When I was small, I dreaded going to church during
the Advent and Christmas seasons. It wasn't anything the church
did, mind you, it was what my mom made my brothers and me
do after Mass. Instead of allowing us to hurry home, Mom had
other ideas. In front of the main altar, our parish placed
a large Nativity scene. You couldn't miss it.
Depending on how close it was to Christmas, various
persons began to appearshepherds, wise men, Mary and
Josephmaking their way to Bethlehem.
Desiring that we get more in touch with the season,
our mother would tell us to go up to the Nativity scene and
say a few prayers. So each Sunday we went. Slowly.
Hoping mom would change her mind. Grudgingly. Offering
whimpers of resistance along the way. Uncomfortably.
With hands in pockets and heads down. Embarrassed. Thinking
all the time that everyone was looking at us and mocking our
childhood piety. Reaching the Nativity scene, my brothers
and I would kneel, say a few quick prayers and hurry out of
Now I know betternot only myself, but also
the characters of the Nativity story. This Advent and Christmas
season, Youth Update invites you to pray with the Nativity
story and its characters, to get in touch with its implications
in your life.
Ask yourself, "What does this mean to me now?" In
this way, you will allow the Nativity story to serve as a
bridge enabling you to cross from Advent to the Christmas
You'll move from the shepherds and the Magi to Joseph
and Mary. You'll even meet one person, Herod, who's not even
in the traditional manger scene, yet whose shadow looms large
The idea is to introduce you to the "supporting
cast" firstjust as I met them in my childhood. The "stars"Joseph,
then Mary and, most important, Jesuscome later.
I have guided a group of young adults through this
Nativity reflection. I'll share some of the connections they
made between the Nativity story and their own lives.
Protectors of the Innocent
The life of a shepherd in Jesus' time was a tiring
and thankless one. Given the land available, shepherds lived
a nomadic, or wandering, lifestyle in search of pasture for
their flock. It was also a life of watchfulness. The shepherd
had to protect his flock, shelter it from any number of threatsweather,
bandits, animals of prey.
The unpredictable lifestyle of shepherds made it
difficult for them to follow all the precepts of Jewish law,
the collection of teachings from the Torah. Shepherds were
seen by some as unclean and unlearned.
Yet it is to such a lowly and unfit group of shepherds
that an angel appears and says, "Do not be afraid; for behold,
I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for
all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has
been born for you who is Messiah and Lord" (Luke 2:10-11).
As they shepherded and protected their own flock, this motley
group will now journey to Bethlehem to watch over and guard
the infant Jesus.
"Like the shepherds," one young adult said, "I have
protected the vulnerable and innocent. My little brothers
and sisters have always been protected by me and I take great
pride in knowing that through my protection they have probably
felt at home and very safe among others when I am with them."
Another spoke of his experience with Boy Scouts:
"I'm a leader in my troop. At summer camp, parents rely on
me to safely supervise their kids and ensure them a fun time.
I must do all this responsibly and not put them in any danger,
which is often possible with fires, knives, saws and cliffs
located near the campsites. I really am like a shepherd to
How are you a shepherd? How can you protect the
The word Magi comes from the Greek for "wise
person." Guided by a star, these astrologers will soon be
caught up in a plot much larger than themselves. Rather than
bring Herod's harm, they will bring the Christ child homage
(Matthew 2:2). Coming from the East they represent a new chapter
in salvation historythe opening up of God's self-revelation
to all humanity.
According to their gifts, tradition has numbered
them three. The first gives gold, the king of metals, which
represents the Christ child's kingship. The second offers
frankincense, an incense used in religious ceremonies, which
represents his divinity. The third presents myrrh, a fragrance
used in burial services, which represents his humanity.
Thinking about the gift he would give the Christ
child, one person thought of a watch. He explained that "this
would represent a bond of friendship because friends are always
willing to give up their time to another friend. This can
be done by always being there to listen when a friend is in
need and never running away leaving them alone."
Another said she would give a hug. "It's a simple
gift, but it says a lot. Hugs are my way of telling people
that I appreciate them and that they are my friend. I think
that is exactly what Jesus should be for us: a good friend,
one that you can trust and love, and one who would forgive
you no matter what."
How are you wise? What gifts can youwill
youoffer the Christ child?
Herod the Villain
It's only natural, whether reading a book for class
or hearing the news on TV, to identify with the good people
of a story or an event. I'm sure you've said before, "If I
were in that situation I would have done the same thing."
The Nativity story, however, calls you to recognize the shady
characters, or sides of yourself, as well.
Herod was one such person. He ruled Palestine from
37 to 4 B.C. This leadership was based not upon the will of
the people, but upon force. So ruthless was he in defense
of the throne, he killed one of his wives and several of his
One can only respond with insincerity to the words
he speaks to the Magi: "Go and search diligently for the child.
When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go
and do him homage" (Matthew 2:8). Like the pharaoh of Exodus,
Herod calls for the death of Bethlehem's young boys under
two years of age.
While it was difficult to admit, one young lady
said that there had been times in her life when she was like
Herod. "Especially when I was younger, I would trick other
children into doing things that I didn't want to dolike
asking for something from an adultor at other times
I would make them my scapegoat. Also like Herod, I often considered
myself the number-one priority and found no remorse in hurting
others if it could bring me some personal gain."
