It is indeed an honor to celebrate this sacred feast with you and to mark these festive days with worship proper to our lives. May the peace and warmth of the season wrap you and those who mean much to you within the embrace of God. May the turn of the calendar year mean another grace-filled twelve months for you and your loved ones with a wisdom that brings us closer to God.
Christmas as it has developed over the centuries touches some of the deepest strivings of the human spirit. We need something high caliber to give meaning to the mess we find in the world.
For several days we change the pace of our lives and dress ourselves not only in our material best but also in our best behavior for the feast. For Christmas reaches down to the very best that is in human nature. Christmas also reminds us of the very best that God wishes for us. After all, God gave us his best, his only Son, so that we might come to know Him and become sons and daughters like unto Him.
Christmas is a drama of the Divine dialectic, you might say, surfacing the many antitheses found in the human condition.
“Peace on earth and good will towards men.”
Mysteriously, once again, these festive days are haunted by political instabilities around the world that cause anxiety stirring the fiber of daily life. Jesus was born within turbulent times where an empire subjugated the known world of that day. The very race within which the Savior was born was a conquered people whose misfits were routinely crucified as a means to intimidate and to cruelly turn the stabbing knife of oppression.
We think of Christmas as a warm interlude of welcome this time each year. Regardless where we live, our images of Christmas involve families and friends gathered affectionately. And so it should be. We bring evergreens into our homes and apartments, real or artificial, and try to make them look as if they are snow or icicle laden. With good food and drink, hugs and kisses, together with all these things we try to create the image of tranquility, the image of happy connections with important people and events, the guise of peace – at least all the good things we desire above the struggle and failure found in our individual lives.
Religious Christmas greeting cards attempt to punctuate similar images. The scenes of Mary, Joseph and the Child are presented with warm glows and twinkling stars. The animals in the stable are clean and calm, the shepherds pastoral in appearance, the edge of their garments gold leafed and clean as any cleaners would make them; and the Wise Men majestic in their presentation of gifts and elegant in their robes with not a speck of desert sand or mud to be found on their vesture.
These scenes help us enjoy the intended effect of the once and coming of the Son of God but they do not mirror exactly the narrative that we find in the Gospels. But that’s alright. God understands our need to dream and to have dreams come true. Recall, God himself had a dream for the human race that we somehow lost grasp of.
The gospels describe a poor people in difficult times. Joseph and Mary are from Nazareth to the north, a small poor village no one would dream vacationing in. The Holy Family, as we call them, took a journey which was highly precarious. Typically, you had to travel in caravans or large groups or hire armed guards to travel with you to get through certain areas where robbers and muggers abounded. There was safety in numbers.
As Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem they find no place to stay. This is because the inns are filled with travelers due to the public census ordered by the emperor where everyone had to return to their ancestral towns and villages to register. Nothing about this was a holiday while it occurred.
It strikes me how unready so much was that first Christmas. The world was unready before the entrance of God’s gift to the world – unready in mind and mood, unready by guilt and sin. Is it possible that we might remedy each our own unreadiness in order to receive Him open-heartedly as it was meant to be that first Christmas?
In face of the world’s unreadiness shepherds are stirred as first witnesses of the Messiah’s birth. We have an idyllic picture of shepherds and their flocks. But, again, this was not the experience of the Gospel writers nor the picture they wished to paint. Shepherds were the lowest on the social pyramid, probably because they were rough dealing, rough talking and rough smelling. Society considered them nobodies.
Indeed, friends, had we been there we would have seen nothing of our Christmas in that first Christmas. That first Christmas was real. Ours is make-believe if not quite sanitized.
The gospel writer Matthew spruces up the story of Jesus birth with the arrival of the star-gazers (Wise Men) from the East who interpreted world events by studying the stars. Luke, on the other hand, wants us to see and feel the destitution, the hardship and the forgotten people of the land. Luke wants us to see the migrants and the homeless people in the travelers Joseph and Mary. He wants us to see the forgotten people of the world in the shepherds. He wants us to remember how desperately our world and many of its inhabitants needed God. Luke wants to teach that God purposefully sent his Son to us precisely when we were overcome by the mess that was in the world.
