The Christmas Novena of Saint Alphonsus Ligouri

On December 16, we begin the Christmas Novena. In these nine days of reflection this Novena  will take us up to Christmas Eve, December 24. It would be beneficial if we can sip a bit the beauty and the relevance of this interesting Novena, written by the St Alphonsus Liguori, (1696–1787), Bishop, Doctor of the Church and Founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, known as the Redemptorists.

On day one we meditate on the love that God has shown to us in becoming human. God’s response to Adam and Eve’s rebellion, was that the Son of God who took upon himself our human flesh. Not only, but, in order to save us from death, he died on a cross, condemned as a criminal. Interestingly is the fact that in that imagined dialogue between God the Father with His Son, when the Father would tell Jesus that he would be facing the coldness of the cave, the fleeing to Egypt, his living in a workshop, his many life sufferings, his trial, execution and being forsaken from all, to this litany of suffering Jesus would simply respond: Father, it does not matter. I am happy to endure whatever comes, provided that humanity is saved.

But how would we respond to such an infinite love? First, we ask forgiveness. Forgive the times that I have failed to acknowledge your influence in my life. Second, declaring our love for Jesus and asking him forgiveness once again. I love you, O Incarnate Word. I love you, O my God. I love you, O Infinite Goodness. And I ask forgiveness for all the sins that I have committed, large and small, public or private. I wish that I could die for you. Third, asking Jesus’ help to love him always and in every situation. Dear Jesus, give me the gift of love for you. Let me never again feel complacent over the trials you endured for me. I want to love you always. Give me perseverance in loving you. Fourth, asking Mary to intercede for us in front of Jesus to love her Son and Our brother perseveringly. O Mary, Mother of God and my mother too, obtain for me from your son the grace to love him always, even unto death.

On the second day of the Novena we meditate on the love of God in being born as an infant. The reason why Jesus appeared as an infant, as another Doctor of the Church put it, Saint Peter Chrysologus, is that “Our God chose to be born this way because he wanted to be loved”. And this was the work of his love for us! Further down, St Alphonsus beautifully comments on Jesus’ love for us in the following manner: You provide food for all creatures, and yet now you depend on a little milk to sustain your life. You are the delight of heaven, and yet how is it that I now hear you whimper and cry? Tell me, who has reduced you to such lowliness? “Who has done this? Love has done it,” says Saint Bernard. Yes, the love that you have for us has done it.

 Our response to this undeserved love for us follows the following path: First, a recognition of this supreme love from Jesus. Where can I find a mother or father, a friend, or a spouse more loving than you? And who has ever loved me more than you have? I am sorry that I have lived so many years in this world and yet still love you so little, even having offended you and sometimes forgotten you. Second, asking forgiveness. Forgive me, O my beloved Redeemer, for I regret that I have ever treated you so badly. I am sorry with all my heart. Third, asking Jesus not to separate ourselves from  him. Forgive me, and give me your grace so that I may never again separate myself from you, and so that I may love you constantly for the rest of my life. Fourth, asking Mary to plead for us in front of Her Son Jesus to forgive us and help us persevere in his love till death. O Mary, you are my advocate. You always obtain whatever you ask from your son. Beg him to forgive me, and to help me persevere until death. 

On the third day we meditate on the life of poverty which Jesus lived, even from his birth. His poverty can be detected because she (Mary) had been driven from all the other houses and even from the common shelter for poor people, she ended up spending the night in a cave, and there gave birth to the King of Heaven. St Alphonsus keeps highlighting Christ’s voluntary poverty when he said that the King of Heaven chose to be born in a cold cavern without a fire to warm him. He chose to have the livestock’s manger for his cradle, and a little prickly straw for his bedding, in order that he might experience what poor people have to experience. It is the gift of faith that really makes us appreciate that this child is the Son of God, who loved us so much that he came down to earth and endured so much to pay for our sins.

