My introduction to two great themes of Alphonsian Spirituality did not come from a seminary retreat or a spiritual workshop. Rather, it came during my first visit to a major seminary chapel at Mount St. Alphonsus in Esopus, NY, that I was introduced to the themes behind St. Alphonsus’ understanding of the redemption: the crib and the cross.
The chapel contained the symbols found in any church or chapel: the altar, the tabernacle, the crucifix, etc. But then on either side of me I noticed a number of small side altars, each with a marble statue. The side altar on my left held a full-size replica of the Pietà from the 1939 World’s Fair, or so we were told as students. (I never confirmed the truth of this statement.) The side altar to my right showcased a life-sized manger scene with the infant Jesus in a crèche.
Each of the chapel’s pillars was decorated—as one might expect—with the Stations of the Cross. But as I walked around them I discovered something else I’d never seen: a series of stations created by St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori to help people meditate on Jesus and the story of his infancy. For example, Station IV: Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes. Station VI: Jesus is adored by the Magi. Station XI: Jesus sleeps. And so it was during this chapel journey that I received St. Alphonsus’ message.1
Over time I’ve come to understand his message and its delivery through a variety of religious symbols. Each Redemptorist will study them, because they are central to the core thinking and spirituality of St. Aiphonsus. He viewed the mystery of the redemption as being linked not only to the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord, but also to the incarnation. And he believed the two must be presented together for a full understanding of the gift provided by our Redeemer.
St. Alphonsus’ view of redemption was unique from that of other spiritual thinkers of his time. In his day, redemption was primarily focused on the passion of Christ. St. Alphonsus expanded this view to include the infancy story, which he saw as an essential part of the mystery of redemption. St. Alphonsus used the infancy story to offer insight into some of the core spiritual attitudes every person needs to bring to their reflection on redemption: amazement, tenderness, compassion, and gratitude.
Humanity has posed this question for centuries. The pagan religions understood God as distant and not at all interested in this world. We then listen to the Hebrew Scriptures that speak of one God, a God of heaven who can be approached only by select people such as priests and prophets; thus, he’s still somewhat distant from us. But through Moses and the prophets, we learn of God as we know him: one who looks down from heaven with mercy and compassion on those who seek him.
In the infancy story of Christ, God reaches out to us in a dramatic way by descending from heaven and entering our world. This is a God who, as attested to by the shepherds, journeys among ordinary people, a God who reaches out to both Jews and Gentiles, as represented by the Magi. Amazement is the best term to use here—amazement toward our God—he who reaches out to us in a way we could never imagine. We never dreamed God wanted to be that close to us.
Pagan religions saw gods as distant and mysterious divinities who kept their distance. When the gods did deal with us, pagans believed, their actions were often perceived as unsympathetic and aggressive. The Hebrew Scriptures speak of a God who is all-powerful but also has a tender side. The prophet Isaiah says our God will not break a bruised reed or snuff a smoldering wick. This text references a God of mercy.
The infancy story of Christ then presents us with a God who is very approachable, a God who comes to us as a vulnerable infant so we will not be afraid to enter into his midst. God presents himself in a way to remove fear and encourage a relationship. This presentation changes God’s portrayal from an all-powerful “crashing through the heavens” force to an image of gentleness and tenderness. What infant does not draw a response of gentleness?
The pagan religions came to an understanding that the gods would deal with us in a harsh and vengeful way if we didn’t listen to their commands or acted against their will. But the Hebrew Scriptures tell us about a God who presents us with commandments and understands our weaknesses in responding to his will. Although we may find statutes and ordinances overwhelming, we also find forgiveness through sacrifice.
In the infancy story, we learn our God who dwells with us is one who understands our difficulties and therefore is gentle with us. Jesus will not change the commandments, but because he has walked in our shoes he is acknowledged as one who understands the difficulties of doing good and avoiding evil. And it is in Christ that we are able to find forgiveness from our transgressions.
Both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are filled with gratitude for God’s activity in our lives. And here is where the infancy story of Christ is most alive. The heavens sing out gratitude through the angels. The shepherds are grateful, for as twenty-four—hour workers in the field they are unable to approach God in the Temple. And now with joy they discover a God who reaches out to them where they are.
This is a God who will do anything to become approachable, even go to the extreme of becoming a vulnerable infant. The Magi are grateful because God cares about all people, no matter where they’re from, and because they may approach God with confidence that they won’t be turned away. Through the star in the heavens over the manger and through the approach of the animals to the crèche, all creation is now seen as celebrating the birth of the Savior who will bring about redemption for all. All of this, which we learn about in the infancy narratives, opens the way to the passion story of a God willing to continue to be vulnerable for us by offering himself up to death on the cross.
The themes of amazement, tenderness, compassion, and gratitude will continue through the passion narrative that the infancy narrative has prepared us for. Amazement: God’s vulnerability will include death on a cross. Tenderness: Even in his dealings with Pilate, Jesus is respectful and not filled with anger at his persecutors. Compassion: Jesus will even forgive those who put him to death and reach out with mercy to the repentant thief. Gratitude: Through his passion and death, we understand that our sins are forgiven and the way to eternal life is opened for us.
In St. Alphonsus’ mind, when you merge the infancy and passion stories you get a complete understanding of the gift and mystery of redemption. The infancy story adds to our understanding of a God who not only suffers and dies for us but who also journeys with us throughout our lives. This is the core of St. Alphonsus’ understanding of redemption, which I have learned through discussions with my Redemptorist confreres who continually reflect on his spirituality and writings. May they deepen your understanding of the gift of our Most Holy Redeemer and help you reflect on the infancy themes of amazement, tenderness, compassion, and gratitude.2
1 Another version of these stations goes as follows:
First Station, The Annunciation Luke 1:26—38
Second Station, The Visitation—Luke 1:39—45
Third Station, The Song of Mary (Magnificat) — Luke 1:46—55
Fourth Station, The Birth of John the Baptist—Luke 1:57—66
Fifth Station, The Prophecy of Zechariah — Luke 1:67—79
Sixth Station, Joseph’s Dream —Matthew 1:18—23
Seventh Station, Joseph Takes Mary into His Home —Matthew 1:24—25
Eighth Station, The Journey to Bethlehem—Luke 2:1—5
Ninth Station, The Birth of Jesus — Luke 2:6—7
Tenth Station, The Announcement of the Angels — Luke 2:8—14
Eleventh Station, The Shepherds Share the Good News—Luke 2:15—20
Twelfth Station, The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple — Luke 2:22—24
Thirteenth Station, The Blessing of Simeon — Luke 25—38
Fourteenth Station, The Wise Men Come from the East—Matthew 2:1—12
(Stations of the Nativity By Patrick Kelley, Paulist Press, 2002)
2 By Rev. John Kingsbury, CSsR, DMin, Liquorian.org December 2013.