Ps 96 1-3, 11-13
In his reflection on the Great Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, Saint Pope Leo the Great wrote, ". . . today our Savior is born; let us rejoice. Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness . . Our Lord, victor over sin and death . . . came to free us. . . . "
This evening we gather to recall and celebrate the birth of Jesus, Son of God, and Son of Mary, the Theotokos. We gather to celebrate the birth of the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, the One who redeemed us from sin and freed us from death. We cannot help but be joyful.
The Gospel just proclaimed is familiar. One need only hear the first few words to settle into warm Christmas feelings. Sometimes that comfort factor, the sloppy sentimentality that mars the observance of Christmas, hides the reality that Jesus’ birth was not easy. Mary and Joseph struggled just as we struggle. They were not immune to the same fears and anxieties that attack us on a regular basis. Because of Mary's fiat and Joseph's silent obedience, we celebrate that Jesus, fully Divine and fully human, truly God and truly man, was born in a stable in Bethlehem and placed in the manger.
Forget the images on Christmas cards in which everything is clean and neat. Ignore the paintings where Mary’s elaborate silk robes are beautifully draped. And of course block the halos and the chubby angels completely out of your mind. Jesus’ birth was a slice of life, a part of real life, just as we live it. His birth involved: Pain. Blood. Cold. And the odor of animals. His life affected all lives ever since. His life affects our lives. Here. In Ljubljana. In sv. Jožefa. In these last days of the year A. D. 2016
After four weeks of prophecies about Jesus today’s readings burst into song. Several verses from the first reading were set to music by Handel in his glorious masterpiece, Messiah. They include: "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light", "For unto us a child is born." The responsorial exploded with joy: "Tell his glory among the nations; Among all peoples, his wondrous deeds. Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord." Today we celebrate what the second reading proclaims: that Jesus Christ gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness; to cleanse for himself a people as his own.
We are not celebrating a holiday. We are celebrating a Holy Day. We are not celebrating a secular, alcohol-soaked, sugar coated, and materialistically driven "holiday season." We are celebrating a Holy Season. We are celebrating a season of grace.
Christmas is not an end in itself. Jesus’ birth is meaningless without His preaching, healing, and passion. Without His death, resurrection and ascension to the Father, there would be no celebration today. Jesus’ life on this earth began in Bethlehem. It ended on Calvary in Jerusalem. The life that began lying in the wood of a manger ended hanging on the wood of the cross. Today we celebrate the entire arc of what theologians refer to as "The Christ Event."
For now the purple vestments of Advent have been replaced by the white that marks the Christmas Season. On March first, however, the joy of the Christmas season will give way to the penitence of Lent. Today we sing Silent Night, Joy to the World, and other carols that attempt to capture the joy and mystery of Jesus' birth. But there is something we must always remember.
Some of the greatest theological statements in history have been written not by academic theologians but by men and women who didn’t just talk the talk in their ivory towers. They walked the walk. They did the heavy lifting. One of them was the late Dag Hammarskjöld, third Secretary General of the U.N. Hammarskjöld was a deeply religious man. He captured the history of our salvation in a haiku . . . just twelve words, a total of only seventeen syllables:
On Christmas Eve, Good Friday
Was foretold them
In a trumpet fanfare
The Gloria in Excelsis Deo we sing today will lead to the Alleluia, He is Risen at Easter. We move from Gloria to Alleluia by way of the cross. And only because of that cross can we sing today
Venite adoremus. Dominum.
Come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.
Campion Center, Weston, MA from first loft.
Campion Center, Weston, MA organist taken from second loft.
Creche at sv. Jožefa in Ljubljana, Slovenia
St. Mary's Church, Plymouth, PA
Sanctuary at St. Joseph Abbey, Spencer, MA
+ Fr. Jack, SJ, MD