Our response to Jesus needs be: First, acknowledging our ungratefulness for not appreciating His poverty for our sake. O sweet infant, how can I be so ungrateful to you and offend you so often, knowing how much you have done for me? Second, asking forgiveness for our indifference towards Jesus as present in my brothers and sisters, the other fellow human beings. But the tears you cried, and the poverty you chose to endure out of love for me, give me hope in the forgiveness of all the sins that I have committed. I regret, my Jesus, that I have turned my back on you and on my sisters and brothers so often. Third, asking Jesus to give me the grace to make him our only treasure in life. You are my God and my all! From this day forward, you will be my only treasure and my only good. With Saint Ignatius of Loyola, I will say, “Give me your love, give me your grace, and I will be rich.” I wish for and I desire nothing else. You alone are sufficient for me, my Jesus, my life, my love. Fourth, asking Mary so that, through her intercession, we can grow in our appreciation of the gift of faith in Jesus. O Mary, so close to Jesus, help me to be grateful for the gift of faith in your son. 

The fourth meditation of the Novena centres on the life of humility which Jesus lived, even from his infancy. The Saviour of the world was wrapped in poor ragged clothes, in a stable, lying on straw in a manger for animals. That is how the King of Heaven, the Son of God, was born, because he came to destroy the pride that had been the cause of humanity’s spiritual ruin. And this was just the prelude of a life lived in humility and beset by humiliations! In fact, St Alphonsus adds the following comment: The prophets foretold that our Redeemer would be treated as the most wretched person on earth, and that he would be overwhelmed with insults. How much ridicule Jesus had to tolerate because of us! He was treated as a drunkard, as a magician, as a blasphemer, and a heretic. Think of how many insults he had to endure during his passion. He was abandoned by his own disciples. One of them even sold him for thirty pieces of silver, and another denied having ever known him. He was led through the streets bound like a criminal, scourged like a slave, treated like a madman, and mocked as a bogus king. He was struck, spit upon in the face, and finally he was put to death on a cross, suspended between two thieves. One would think that he had been the greatest lawbreaker the world had ever seen.

 However, Christ’s humility reveals his divine loving heart for us, sinners! And we, that by faith can identify his gratuitous love for us, can we not respond with our love for him? Saint Bernard commented that the noblest of all men, Jesus Christ, was treated like the most depraved person of all. “But, my Jesus,” he adds, “the more degraded you are, the more dear you are to me.” The more humbled and despised he appears, the more esteemed and worthy of our love he becomes.

Our reaction to his amazing loving humility is: First, being ashamed of our desire for revenge thanks to Christ’s humility. O sweet Saviour, you have embraced so much disgrace for love of me, and yet I cannot bear a word of insult without immediately thinking of revenge—I, who often deserve to be trampled underfoot by all those whom I have harmed. I am ashamed of appearing before you, such an arrogant sinner that I am. O Lord, do not drive me from your presence, as I deserve. Second, asking forgiveness for the offences we do to Christ by the way we treat our neighbour. O Lord, do not drive me from your presence, as I deserve. You have promised that you cannot condemn a heart that repents and humbles itself. I regret all the offences I have ever committed against you or against my neighbour. Third, showing the wish not to offend him in our neighbour once again. Forgive me, Jesus, for I will not offend you or anyone else ever again. You have put up with so many wounds for my sake. For your sake, I will bear all the difficulties that may come my way. Fourth, asking Mary to recommend us to JesusO Mary, recommend me to your son. Pray to Jesus for me.

On day five we meditate on the life of sorrow which Jesus lived, starting of course from his birth. Even if he could effect a free-from-suffering salvation Jesus willingly chose a life full of tribulations to show how much he loved us. Thus, as St Alphonsus affirms, while quoting Isaiah the prophet in calling Jesus the man of sorrows (Isaiah 53:3), Christ’s passion really started from the beginning of his life.

Hence, if Jesus’ life was one of continual anxiety, such as the trouble he felt in himself because he could see nothing in that cave but dark, rough walls, his sense of smell was overpowered by the stench of dung from the animals lying nearby, his skin got irritated by the itchy straw that served as his bed, he had to flee from Herod’s persecution and his hidden life in Nazareth was a big challenge for him, and later his life ended in Jerusalem, dying in anguish on a cross, by itself these actions show a great love for us!

