It's times like this when I wish I had the talent of an artist, the ability to paint a picture with images rather than words, for the image I have in mind is difficult to express with the printed word. What I see is an image of the Nativity, Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and angels hovering around the Baby, with the shadow of the Cross hanging over them all.
As Fr. Tiffany said in his homily this morning, we have entered into a period of feasts and readings that cause us to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas - that is, the price we pay for being a follower of Christ. It's a road that we set out on from the moment of His birth; a continuation, if you will, of the journey made by the Magi. December 26, the day after our joyous celebration of His birth, we honored the death of the first martyr, St. Stephen. December 27 was the commemoration of St. John, who spent his last few years in a virtual prison because of his beliefs.
Yesterday was the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, who died in place of the Christ Child. Any analysis of the Holy Innocents seems inevitably to lead us to the question of the sancity of life, for we are reminded that while the Herod who ordered Jesus' death has long since died, there are many Herods who have taken his place - the judges who allow abortion, the doctors who kill terminally (and not-so-terminally) ill patients, the scientists who experiment with cloning and embryonic stem cells, those with the incessant urge to attach a kind of value and utility to the life of a human being, and the continued effort to devalue the dignity of man (Fr. Tiffany mentioned that it was said to be safer to be Herod's dog than his relative).
Today we honored the martyr Thomas Becket, but the focus was on the Gospel: the canticle of Simeon, and Simeon's prophesy that "Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed." (Luke 2:34-35) It is a prophesy not only of what awaits Christ, but also that which lies in store for Mary.
"A sword will pierce through your own soul also." She may have pondered those words and kept them in her heart, but it could not have surprised her, for from the moment of the Annunciation she knew that her life would never be the same. She was familiar enough with Jewish history to know that to those whom God grants great favors, He often also allows great hardships. She couldn't have been unaware of God's warning to the serpent that "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel." (Genesis 3:15)*
It may seem strange, in the midst of this joyous season of Christmas, to be reflecting already on the Cross; but in fact it was all laid out for us, long beforehand. Christ's Way of the Cross starts with the Nativity, but in fact it begins much earlier; with the Incarnation, the Annunciation, the very beginning of time (for in the beginning, as John says in the first chapter of his Gospel, was the Word). It is one reason why I so strongly resist the suggestion that Christmas is "not such a big deal"; it is in fact a crucial element in the story of our salvation - the road that leads from the Annunciation through the Nativity to Good Friday and finally Easter Sunday.
And so, after the hustle and bustle of Christmas Day and our preparations for it, perhaps we can take advantage of the relative peace and quiet that follows to reflect on this. The image of the Cross mixes easily with the architecture of the manger, and its shadow lies before us, pointing us to the path Christ is to take, the path we must all take if we are to be followers of Him. It is a destiny we can no more deny than did He.
*N.B.: The early Church fathers have always read this, from the Latin, as "she shall bruise (or crush) your head. Others have understood it to refer to the "seed" of the woman. In either case, it is clear that Mary is seen as playing a major role in the ultimate defeat of Satan.