The biblical figures in today’s sacred narrative were people for whom life was hard. They lived many days with fear of starvation or harm by robbers or annihilation by an oppressive empire. We must find how we too are starved for things truly holy. We must face our own fears. These days can bring about a new peace on this earth that God wills for us despite — our mess.
So, truly, there is nothing glorious presented in the manner of Jesus’ birth. But, this is the writer Luke. Luke wishes us to see that God’s faithfulness is expressed precisely in our human events even when appearances seem to deny both God’s presence and His power. Even when we are beset with the mess of our individual lives, the mess in our families, the mess in our Church, the mess in our society and in other conditions around and about. If God is to be found anywhere, somewhere, we will find Him in the currents good and bad coursing through our lives, not in some Disney World-like reality. In deigning to take on human flesh to live and walk amongst us and show us the better way He graciously took on our mess. And it was our mess that killed him.
Despite it all we need Christmas. Had there been no Christmas we probably would have invented some semblance of it. For we human beings cry out for redemption from the awful mess that defines the world that we live in. We need a Savior to take us from all that has messed up our lives.
Luke, the author of the third gospel here, wants the world to remember that God promised to never abandon His people. Luke wants us to remember the ancient promises that He will be our shepherd, that God saves and will always save us from a messed up world. God keeps on saving if we can allow Him into our mess. The more we mess it up the more God pursues us to straighten it all out.
The prophet Isaiah in the passage (tonight) (from the midnight Mass), writes a hymn of coronation for a new born king of Israel centuries before Jesus’ birth. The scene then was, simply, leadership had failed in Israel. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been conquered by Assyria. The people of Judah to the south were afraid the same thing would happen to them. Isaiah invokes the same ancient promises of God. For the scriptures tell us consistently God always gets us through the mess!
Our task this Christmas is to find our identity with the shepherds and with Joseph and Mary. Our task is to search out our own moral and spiritual unreadiness so that God can change it to readiness to receive Him this day and every day, to search and find our Savior within the incongruities of our situations.
Apart from God we too are homeless. Apart from God we are sinful. Apart from God we too are nobodies. Yet, today’s feast of the becoming flesh of God tells us in no uncertain terms that we are somebodies as far as God is concerned. We always have been precisely when we were unimpressed by God’s attention to us. Tonight, we have every reason to hope and to grasp the light of God.
“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.”
This Christmas, I think of God deigning to come down to wallow with us in our mess. Religion’s job is to highlight the contrasts, the dialectic found in life. On the other side of holiness is found our sinfulness. Opposite the purity of life preached to us is found impurity. Opposite the peace the world craves is found perpetual conflict. Opposite the rich is found the poor. Opposite humility is found reckless ambition. God’s coming intervenes in the mess we create struggling with the dialectic for we are frightened to find synthesis at the conclusion of the awful antithesis that is indicative of God’s Will to save. Christmas will be no more than cozy images if we cannot see the favor of God in our lives despite the nonsense we find in our lives and therefore in our world.
So, there’s nothing wrong with what we’ve done with Christmas in all its fascination and decoration or in all of its staging as long as we can recall what Christmas is meant to do – help us reach for the promises that one day the mess will be over and done with, for God’s redemption is at hand.
The shepherds and this expecting couple knew they needed God. At times we’re not sure that we need God. We allow ourselves to think that what we have we’ve earned through our own hard work. We often fail to notice God’s signature at the bottom corner of our life’s portrait.
Christmas is for the needy. Christmas is for those who dream and who hope, who desire the more that only God can provide. The poor and the hungry, those helpless to clean up their lives, the lowest of laborers, they are still with us in our contemporary world. Though we live better we are not much better. On Christmas we remember people in need and among them we must include ourselves.
These festive days don’t be afraid to do the God-talk your households and friendships need. And in the act of giving gifts make sure you invoke the name of the Christ child to loved-one or friend, this God-Child that inspires all we are and do. After all, it is His feast we celebrate.