24 Dec December 2023 Reflection – Michael McFarland SJ
God’s Presence in the Incarnation
The featured speaker at our Annual Dinner in New York on December 7 was Fr. Josef Briffa, SJ, a faculty member of the Pontifical Biblical Institute and the Director of its Center in Jerusalem. A distinguished Biblical scholar and archaeologist, Fr. Briffa has been at the Jerusalem Center for many years, through numerous wars, terrorist attacks and other incidents. He was there saying Mass when the air raid sirens went off, marking the beginning of the brutal attack by Hamas in southern Israel, which set off the current war. Nevertheless, the work of the Center continues. The students and faculty are there, and they have been able to pursue their studies almost as usual. At the same time, they are immersed in the ongoing conflict, with strong ties to both sides. The Center has a close relationship with Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where their faculty collaborate and their students study languages and the Jewish roots of Scripture, while the staff of the Center are all Palestinian Christians.
What are they doing there? As Fr. Briffa explained, they are there to come to know God and especially the human Jesus, not only through studying Biblical texts, their backgrounds and origins, but also by experiencing first-hand the key sites in the Bible, walking where Jesus walked and coming to know his world first-hand. They also participate in the ongoing scholarship, both archaeological and textual, that seeks to deepen our knowledge of the concrete reality that gave rise to both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. This is in keeping with the spirit of St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, which opens with the statement that our ultimate purpose in life is to “know, love and serve God.” The existence of so much hatred, conflict and violence in that perpetually troubled land, which seems so much at odds with God’s will and promise, does not weaken their conviction that God can be found there. Fr. Briffa affirmed this beautifully in his talk when he pointed out that in the Incarnation “God chose to enter this human mess, not some squeaky clean, wonderfully organized, choreographed liturgy.” This too reflects the Spiritual Exercises, where the meditation on the Incarnation has the Holy Trinity looking down on the earth and seeing humankind in all its rich diversity yet also enmeshed in evil and sin, so the Son, the Divine Word, is sent down to bring them God’s saving mercy.
That is the ultimate purpose of the education at the Biblical Institute, as well as at its allied schools, the Gregorian University and the Oriental Institute: to strengthen and deepen their students’ relationship with Jesus the Christ, through rigorous study, mentoring, prayer, worship and service. To know God intimately face-to-face and to see God’s goodness, beauty and truth, which are the fulfillment of every human desire, is the most precious of all gifts. From this flow all the other gifts we long for, including true justice and peace. Inspired by this experience, the students are moved to bring God’s Word to others, especially through their ministry in the Church. We see this all the time in the students and graduates. They often go into the most difficult places, burdened with poverty, oppression and violence, to be with the people and give them hope. As Fr. Briffa told us in his talk, the most important contribution they brought to the constant chaos that is the Middle East is their presence, in solidarity with the suffering people there.
During this Christmas season, may you too draw closer to Christ, who entered our world as a poor, vulnerable baby in a migrant family to share with us our struggles and pain, our hopes and dreams, and to show us God’s merciful love and promise of salvation.
Michael C McFarland, SJ
President, Gregorian University Foundation