Our response to Jesus’ life of sorrow should be: First, our recognition that we, by our sins, are responsible for Jesus’ life of sorrow. O my sweet Love, did my sins keep you in a state of agony during all of your earthly life? Second, we repent and express the wish to love him more than we love ourselves. Then, tell me what I can do so that you will forgive me, for I will leave nothing undone. I regret all the offenses I have ever committed against you, O my greatest Good. I repent, and I love you more than I love myself. I feel a great desire to love you. Third, asking Jesus for the strength to love him profoundly by telling him to remind us of his perfect love for us and binding us by his love. You have given me this desire, so now give me the strength to love you even more intensely… Remind me constantly of the love you have for me, so that my soul may always burn with love for you, and so that I may think of you alone, desire you alone, and strive to please you alone... Fourth, we promise him to love him in every moment of our lives. O God of Love, I was once a slave to this world. But now I give myself entirely to you. Accept me in your mercy, and from this day forward bind me with your love, O Jesus. I will love you while I live, and in loving you, I will die. Fifth, asking Mary to help us love Jesus in this fully committed way. O Mary, my mother and my hope, help me to love Jesus. This alone is the favour I desire and ask from you.

On the sixth day St. Alphonsus helps us meditate on the mercy of God in coming from heaven to save us by his death. God’s mercy appeared at its zenith at the moment when God became a human person in Jesus Christ. God’s mercy appeared to an even greater degree when God took human flesh to save lost humanity by his sufferings and death.

Jesus’ sufferings since he was a baby till he died for us on the Cross, by themselves show us how much he really loved us! Imagine him as a newborn infant, wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger, unable to move or feed himself. Just to survive, he relied on Mary to feed him with a little milk. Imagine him many years later, in the judgment hall before Pilate, bound to a column by ropes from which he could not loosen himself, and scourged from head to foot. Imagine him on the journey to Calvary, falling down as he went along the road, from weakness, and from the weight of the cross that he carried. Finally, imagine him nailed to that infamous tree upon which he finished his life, in agony and suffering. Jesus Christ wished to gain all the endearments of our hearts by his love for us, and therefore he would not send an angel to redeem us, but came himself, to save us by his passion and Resurrection.

What will our response be in front of so much love? First, acknowledging God’s patient love for us. O my Redeemer, where would I now be if you had not shown me so much patience, but instead had condemned me to death while I was still in sin. Second, asking Jesus to forgive us from our sins when we were indifferent to his love. Since you have waited for me, O Jesus, forgive me now and quickly, before death surprises me while I am still guilty of so many offenses against you. I regret, O my greatest Good, having ignored your Word and your commands. I feel like I could die of shame over my sins. Third, expressing our wish to Christ to love him above everyone and everything. But I also know that you cannot ever forsake anyone who seeks you. If I have failed you in any serious way in my life, I resolve from now on to seek only you, and to love only you. Fourth, asking Christ the Lord to come to our aid to make our love of Him be the principal love of our lives. Help me, Lord, to love you always for the rest of my entire life. I ask for nothing more, and I trust that you will grant it. Fifth, asking Mary to pray for us so that we fully collaborate with God’s grace. Mary, my hope, please pray for me; for if you do, I am certain to receive God’s grace.

On the seventh day we are called to meditate on the journey of the Infant Jesus to Egypt. The tragedy of this episode is beautifully communicated by St Alphonsus in the dialogue Mary has with her sleeping child Jesus: O my son and my God, you have come down from heaven to save humanity, yet hardly after you are born they already seek to take away your life. Then, St Alphonsus puts us in the suffering situation experienced by the Holy Family in this hurried flight into Egypt. Think about how much these lonely pilgrims must have suffered while making such a long journey, deprived of every comfort. The infant was not yet able to walk, so Mary and Joseph had to take turns carrying him in their arms. During the journey through the desert of Egypt, their only bed at night was the bare earth in the open air. The Infant wept in the cold, and Joseph and Mary also wept out of compassion for him. The Infant wept in the cold, and Joseph and Mary also wept out of compassion for him.

