The Most Reverend Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 20, 2009
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
“How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Luke 1:43
A friend sent me an article describing a major discovery in the art world. The discovery had just taken place in a famous church of Rome, the Church called the St. Mary in “Aracoeli,” or “Altar of Heaven,” dating back to the 6th century. While doing some restoration, the workers had removed plaster and there was a fresco done in a very early Renaissance style. What was so remarkable about this was that the earliest Renaissance frescoes known to exist were those of Giotto in Assisi. But these in Rome pre-dated Giotto’s by several decades. This discovery had rocked the world of art historians. With this discovery they had to return to their history and perhaps re-write it. Maybe Giotto was not the first to open depth and dimension into the art of the West. Perhaps Renaissance art was born in Rome and not Florence. I am always amused when the presuppositions of the experts get a little shaken. This is what I think the birth of Jesus Christ tells us on this the Eve of Christmas. We cannot rest on presuppositions. The Gospel proclaims the Son of God born of a Virgin to save mankind from its sins.
Allow me to return to that church in Rome where that discovery was made, the “Aracoeli.” The church sits on the Capitoline Hill of Rome. To reach it from the street you climb a steep incline of over one hundred steps. For that reason, many tourists rarely see the church. Because it sits on top of a mountain of steps, it seems to reach to heaven, hence its name, the “Altar of Heaven.” Originally a Temple of Jupiter stood nearby, a special place for the Romans because Jupiter was Rome’s special protector. Here too on this high hill overlooking Rome lived a prophetess called the Tiburtine Sibyl, whom Romans revered and respected.
An ancient story is told of what happened on this site of the “Altar of Heaven” the night Christ was born. As the Gospel tells us, Augustus was emperor, and Roman emperors were accustomed to building temples to themselves. Augustus was no different and decided to build his temple on the Capitol Hill on the site of the “Aracoeli.” The story recounts that the night Jesus was born was the night Augustus went with friends to survey the site for his new temple. He had no sooner arrived at the top of the hill than there appeared to him the Sibyl. Taken aback, the Emperor was more astounded when the Sibyl, pointing to the spot, spoke these words: “Ecce ara primogeniti Dei” or “Behold the altar of the first-born of God.” The Sibyl so struck terror into the heart of Augustus that he decided not to build a temple to himself on the “Aracoeli.” That honor was left to the true king. In this story recounted in a work called the “Christuslegenden” by Selma Lagerlof, the Sibyl showed the emperor a vision. The vision was a cave in a rock, and at the entrance of the cave were kneeling shepherds and inside a mother on her knees before a tender baby lying on a bundle of straw. The Sibyl pointed to the child and said, “This is the God who will be adored on top of the Capitol.”
The Son of God was not born in a palace but in a stable. The mother of the Messiah was not an earthly queen and his father was not the high priest. The Christ was not a prince, and his kingdom did not belong to this world. There were no silks and stately temples to receive Him. His first visitors were shepherds, not ambassadors and noblemen. In short, Jesus was everything the world did not expect and yet everything that the world needed. He defied expectations because He exceeded expectations. He brought peace when the world spoke of war. He was a friend to the poor and sick, when the world would shun them. Repentance and forgiveness were the themes of his preaching, while the world thought that reconciliation was impossible. Perhaps that is the lesson of Christmas. What for man was impossible, for God was entirely possible. That is a message we all need to hear. To hear it we must be humble.
When Mary visited Elizabeth, Elizabeth declared her unworthiness. “How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” she asked (Luke 1:43). We are tempted to ask the same question. In the face of such a great mystery, we should ask that question. And what will God answer? At Christmas, He says, “I am love, and you are good enough for me to become one of you.” On this night God shows us everything is possible: forgiveness, goodness, beauty, and, yes, even love.