographic sense.
Orchestrating a Day of Faith in Philadelphia this fall, Dumont brought with him a family. St. Thérèse of Lisieux was a cloistered Carmelite nun with a mission. “I wish to travel the world, proclaiming your name throughout the earth!” she declared in prayer to Christ, shortly before her death. In fact, she didn’t leave her convent, but her mission continues, a mission from the Reason for the Christmas season.
“I spent the last two years working for her,” Fleur Nabert says in explaining her relationship with Thérèse. A French sculptor, Nabert built a chapel, Our Lady of the Smile, in Lisieux, and now has created a reliquary, a home for relics of St. Thérèse and her parents, commissioned by the Magnificat Foundation.
Thérèse’s childlike trust in God is an inspiration for people who all too often either overly complicate things or try to reinvent the wheel — often trying toreinvent God in our image, instead of looking to be transformed by the Divine, our Father and Creator. The parents of this youngest person to be named a Doctor of the Church, Louis and Zélie Martin, became the first married couple to be beatified, by Pope Benedict in 2008. “Their story is very moving because it was a true human story marked by many sorrows and ordeals,” Nabert notes in appreciation. “They lost four children out of nine. Zélie had to struggle with a breast cancer, which eventually overtook her,” she explains. “They were also hard workers: Louis as a watchmaker and Zélie as a lacemaker. Theirs lives are very close to ours. They succeeded in experiencing sanctity in marriage, sanctity in family, without losing confidence in God. They kept their hope and faith, even raising five girls who would become nuns, one among them becoming one of the world’s most popular saints.” Their lives, a grateful artist reflects, witness to the possibility of living life on earth with eyes toward Heaven.
Nabert’s reliquary includes three flowers, representing St. Thérèse and her parents. “But my favorite parts of the reliquary are the big wedding rings,” she tells me. “I wanted them as a reminder: Through the sacrament of marriage we can experience Heaven.” The sacrament, she reflects, is “the treasure of married life, the fountain of graces from which we can spread love on children and around us. Marriage is a miracle to protect every day.”
If marriage is a miracle, isn’t ours a culture of increasingly little faith!
“The ensemble,” a description of the reliquary explains, “is protected by a transparent case in the shape of an arch to remind us that that the Christian family is a domestic Church, the first place where we practice sanctity.” It’s another manger scene. In the Nativity, we see a loving husband and stepfather protecting his wife and son, even under unplanned circumstances, duress, and inhospitality. And we remember that it all came about because of a young woman’s daring to say “yes,” with true loving trust. History owes that couple. As with the Martin family, it is possible: to live and love, reaching beyond ourselves, living for eternity, embracing humanity.
Rembrandt’s “entire canvas is covered in a dark brown background, like the shadow of in that engulfs all humankind,” Dumont writes. “Then, from the very core of this abyss emerges a gentle light that warms without burning, that illuminates without blinding, that consoles without condemning. Thus, from the heart of sin, grace flows forth.” The Divine Light is what the star over Bethlehem directed the wise men to: Heaven made manifest on earth, in our very humanity.
There’s a lot of controversy, glee, and confusion about what Pope Francis has in mind when he implores a radical concern for the poor, the suffering, the sick, and the lonely — anyone who is vulnerable, which pretty well covers the globe. “What child is this?” the Christmas carol asks, and it’s that child Whom Francis is pointing to. In the encyclical he published this year, Lumen Fidei, which had been largely penned by his predecessor, faith is defined as a light that illuminates everything. That’s it. That’s why Christmas matters in real, enduring ways that ought to affect everyday life throughout the year. It is more ever-present even than the lady in New York Harbor.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA; she has done consulting work with the Magnificat Foundation. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.