The occasion was the official installation of Father Peter Seo, KMS, as the new parish priest (pastor) of the parish. For more than three years, there was no resident parish priest serving in Pomberel. The pastoral care of the people was provided by Fr Marek Woldan and Swiss Sister Lorena who would often visit the people, but the people always hoped and prayed that they would have their own parish priest to live with them and share their life. Their prayers were answered and they received an early Christmas present in the person of Father Peter (who had previously served admirably as parish priest of the Lake Kutubu Pastoral Area).
The people came to welcome us as we arrived. They had given Father Peter the privilege of wearing a special head dress adorned with feathers of the majestic Bird of Paradise. A special honor guard of men in traditional attire marched us to the church, accompanied by hundreds of parishioners who had come from the eight rural outstations.
The Christian world is beginning the third week of Advent - that special time before Christmas where Christians prepare for the coming of the Lord... bringing to fruition the awesome mystery of the Word made flesh, the Incarnation, with the birth of Jesus of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem.
The Scripture readings for this Sunday draw our attention to the fiery figure of John the Baptist, the last great prophet of the Old Testament who opens for us the door to the New Testament exhorting us to make ourselves ready for the coming of the Lord.
As we listened to the Scripture readings proclaimed by men dressed in traditional attire, I could not help to think that in a way, the Incarnation was not a one-time event. Certainly, the Incarnation of the Word in the womb of the Virgin Mary was utterly unique, unrepeatable and indeed the event which unleashed the incarnational mystery into our history. For that reason, (and in another sense), the Word continues to become flesh today. The Word was 'taking flesh' as the young men, in their traditional attire (and the hundreds of other people gathered in the church) expressed and celebrated their faith in the One who came in Bethlehem, who will come again at the end of time, and who wishes to come to us every day in countless ways. The Catholic Church, unlike some other churches, allows and even encourages the people to celebrate positive aspects of their culture and custom. As Jesus was born into the culture and custom of Judaism over two thousand years ago, the Christian faith is incarnated into the culture and custom of the peoples of PNG. (Certainly, as Jesus challenged some negative aspects of the cuture of his day, Christianity challenges all cultures and customs that are not in hamony with the gospel.) Christianity has taken root in PNG and has been embraced and enculturated as something faithful to the gospel in some the signs, symbols and languages of the people. Christianity is no longer looked upon as 'the white mans' religion'. It authenically belongs to the believing peoples of PNG.
True Christianity is 'incarnational'. It does not deny or hate the 'flesh' or the body. Indeed the Transcendent can be mediated to us through material reality, as the Son of God came to us in our human flesh. Have you ever felt close to God as you experienced a breath-taking sunset or gazed upon the majesty of the roaring ocean? This is evident in the Church which uses material things to communicate to us Transcendent meaning and reality: the water at Baptism, the oil at Confirmation and Ordination and Anointing of the Sick, the Scripture readings which we hear proclaimed, the singing of Psalms and hymns; sweet-smelling incense ... and by far, the greatest example, the Body and Blood of our Lord coming to us in the humble forms of bread and wine in Holy Communion.
In the rite of installation of the new parish priest, the bishop hands the key to the Tabernacle (where the Holy Eucharist is reserved) to the new parish priest. He admonishes the priest to look after the Body of Christ which is reserved in the Tabernacle - but also to look after and care for the Body of Christ - the Spirit-filled People of God - who are sitting in the pews.
As we contemplate and celebrate the birth of the Lord Jesus at Christmas, let us not forget that the incarnational mystery unleased when Mary said "Yes" to the message of the Archangel Gabriel, continues its saving work in us and for us today. The Transcendent God, continues to communicate his One and sufficient Word to us today in our hearts and minds, in our history and through the veiled experiences of our bodily senses. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!