Another commented upon how consuming envy, possessiveness
and jealousy are. "I think," he remarked, "that self-centeredness
is a titanic problem in more than enough lives around the
world. Money teaches us to be greedy and possessive. We become
jealous of what others have and we don't. I find this in myself
and others around me. I have to remind myself that possessionsclothes,
cars, homesaren't the things that make people."
How are you a villain or a bad guy? What negative
attitudes or actions sometimes threaten to take over your
Joseph the Just
Joseph is definitely an early example of being caught
between a rock and a hard place. After finding out that Mary,
his betrothed, is pregnant, Joseph is torn between his head
and heart. "Could it be anything other than adultery?" he
wonders. There appears to be no other possibility. Loving
her, though, he wants her to avoid public shame and humiliation.
Finally, after much thought, he "decided to divorce
her quietly" (Matthew 1:19). That is, until an angel of the
Lord appeared to him in a dream: "Joseph, son of David, do
not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it
is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived
in her" (Matthew 1:20). Thus began Joseph's role as protector
of the holy family.
Reflecting upon Joseph, one person described a difficult
decision that he had to make. "During the Christmas season
a year ago, my grandfather went to the hospital for an operation.
He did not react well which forced us to place him on life
support. He began to show signs of improvement around Christmas,
but then hit a major decline. On December 28 we were called
to the hospital and told that he was probably not going to
live much longer.
"The whole family crowded around his hospital bed
and the doctor asked us whether we would want him to continue
as he was with the possibility of life, or to take him off
life support and let him die. I immediately wanted to yell
out, 'Let him live!,' but I knew that was not a likely outcome
and he would suffer longer."
"At the same time, if we pulled the plug, he could
finally rest, but I would have to face my first loss of a
grandparent. I felt I couldn't win. The family eventually
decided that we should remove him from life support, having
my grandfather die three days after Christmas."
Another said, "It is easy to see that there are
situations in life where the consequences are inescapable.
I have often been in this situation," she stressed, "especially
within my family. Often I get myself caught in the middle
of one family argument after another and am forced to take
sides. It appears that I am in a no-win situation. Thankfully,
my mom has always been there to help see me through."
How are you like Joseph? How can you turn tough
situations into win-win opportunities?
From time to time you've found yourself in difficult
situations. You may have faced a divorce or death in your
family. School and homework might have appeared never-ending.
Friendships were strained for any number of reasons.
Difficult choices, I'm sure, have presented themselves to
you when there have been no easy answers.
Picture this: Betrothed in marriage to Joseph, Mary,
a young teenager, is visited by the angel Gabriel and asked
to do that which at best seems improbable: to bear the Christ
child. Naturally, Mary is troubled: "What will Joseph think
when he finds me with child?" She knows all too well the penalty
for adultery in her culturedeath.
Yet, despite the possible misperceptions, she cannot
avoid the fact that she has been chosen by God. In an act
of great bravery and trust, Mary responds, "May it be done
to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38).
Connecting with the person of Mary, one young man
said, "I can only wish that I would always be so brave when
it came to doing God's will. I feel that every morning when
I wake up I am a chosen one. I realize that everything I do,
all of my actions, should be done for the greater glory of
God. I, along with all of the Christians in the world, have
been chosen to help usher in God's Kingdom by doing his will
in my everyday life."
Mary's yes, though, was not the end of life's struggles.
She would be challenged, as are you and I, to live out the
invitation to discipleship daily.
Seeing this parallel, another person commented on
a retreat experience that he had. "When I was accepted to
be a retreat leader I quickly said yes. It wasn't until the
date came closer that I began to get worried. I have never
liked to talk in front of groups of people and I knew that
I would be forced to do this if I went.
"As it was with Mary, my faith was strong. I decided
that I would put my fears in the hands of the Lord. Mary took
a risk with the child and I took a risk with my classmates.
Both of our decisions turned out to be beneficial."
When we were almost finished sharing, one young
lady mentioned that she was adopted. "I've always felt a special
closeness with Mary," she said. "I often think what would
have happened if my birthmother had chosen differently. I
can only think that she found herself in similar and trying
circumstances. Yet she, like Mary, chose life. I too, in all
that I do, try to choose life."
Have you ever recognized that you have been selected
or chosen for a special opportunity or given a chance to do
something great? How did you answer?
Where Are You?
This season of Advent can be a speed trap. The Nativity
story invites you to slow down, to meditate, to think about
your relationship with God. To close, I offer you an invitation
from someone who has already begun the journey.
"During the Christmas season, we see the many displays
of the Nativity scene countless times whether it is in our
church or in the yards we drive by. To many, the Nativity
scene has become such a recurring theme during Christmas that
when they see it, they pay very little attention.
"The scene is always the same: Jesus in his swaddling
clothes, Mary and Joseph next to him, the Magi bearing gifts,
and the awestruck shepherds. These characters are always present
in the scene because of the important message they represent.
"The next time we see the Nativity scene, we should
not think it is just some clich—d Christmas practice, but
we should ask ourselves, 'What do these characters represent
and how am I similar to each of them in my life?'"
Erin Meegan (16), Katie Pope (17), Joe Sanfolippo
(18) and Mary Zdrojewski (18), all members of the Buffalo
Diocesan Youth Board, read this issue before it was readied
for publication, suggesting changes and posing questions.
Andrew Storer, summer intern in the youth department, organized