A most beautiful thought passed my mind after the consecration of the bread and wine while celebrating Christmas Mass at South Woods State Prison: the only person in this entire prison who need not pass through checkpoints, guards, metal detectors and locked doors is truly present here and now — Jesus, the Risen Lord!
As I was celebrating Mass for the inmates, I thought: Jesus, you love these men so much that you make yourself present to them, even behind locked doors! You are truly Emmanuel (see Matthew 1:23.) I shared this thought with the men — they loved it! Many smiled.
This presence of the Risen Jesus at South Woods State Prison reminds me of another time when he appeared to others behind locked doors. On the first two Sundays after his resurrection, the Risen Jesus appeared to his frightened disciples who were behind locked doors (see Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-23 and 26-29). Doubting Thomas’ response to Jesus are the exact words that many Catholics pray quietly to themselves as the consecrated host and wine are raised at Mass: “My Lord and my God!” (see John 20:28).
Even though the Christmas Season has just ended, and life moves on, the very essence of Christmas continues throughout the year at each Mass — “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us …” (Jn 1:14). At each Mass, in every sacrament celebrated, in our gatherings in prayer, and in our service to the poor, imprisoned, sick, stranger and immigrant, Jesus is “Emmanuel” (God with us). Christmas continues year-round.
This reality reflects Jesus’ promise to the disciples at his Ascension: “…and behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). Christmas is not only a season, but an ongoing promise of Jesus that continues until the end of the age: “… and behold, I am with you always….”
Christmas is not only Dec. 25, but a relationship of faith and love on the part of Christians, Jesus’ disciples, as they respond, “My Lord and my God!” Christmas is an ongoing, year-round relationship between Emmanuel and his people, the church. The spirit of Christmas imbues not only a season, but imbues our very lives and guides our daily choices and actions. The Father’s merciful love for us in Jesus is so amazing and enduring that Jesus is available to us, just about anywhere, in the sacraments and, above all, in the Eucharist.
I wonder with amazement at the fact that every time the Most Blessed Sacrament is carried from Mass or the tabernacle, it is Jesus the Risen Lord and Good Shepherd who journeys to those who cannot come to church. He is carrying on again, as he walked on earth 2,000 years ago, his mission as an itinerant preacher and healer who touches hearts and heals broken lives. As the clergy or the extraordinary minister of the Eucharist brings Jesus as holy Communion to the sick, the dying, the homebound and those in prison and recovery centers, he still goes “about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:38).
He truly is “Emmanuel” (God with us) as he humbles himself in the most accessible way possible — being present in the consecrated host and brought to the least, the lost and the last in society. In this way the consecrated host is holy Communion as the recipient comes into intimate union with Jesus; furthermore, the communicant comes into union with the community of faith that was gathered for the celebration of the Eucharist. The “Word made flesh” (see John 1:14) still journeys to us where we are, touching us as he touched so many lives long ago. Christmas continues!
As the Eucharist is celebrated every day, continuously in every nation on earth, we joyfully live what the psalms of the Masses of Christmas Day proclaimed: “Sing to the LORD; bless his name. Announce his salvation, day after day. Tell his glory among the nations; among all peoples, his wondrous deeds” (Ps 96) and “All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation by our God. Sing joyfully to the Lord, all you lands; break into song; sing praise” (Ps 98).
As we go forth from our encounter with Emmanuel at the Eucharistic celebration, we, too, are called to make room for him in the “stable” of our homes in imitation of Mary and Joseph who received him in Bethlehem. We, too, are called to encounter him in the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the imprisoned and the stranger and serve him in these (see Matthew 25:31-46) for he himself proclaimed, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mt 25:40).
The words of Saint Luigi Guanella (1842-1915) reflect the same sentiment: “Take in the most abandoned of all, have him sit at table with you and make him your own, because this is Jesus Christ.”
Christmas continues year-round. The Babe of Bethlehem is “Emmanuel” – God with us.
Father Matthew Weber is pastor of the Parish of the Holy Cross, Bridgeton.