Christmas and Salvation

Fr. Leonard Feeney, MICM

 The following is an abridgment of the first chapter of BREAD OF LIFE, which is a compilation of lectures given on Thursday evenings in the 1950's at the original St. Benedict Center on the corner of Bow and Arrow Streets, just footsteps from Cambridge's radical Harvard Square. The Center became a Catholic oasis for students attending the local colleges and universities.
The only way I can get to what I want to talk about tonight, the love of God for us as a Child and His birth into the world as a Child, is by giving you a challenge.

At Bethlehem, in the crib, is a loving, warm, exquisite Baby. In order to find that little Charity, that bundle of Love lying in the straw, you have got to walk down the hills, over the rocks, across the brooks, into the dark, in your hunt for the cave. You have got to sacrifice other things in order to find it, even the brightness of the stars. The songs of the Angels have to be put away, or, if you are a shepherd, your sheep. That is how chaste you have to be to find this Baby.  

Holy Scripture says about the shepherds to whom the Angels appeared, that they were "field-living." There are two kinds of shepherds: one, the kind who go home at night for supper and return the next morning; and the other, the real pastoral kind, who stay in the field with their sheep night and day, probably going home on holidays with a lamb for dinner.

The shepherds in Holy Scripture were field-watchers. They lived with their sheep on the hill. We know that there is no custodian of anything in the order of nature---no farmer to his field, no bird lover to his doves, no cow puncher to his cattle---so warm and intimate and close, so dependable and loving, as a shepherd to his sheep. In the order of affection, sheep are the closest linked animal to man.

Not even a master is as close to his dog as a shepherd is to his sheep. A shepherd lives with his sheep, watches them pasture, thinks according to their rhythms, shares their weather. He contemplates them. Sheep are man's nourishment and warmth, his food and his wool, his dinner and his clothing. A sheep goes to slaughter not opening his mouth. He is eager to be sacrificed.

And so, as occupations go, I do not think there is any man who could with more reason say it was impossible to leave his work and go over to Bethlehem than a shepherd. A businessman could lock his door. An innkeeper could put his clerk in charge. But a shepherd is afraid to put another shepherd in his place, because sheep follow the leads of a shepherd. One flock, you will notice, is not like another flock. Nervous shepherds have nervous flocks. Lazy shepherds have lazy flocks.

I am an expert at this because I lived for ten months in North Wales. Our religious house was in the midst of the sheep country, and I had plenty of opportunity to study the ways of the shepherds with their sheep. I wrote a poem about it:

Oh, you should have seen the miracle
I saw when I was in Wales,
Where myriads of sheep go munching up
And lunching down the dales;
And graze along the meadow marsh,
And nibble around the mill,
Cross the bridges over the brook,
Bleat and eat and fill
Their bellies full of blossoms;
Then lie awhile and sleep.
Then slowly up the slope again
And slowly down the steep,
Their little mouths meandering on,
Bite by bite they pull,
Inch by inch, the sweet grass
While all the beautiful
Valleys of Wye from stream to sky
Are turning into wool.

There is too, perhaps, no occupation to which has been attached so much honest, decent sentiment, as to that of a shepherd.

"The sheep are coming home in Greece
Flock by flock and fleece by fleece ..."

Almost a philosophy of life has grown around a shepherd and his sheep.

I could see a more pointed, but no more decisive, sacrifice than a shepherd leaving his sheep on the mountain-top and going over to see a little baby, in a cave which housed also an ox and an ass, two kinds of animals in which a shepherd is not interested!

But the shepherds went. They left flocks of Angels in the sky, and flocks of sheep on the hill; and they went over to Bethlehem to see a Baby---a little Infant dressed in swaddling clothes---with His Mother beside Him.

As far as I can make out from the scriptural story, the shepherds did not immediately go back to their sheep. Instead, they went to tell everyone in the town about what they had seen.

Luke 2:18-20. And all that heard, wondered,. and at those things that were told them by the shepherds ... And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God, for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

They went from field to field, to all the neighboring pastures, and before a day was over, they did not know which shepherd belonged to which sheep.

What did the Angels say to the shepherds when they appeared to them, on the hills around Bethlehem? They said, "Glory to God in the highest ..." That means, the highest awareness of God, allied to the highest praise

This is our Savior. And without our
Savior, there is no salvation ...

of Him, is now going to occur on earth, for men to relish and to realize in Angelic simplicity. The Angels also said, "Peace on earth to men of good will."

Inasmuch as it was to the shepherds that this encouragement was given, it is easy to imply---in fact, it is necessary to see---that these shepherds were men of good will. They were holy men. They were men pleasing to God. They were just men---men in the state of justification.

What new news were the Angels coming to give to these believing and holy shepherds, who were in the state of justification? The Angels were giving the shepherds the new news of salvation! For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people; For, this day is born to you a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord . . . You shall find the Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger. [Luke 2:10-12]

If this message to these simple shepherds meant anything, it had to mean that salvation was not theirs until this day---however just, however holy, however trustful and believing they might be. The shepherds were told, "This day is born to you a Savior," which meant, salvation does not begin until He is born.

"And you shall find the Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger," means that salvation is a visible thing, as visible as a freshly born, freshly wrapped child, now drinking milk at its mother's breast.

This is our Savior. And without our Savior, there is no salvation! I do not know what Christmas in the United States is going to be like from now on. I frankly do not! I have seen how it has deteriorated in the past twenty-five years. I know the deceivers and haters of Jesus and Mary, across the street at Harvard College, will go through this Christmas religiously as fraudulently as they went through the last one. There will be red lights blinking on Christmas trees, this year the same as last year. Light, revealing nothing! Light, meant to be the means of making things visible, with nothing to show!

