Abbot Mark's 2017 Christmas Message
Abbot Mark Cooper, O.S.B. published the following message in the December 7, 2017 issue of the Saint Anselm College Crier
Earlier this semester, the Alva de Mars Megan Chapel Art Center provided our college community with a fascinating exhibition called “The Sacred and the Ordinary: Examining Works on Paper from the MacDonald Collection.” The display, which marked the 50th anniversary of the art center, gave visitors an opportunity to see Biblical scenes and mysteries of our Catholic faith, as well as artistic works representing interior and domestic family life. These paper-based works range from medieval illuminations to Old Master drawings to 20th century lithographs.
Two of the art works on display depict the Holy Family shortly after the birth of Jesus some 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem of Judea. One, titled The Presentation in the Temple with the Angel, c. 1630, is an etching on laid paper by Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669). The other, more than a century older, c. 1500, also features the Presentation in the Temple. It is an illuminated manuscript sheet with an historiated initial “A”, executed in ink and tempera on vellum, by Cornelia van Wulfschkercke (Belgian) and her circle.
Although the Scriptures make the presentation of Jesus in the Temple a highly dramatic moment – and it is for men and women of faith – the fact is many, many children were presented to the Lord in the great Temple every day. It was an ordinary rite. Certainly, in many ways, this first Christmas is the ultimate mingling of the ordinary and the sacred. Children are born every day, sometimes in palaces, sometimes in local hospitals, sometimes in huts and hovels, and sometimes even in stables and caves. To a mother and father, the birth of an infant is almost always an indescribable joy. Even if the birth means a measure of pain and anguish, even if it imposes burdens and responsibilities, it occasions an outpouring of love and pride, happiness and hope, for the parents and others in the family. But for the world, alas, the moment means just another birth, just another statistic.
When Jesus was born to Mary at the first Christmas, as Joseph took him into his arms as his foster father to cherish and protect, the crowds in Bethlehem for the Roman census must have regarded his birth as unremarkable. No room was available at the inn, a stable and a manger filled with hay would have to do. True, the angels heralded his birth. The shepherds came to adore. A star led three wise men from the East to open up their gifts – and caused one king to worry about a rival. But the wider world hardly noticed. It was, for many who happened to be there, an ordinary birth, a child shivering in the night.
But within the ordinariness of that original Christmas, the Nativity of Christ is birth into time of the Son of the Living God. Divinity enters into our world in the visible form of a child – a child reaching out to us in love and who beckons us to respond in love. His love transforms us and gives us the opportunity for eternal life and everlasting happiness. From the moment of creation, evidence of the divine presence has been palpable in our world – the beauty of the natural world, the character of human genius and virtue, the diversity of life and the gift of compassion. With the birth of Jesus, however, the ordinary of this world has been marked by the presence of the sacred – the most sacred reality, God himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. As the lovely 1739 Christmas carol “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” puts it, “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see / Hail the Incarnate Deity! / Pleased as man with man to dwell / Jesus, our Emmanuel.”
May our experience of the ordinary in our lives during this coming year remind us of the presence of the sacred here among us, now and always!
On behalf of all us at the abbey, a blessed Christmas to you and your loved ones and a joyous New Year!
Abbot Mark A. Cooper, O.S.B.
Abbot of Saint Anselm Abbey / Chancellor of Saint Anselm College