During Holy Week, spend extra time with the Lord

NOTE: The following letter was published in the April 6, 2017 edition of The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen.

At Christmas one of the most faith-filled scenes that can be found in homes, churches, and communities throughout the world is the Nativity, a reminder that Christmas should be centered on the birth of Christ and Christ should be the center of our lives.
  It was St. Francis of Assisi, for whom our cathedral is named, who is credited with having created the first Nativity scene. He had a deep devotion to the Infant Jesus and on Christmas eve 1223 re-created the first live Nativity scene in a cave outside the town of Greccio, Italy. 
What St. Francis wanted to do was to help people see with their bodily eyes what Jesus' original coming was like. He wanted people to realize that the Babe of Bethlehem, the name he called the Infant Jesus, was born in poverty, humility and simplicity. So, with the help of a friend and landowner, Giovanni Velita, St. Francis constructed a manger, filled it with hay, and brought in an ox and donkey from a local farm. Then, he and his Franciscan brothers invited all the townspeople to come to the manger on Christmas eve. That night, they lit candles, sang songs and then had Mass at the manger he had built - and St. Francis, since he was a deacon, sang the Gospel of Christ's birth, and he preached about the birth of the poor king, born in Bethlehem, in a manger, like the one they were standing in.  Contrary to our custom and popular belief, St. Francis used no statues of Jesus or Mary or the baby Jesus - nor did he recruit live actors to play those parts; he used no shepherds or angels or wise men, nor kings.  
St. Francis' friend, Thomas of Celana, wrote in his journal that Christmas eve before going to bed, "Greccio was transformed into a second Bethlehem, and that night, wonderful night, seemed like the fullest day to both man and beast for the joy they felt at the renewing of the mystery...."  Having lived in Rome for almost 20 years, Greccio was a place I enjoyed visiting, and it gratefully maintains that spiritual atmosphere to this day. 
Today, 800 years later, the Nativity lives on not only in Grecco but around the world, and it often can be the one thing which touches our hearts most at Christmas. At live Nativity plays and scenes, not only children but adults can be awestruck as they are transported back to the see and feel, the birth of the Babe of Bethlehem. In Catholic schools and churches children's Christmas pageants, with their simplicity and innocence, can bring people to tears as it reminds them of the true meaning of Christmas.
In homes everywhere families carry out the tradition of setting up their Nativity with the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, shepherds, ox and donkey. In Rome, on the third Sunday of Advent, there is a beautiful tradition that the children of Rome bring the "bambinelli" (baby Jesus from their Nativity scenes) to St. Peter's Square for the Holy Father to bless them.  It is a sea of bambinelli, and a beautiful sight.  The Roman children then place the Infant Jesus in the manager in their homes on Christmas eve. 
Yes, I'm sure we all have our memories of how the Nativity has had an impact on our life. I have my memories of Greccio and the third Sunday of Advent blessings by the Holy Father, and another one which occurred when I arrived in Rome as a seminarian. One of the first things we did was to go out to visit the Catacombs of Santa Priscilla on the Via Salaria. In there is a fresco from the 200's. It is of the Blessed Mother with the infant Jesus resting His head on her. There is a man standing next to her and he is pointing upward to a star which for the Jewish people is a symbol for the Messiah. The fresco is the earliest representation that we have of the Blessed Mother. It also tells the story of the mystery of the incarnation, of Mary becoming the mother of our Savior, and the fulfillment of the Divine promise for a Messiah.
I remember being struck that the fresco was the oldest image of Our Lady. I thought, too, about the people in the third century who were here in this catacomb painting this picture to commemorate our faith. I remember thinking how blessed we are to celebrate Christmas in freedom, even though in many places throughout the world Christians are not allowed to do so. Indeed, many refugees today are from places where they are persecuted for being Christians. 
Pope Francis talked about the symbolism of the Nativity scene just last Friday when he thanked the donors of this year's Vatican Christmas tree which was lit and Nativity scene unveiled on Dec. 9, in St. Peter's Square. He said that the Nativity scene "set up in churches, in homes and in so many public places are an invitation to make room in our life and in society for God, hidden in the face of many persons who are in conditions of hardship, of poverty and of tribulation."
The Holy Father added, "the crib and the tree are a message of hope and of love, and they help to create a favorable Christmas atmosphere to live with faith the mystery of the Birth of the Redeemer, who came on earth with simplicity and meekness." He said we should be attracted to the Nativity scene "with the spirit of children, because there we understand God's goodness and contemplate His mercy."
This Christmas will certainly be another memorable one for me. I am told there is a most beautiful Nativity in our Cathedral and I look forward to praying before the Babe of Bethlehem in our little town of Metuchen, and will be remembering all of you on my first Christmas with you.
It is my prayer that the Christ Child will be the center of your Christmas and life, that each Nativity scene you see will give you a sense of wonder and awe, and remind you that Christ should be the center of your life not only at Christmas but all year long. A Blessed Christmas to you all!

