by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, in his recently published book, “The Difference God Makes,” entitled one of his chapters: “Too Good to Be True?”
He begins the chapter by recounting an experience he had many years ago while visiting a priest friend who was a missionary in Zambia. The people this missionary served had a very hard life. Most were subsistent farmers. Many of the young parents were dying of AIDS. The difficult economic conditions in Zambia resulted in poor health care and a scarcity of educational opportunities.
One morning Cardinal George was standing outside the priest’s residence when four men approached him and asked where they could find the priest. Cardinal George directed them to the rectory. Three of them went to speak with the priest, but the fourth man remained outside.
Cardinal George struck up a conversation with the man. He told Cardinal George about the many difficulties and hardships his family faced. Cardinal George asked him why he and his companions had come to see the priest. He explained that in his village they had heard many stories about Jesus, the Gospel and the church. They had come to ask the priest for information about Christianity.
Cardinal George asked the man why he had not gone inside with his friends to speak with the priest. He responded: “Oh, I’ve thought about what we’ve heard, even while I was walking here, and I’ve decided that it makes no sense when I look at my life — that God would love us, that God would sacrifice himself for us, that God is stronger than the spirits who harm us. I don’t believe it. It’s too good to be true.”
Those of us who have grown up in strong Catholic families, where we were taught the faith as young children and benefited from the examples of believing parents and other devout Christian adults, can easily take for granted the power and the beauty of what we believe. Indeed, it is incredible — too good to believe — that the Creator of the universe would choose to become a human being, much less being born a helpless baby. It is even more amazing that this God-man would live so humbly in this world and allow himself to be subjected to the most cruel torture and ignominious death so that we could share in his eternal life.
Yet, if we ponder carefully the words of the Christmas carols that we sing during this season, this is precisely what we believe God has done. It was belief in God’s incredible love for his people — revealed in the God-man, Jesus Christ — that inspired so many of the first Christians to relinquish life in this world rather than deny this good news. Nourished by this same Jesus Christ, who makes himself present body, soul and divinity in the Eucharist, Christians for 2,000 years have found the strength to live heroic lives of virtue.
Christmas is not about chestnuts roasting on an open fire or scenic snowcovered landscapes or Santa Claus coming to town. Christmas celebrates something so much more beautiful, more amazing and more powerful than these pale secular substitutes.
That Zambian man, who conversed with Cardinal George some years ago, took seriously what Christians believe. I hope that perhaps his friends were able to open his heart to experience the love of God who became flesh and dwelt among us. I pray that we may take very seriously the great miracle we celebrate during this season and open our hearts to the great miracle of love we encounter each time we receive the Eucharist.
Moreover, if we truly believe what we profess as Christians — in a God who so loved the world that he became flesh and dwelt among us so that we might have abundant and eternal life — then it should make a difference in the way we live. If we are serious about the incredible truths we believe, then we cannot help but be filled with a gratitude that motivates us to live lives of equally incredible generosity.
Do you believe in the true Christmas miracle — God becoming man so that we could share in his divine and eternal life? Do you believe in what some may think is too good to be true? And if so, what difference does it make in the way you live your life? These are good questions to ponder during these days of Christmas.