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home : opinions : commentary September 28, 2016

12/23/2013 10:45:00 AM
Commentary: Nativity as a way of life
“The Adoration of the Shepherds,” 1646, Rembrandt
“The Adoration of the Shepherds,” 1646, Rembrandt
By: Kathryn Lopez

Growing up as I did, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, it's hard not to appreciate "the law of the gift": protect, defend, nourish, share. Liberty is a great treasure. We have tremendous responsibility here.

Almost hidden in a corner of the famous Philadelphia Museum of Art is the image of a man. He seems to embody a tender authority. The artist described this particular image of Jesus as "a portrait of Jesus from life." Rembrandt "offers for our contemplation a face of Christ that is at one and the same time the most humanly human and the most divinely divine ever created by an artist," Pierre-Marie Dumont writes in the monthly devotional Magnificat. "He takes us along on the spiritual quest that drove him to contemplate the man Jesus in order to discover the true God."

That man is the reason so many of us have Wednesday off from work. He's the reason we deck the halls and give gifts.

But what about the gifts we have? There's that Liberty. Faith is another big one for many. And then there is Family. We may not all have the perfect models of the family unit -- perhaps we did and lost it, perhaps it all fell apart with a bad decision or a sudden mistake or abrupt end. Or maybe it's just foreign -- and something we don't even read about anymore, because we all too often give priority to making room for new normals instead of the old standbys that do seem to make natural and demographic sense.

St. Therese of Lisieux was a cloistered Carmelite nun with a mission. "I wish to travel the world, proclaiming your name throughout the earth," she declared in prayer to Christ, shortly before her death. But her health prevented her from leaving the convent. Nevertheless, her mission continues.

Sculptor Fleur Nabert built a reliquary of St. Therese and her parents, commissioned by the Magnificat Foundation. "I spent the last two years working for her," Nabert says.

St. Therese's parents, Louis and Zelie Martin, became the first parents of a saint to be beatified, by Pope Benedict in 2008.

"Their story is very moving because it was a true human story marked by many sorrows and ordeals," Nabert notes in appreciation. "They lost four children out of nine. Zelie had to struggle with a breast cancer, which eventually overtook her," she says. "They were also hard workers: Louis as a watchmaker and Zelie as a lacemaker. Their lives are very close to ours. They succeeded in experiencing sanctity in marriage, sanctity in family, without losing confidence in God. They kept their hope and faith, even raising five girls who would became nuns, one among them becoming one of the world's most popular saints." Their lives witness to the possibility of living life on earth with eyes toward Heaven.

Nabert's creation included flowers, representing each family member. "But my favorite parts of the reliquary are the big wedding rings," she tells me. "I wanted them like a reminder: Through the sacrament of marriage, we can experience heaven." The sacrament, she reflects, is "the treasure of married life ... the fountain of graces from which we can spread love on children and around us. Marriage ... is a miracle to protect everyday."

If marriage is a miracle, aren't we a culture of increasingly little faith!

"The ensemble is protected by a transparent case in the shape of an arch to remind us that the Christian family is a domestic Church, the first place where we practice sanctity," a description of the reliquary explains. It's another manger scene. In the Nativity, we see a loving husband and father protecting his wife and son, even under unplanned circumstances and duress. History owes that couple.

Centuries later, in Rembrandt's depiction of that Holy Child, the "entire canvas is covered in a dark brown background, like the shadow of sin that engulfs all humankind," Dumont writes. "Then, from the very core of this abyss emerges a gentle light that warms without burning, that illuminates without blinding, that consoles without condemning. Thus, from the heart of sin, grace flows forth." The Divine Light is what the star over Bethlehem directed the wise to. Heaven made manifest on earth, in our very humanity.

There's a lot of controversy, glee and confusion about what Pope Francis has in mind when he implores a radical concern about the poor, suffering, sick and lonely -- anyone who is vulnerable, which pretty well covers the globe. In the letter he published this year, having been largely penned by his predecessor, faith is defined as a light that illuminates everything. That's it. That's why Christmas matters in real, enduring ways that ought to infect everyday life throughout the year. A gift more ever-present than a lady in a harbor.

(Kathryn Lopez is the editor-at-large of National Review Online She can be contacted at

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