Undoubtedly, somebody like Theodore Spencer, of Harvard---who called Jesus a "myth," before he died---will get up and read Dickens' Christmas Carol. That is supposed to be very Christmasy! Some noted actor, if he is able, will do a little Christmas barking on the radio. Some notorious comedian will roar like Santa Claus!

That is the culture that goes with Christmas now. And because I, once a son in the Society of Jesus, see it as sad and tragic, and say it is sad and tragic, I am resented. People do not want to see! They would much prefer to hear about an invisible Christmas, and an invisible Church, that we could have in common with those who deny or despise Christ's Divinity and His birth at Christmas from the womb of a little Jewish girl, Mary of Nazareth.

When the Angels said to the shepherds, "Go over to Bethlehem!" they did not mean, "Go over and commune with nature." They did not mean, "Turn to Bethlehem, the way a wild Mohammedan would turn to Mecca!"

They did not say, "Close your eyes and imagine what profound depths there are in you."

The Angels said, "Run like men, and find the Baby---and His little Mother, with Him!"

A mother makes a baby doubly visible. A mother is the framework of the baby. A mother is the auspices under which you look at a baby. You are almost afraid to look at a baby unless his mother is there. For those who are truly anxious to know and love Jesus and Mary at Christmas, let me touch on one little phase of the situation.

This is a child's world. And a child does not have too many successes. Have you ever watched a child learn to walk? He finally achieves one step after five thousand failures!

A child does not have too many playmates. He does not have too many people at his birthday party. He does not have too many songs to sing him to sleep at night. If he is going to stay a child, he is a little bit lost in the child, he is a little bit lost in the world---a little bit alone. He is the most singular thing in a multitude. His one cry is, "Where is my mother?" or "Where is my daddy?" as he looks into every other unsatisfactory face.


People do not want to see! They would much prefer to hear about an invisible Christmas, and an invisible Church, that we could have in common with those who deny or despise Christ's Divinity and His birth at Christmas from the womb of a little Jewish girl, Mary of Nazareth.

A child does not have too long a story to tell about himself. It is a simple tale. He can tell you his whole history in very short order. A child, when he has one sure friend, does not worry about the friends he does not have. A child does not go to sleep each night weirdly worrying about all the other children in the world who might be going to sleep, too; wondering, just as he is on the verge of slipping into slumber, if there is any insomnia on the rest of the street. A child is, in an innocent way [I will not call him selfish], a self-contained little thing.

A child's trust, and heart, and love, and footsteps, and eyes, and interest, are never frustrated by failure. He goes to the piano which he fails to play, opens the book which he does not succeed in reading, reaches for the moon which does not come down to him, asks to go in an automobile that will not take him. Things are constantly being taken away from a child. "You cannot have this; you cannot have that."

A Child is given unto us! A Child is born to us, Who is Christ the Lord! Our Lord's whole life was, in its simplicity, the life of a child. He did not have too many friends. I do not think you would call seventy-two disciples too many followers---or twelve apostles too many close friends.

A child does not travel much. Neither did Jesus. Except for His excursion into Egypt, He never left the tiny territory of Palestine.

A child expects his little gifts to the world not to have too much dependence on a multitude. I think you can get a child very tired of giving ice cream cones to fifty people. He does not mind sharing one cone with you, or giving two or three things; but he is not a good headwaiter at a party, or a good entrepreneur.

A child thinks his little mother is the greatest mother, in fact the only mother, in the world. He has to be taught that there are such things as other mothers.

A child is indignant, decisive, impetuous.

We all stay a child as we go through life---the best part of us does. We are a child when we eat, when we sleep, when we are sick, when we are old. When we are lonely, we are a child; when we are hurt, we are a child. If we only would let that child in us become interested in Jesus, you would be surprised how easily we could find Him!

I do not have to teach you to think like a child. It is the one art you all know. Direct your child-interest towards Jesus, and you will be surprised at what wonderful results you will get.

Jesus of Bethlehem is given all over the world in the simple, complete value of Christmas, in all the traditions we know---in the kind of story one tells to a child. The inspired record of His life in Holy Scripture is there, in case a child is looking. If you are looking as a child this Christmas, it is child's play to find it.

If, while you are looking, you are not being a child, but are being very adult, grand, organizational, theoretical, proud, ideological, superacadernic and noncommittal [there is nothing less noncommittal than a child], you will not find Him even when you see a First Communion little girl come down the aisle and say to her father [as I once heard a little girl say], "Pick me up and kiss me because Jesus is in my heart." You will not find Him even when you see a little nun consecrated to God, whose face and eyes and hands show it. It will just miss you. You will not even know He is there. You will hear a lot of talk of a girl, Saint Therese of the Child Jesus---about whom there is a book in every library. You will not have time to read her autobiography---you will not even know it is obtainable. You will see her picture here in our room, which Ellen Maria Beneway painted, and you will dismiss it with a non-childlike dismissal; with an adult, supercilious grin, and a horrid, academic face.

Depart from me, you cursed academic frauds! You Harvard hypocrites! You would not go over to Bethlehem if it were standing right in front of you! You would not want to know the truth of the Catholic Faith. That is why you do not find it!

A Child is given to you! A Child is born to you Who is Christ, the Lord! Sometimes He takes the meanest instruments to tell you His message. I do not know any priest in the United States of America who could be called this Christmas [thanks to newspaper publicity] a meaner instrument than I am.

But I can still tell you the way of a Child.