My dear brothers and sisters,

A fourth century pilgrim nun from Spain, Egeria, visited the Holy Land and was in the Holy City of Jerusalem for Holy Week in 381 AD. Fortunately for us, she wrote her sisters at home about her visit and hence we have a wonderful record of how Holy Week was celebrated in the early Church. Since at least that time, we know that the faithful in Jerusalem observed Holy Week in a very similar way as we still do today, retracing the journey of Our Lord from the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday to the celebration of the Last Supper to His Passion of Good Friday, then remaining in vigil prayer for Easter, Our Lord’s resurrection. 

So we are privileged to join the long line of faithful disciples of the Lord who for two millennia have marked this Holy Week in a similar way to how we are invited to spend this week. During these next seven days, the Church beckons us to listen, pray and think. It asks us to break out of our normal routine and to pay extra attention to God. During Holy Week, God reaches out in love to us in an extraordinary way, in a wonderful way, through some beautiful liturgies. The Church shares with us the very story of our salvation. This Holy Week I pray we all will enter into the solemnity and sacredness of Christ’s passion and death with the hope that we too will share in His resurrection.

We begin Holy Week journeying with Jesus and the disciples to Jerusalem. We hear the triumphal entry of Jesus into the city. But the joyful singing of hosannas and the loving action of the faithful waving palms and spreading them under Jesus’ feet will not last as fear, confusion and anger boil up, and we witness Jesus’ trial, His torture, His carrying of the Cross and His crucifixion. Holy week is the unfolding of the mystery of salvation before our eyes.

Now is the time to break out of our normal routine and spend extra time with God. The Sacred Triduum is a moving effort by God and the Church to break into our lives. Yes, Lent is over and our time of preparation for Easter is finished. Now God wants to break anew into our lives with love and the choice is ours. We just need to open our hearts wider to Him and so fully enter into the week, and think and pray as disciples of Jesus, not just as observers of the events unfolding. So throughout this Holy Week, let us open our hearts and prepare ourselves for the great celebration of Easter. God never forces Himself on us, but gently offers Himself to us. He is reaching out in love to share the story of salvation history with us. He is reaching out anew to save us. 

Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter with our Lord’s Resurrection brings great joy as we, with the disciples, realize Jesus has offered Himself as the Paschal Lamb for us and indeed, rises from the dead. In the first written account of the Resurrection we possess, St. Paul writes to his fellow believers in Corinth. “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that He was buried; that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the Twelve” (1 Cor 15:3-5). What has happened to Christ is also our destiny. God wills to do the same for each of us.

The message of Easter is to never lose hope. God so loves us that He sent His only Son to redeem us. Our faith in the Resurrection brings us liberation, life, joy and gives meaning to everything we do all year long. The Resurrection is the central dogma of our faith. We celebrate because we know that, through Christ, all our trials transform into grace, all our sadness into joy, all death into resurrection. I pray that your own Easter is an especially joyful one, and I want you to know how deeply grateful I am to celebrate my first Easter with you as your Bishop.

This year during Holy Week, I invite you spend time with family and those we love and make extra time for the Lord enjoying the beautiful liturgies the Church provides for our nourishment along the way. They have been nourishing the faithful disciples of the Lord for two millennia; now they will do so for us, if we are willing. You will all be in my prayers in a special way and I ask you to please remember me in your prayers.  

Blessed Holy Week and Happy Easter!

The Most Reverend James F. Checchio, JCD, MBA
Bishop of Metuchen