When encountering Jesus’ plight to flee to Egypt, let us: First, acknowledge our indifference towards him. O dearest infant Jesus, I hear you cry. And you ought to cry, being neglected by your very own creatures whom you love so much! O my God, I have also neglected you and sinned against you. Second, our decision to love him more than we love ourselves. Now I resolve to love you even more than I love myself. Third, while asking Jesus to forgive us we decide to carry him into our hearts always to be saved. Please forgive me, my Jesus, and allow me to carry you in my heart during the rest of my life’s journey, so that I may enter eternity with you as an essential part of my life... From now on I will love you above all other things.  Fourth, asking Jesus to give us his strength not abandoning and offending him in our neighbour in the future. Give me strength to resist temptations. Do not allow me to turn from you. I would rather die than do something that offends you or my neighbour. Fifth, asking Mary to help us live always in response to God’s love. 

The eighth day brings us to the sojourn of the Infant Jesus into Egypt and Nazareth. According to the Novena’s text both sojourns have one element in common, the life of Jesus in poverty. Our blessed Redeemer spent his infancy in Egypt, living there for seven years in poverty and contempt... The life Jesus led at the house in Nazareth after his return from Egypt was much the same: poor and humiliating. In order to help us understand what this really mean, St Alphonsus is putting us in Jesus’ shoes to see what it would be like living in poverty. This remembrance of Our Lord induces us to love him all the more. Imagine God living as a boy! God sweeping the floor! God sweating as he planned a piece of wood! And who was he? The all-powerful God, who with a simple nod created the whole universe, and who could destroy it just as easily if he wished! Should not the mere thought of this move our hearts to love him?

Moreover, amid this harsh environment, Jesus kept inspiring by living completely and faithfully the virtues of devotion, patience, obedience, moderation, kindness and charity. How inspiring it must have been to watch the devotion with which Jesus said his prayers, the patience with which he laboured, the haste in which he obeyed, the moderation he used in eating, and the kindness and charity with which he spoke and interacted with others! Jesus’ example filled with holiness those around him, particularly his parents, Mary and Joseph!  Every word, every action of Jesus was so virtuous that it filled everyone around him with love for God—but especially Mary and Joseph, who were constantly with him!

 Our penitential response in front of Jesus’ holiness in spite of the harsh adversity of poverty and contempt is: First, realizing that worldly pleasures, honours and riches can take us away from God. O Jesus, my Saviour! I realize that you, who are my God, lived for many years unknown and looked down upon in poverty because of your love for me. How, then, can I desire the pleasures, honours, and riches of the world? Although they are not bad things, I renounce them all … Second, in Jesus’ example we are called to renounce worldly pleasures, honours and riches and making Jesus our treasure so that we can inherit heaven, our eternal home. Only Jesus is our only Good that rests forever. I want to be your companion here on earth—poor like you, humble like you, and despised like you. Then I hope to one day enjoy your company in heaven. After all, what can the kingdoms or the treasures of earth amount to? My Jesus, you will be my only treasure, my only Good. Third, repenting from the times when we have neglected Jesus’ friendship with us. Better death than ruining our relationship with him. I greatly regret the many times in the past that I have disregarded your friendship while satisfying my own desires. Now I repent with all my heart. From now on, I would be willing to die a thousand times over rather than destroy my relationship with you. Fourth, asking him to help us loving him in every life circumstance of our lives. My God, I want to offend you no more. I want to love you always. Help me be faithful to you for the rest of my life. Fifth, asking Mary, our refuge as sinners, to help us. Sweet Mary! You are the refuge of sinners. You are my hope.  

On the ninth and final day of the Christmas Novena we shall be entirely focusing on the birth of the Infant Jesus in the cave of Bethlehem. This four day journey to Bethlehem was a suffering journey. Think of how much the Blessed Virgin must have suffered on that journey. The cold reception of the Holy Family from others around was an utter rejection. The Son of God was to be born in total poverty.  But, because they were poor, they were driven away by everyone, even from the inn where poor people were normally sheltered. So they left the town and found a cave. In the person of Joseph, the caring good-willed humanity protests in front of this huge injustice perpetrated by the cold-hearted others. As Mary entered, Joseph protested, saying, “My dear wife, how can you spend the night in this cold, damp place? Can’t you see that this is a stable for animals?” But she answered, “Joseph, this shed is the royal palace where the Son of God chooses to be born.” Mary gives birth to Jesus while praying. And since the time for the birth had arrived, the Holy Virgin was in prayer. Suddenly the cave became brilliantly lit, as if by the sun or a star, and the Son of God came forth into the world as a tender infant, crying and trembling with cold. The first effect of prayer is adoration. The first thing Mary did was to adore him as her God. Then, adoration paves the way to meditation. Then she held him to her bosom, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes that she had brought along. Finally, she kept him close to her heart by remembering him. Finally, she laid him on a little straw in the manger.

From this description of how the Son of God was born for love of us, St Alphonsus concludes that silent adoration must be our natural response to Jesus’ love. A saint once said that those who love Jesus Christ most ought to kneel at the feet of the Holy Child and, in spirit, perform for him the same service as the beasts in the stable at Bethlehem who warmed him with their breath. We should warm him with our sighs of love.

Hence, this is the strategy St Alphonsus marks for us: First, we ask Jesus for healing us from our pride. O tiny Infant! I would not be so bold as to lie at your feet, except that you yourself have invited me to come near. My sins have caused you to cry so many tears while in your stable at Bethlehem. But since you have come to earth to forgive repentant sinners, please forgive me, also. I regret with all my heart having ignored you so often. Second, asking Jesus to give us the grace to love him perseveringly, till the end, by inflaming us with his love. Bring peace to my soul and to the world. The one gift I ask this Christmas is the grace to love you forever with my whole heart. Inflame me, Lord, with your love!… Never let me stop loving you. Third, asking Mary to help us by praying for us in front of her Son Jesus for this to occur in our lives. Mary, my mother, God will do all things you ask in prayer. Pray to Jesus for me.

 The great themes touched by the Christmas Novena, as written to us by St Alphonsus Liguori, show all the necessary characteristics of Jesus’ hidden life, his poverty, humility, sorrow and mercy until it projects itself into Christ’s eventual passion, death and resurrection. The more we delve deeper into it the more we experience a personal exercise, in the first person singular, of an examination of conscience. The standard against which this conscience examination is to be carried out is, precisely, God’s love as incarnated in Jesus Christ. In this very down-to-earth examination of conscience we are exhorted to let the infant Jesus’ most holy example purifies us from the allurments of the present life which offer us death instead of life, and life in abundance. This Christmas Novena, with its penitential thrust, is helping us to acknowledge the infant Jesus’ behaviour as our model, see through it our own erroneous ways of behaving, expressing our innate holy wish to be reformed by Christ’s holiness, and, finally, asking Mary to help us in our effort by her maternal intercession. Thus, and in so doing, St Alphonsus is closely following the great ascetic principle inspired by St Louis M. Grignion de Montort, Ad Jesum per Mariam.

Can we put St Alphonsus’ Christmas Novena on our Facebook and share it with others online? Can we pray it together on the internet, the parish, the family, the community and, if possible, where we work? And, as a result of it, can we let this great Christmas Novena take us to the confessional to confess our sins and celebrate, in the best of ways, this Christmas reconciled with God our Father, the Church our Mother, our brothers and sisters and, finally, ourselves?

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Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap was born in San Gwann on August 26 1972. After being educated in governmental primary and secondary schools as well as at the Naxxar Trade School he felt the call to enter the Franciscan Capuchin Order. After obtaining the university requirements he entered the Capuchin friary at Kalkara on October 12 1993. A year after he was ordained a priest, precisely on 4 September 2004, his superiors sent him to work with patients as a chaplain first at St. Luke's Hospital and later at Mater Dei. In 2007 Fr Mario obtained a Master's Degree in Hospital Chaplaincy from Sydney College of Divinity, University of Sydney, Australia. From November 2007 till March 2020 Fr Mario was one of the six chaplains who worked at Mater Dei Hospital., Malta's national hospital. Presently he is a chaplain at Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre. Furthermore, he is a regular contributor in the MUMN magazine IL-MUSBIEĦ, as well as doing radio programmes on Radio Mario about the spiritual care of the sick.