35 years ago – Christmas 1975 – when I was in graduate school in New Jersey, a foreign student classmate took the bus into New York City for Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. When he got there, he was told the Cathedral was full and that he should try one of the other many midtown churches. When he told me the story a week later, he was still amazed that all the people, who had been patiently waiting to get into the Cathedral, had accepted this so calmly and gone away peacefully. “In my country,” he said, “there would have been a riot.” Coming from a different culture, he was surprised – amazed – that Americans were so orderly. Notice, however, that he seemed not at all surprised – or amazed – by the size of the crowd. But why not? Why would people come out in such numbers on a cold New York winter night – in the middle of the night, no less, and to go Church, of all things? Why, indeed? Why, indeed, are we here tonight?
Some 20 years later, a priest I know had occasion to visit a remote Pacific island. When the people there learned he was a Catholic priest, they welcomed him enthusiastically. And then they asked him to talk to them about Jesus. They told him how, before they had been evangelized, they had been afraid of all sorts of things – both physical and spiritual, natural and supernatural. Now, however, they understood that God – the true God – is bigger and more powerful than all those things that used to frighten them, and at the same time is small enough to be one of us. And so they were no longer afraid.
And that is why we are here tonight!
Now, of course, as we all well know, people approach the celebration of Christmas in a variety of ways and with a variety of emotions. Some still come to Christmas with the same excitement they had as children awaiting Santa’s arrival. Others come trapped in the cynicism of Ebeneezer Scrooge. Some are worn out from shopping. Others just can’t wait for the post-Christmas sales. Some are sad; others elated. Some are preoccupied and distracted; others tranquil and calm. Christmas makes some people all “joyful and triumphant.” Others get nostalgic and weepy. (I, for one, still can’t quite make it through a recording of Judy Garland singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas without at least a tear or two).
To all of us, however, whatever our feelings and however mixed our motives, the message of Christmas is one and the same: Do not be afraid … For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord!
Do not be afraid! Well, that’s surely easier said than done! Even the shepherds, so we’re told, were struck with great fear. And who wouldn’t be? Like those Pacific Islanders, we all know that there is a lot to fear in life, and how afraid we can be, and how hard it can be for us to believe that anything at all (let alone something so ordinary as a baby being born) can really remove our fear. In fact, as babies’ births go, this one seems to have taken place under less than optimal conditions – away from home, with no family or friends to help or even visit, just strangers, shepherds, of all people!
But, then, we also know that babies are born all the time in strange and scary situations – to homeless refugees on the road with war raging all around them. for example. For that matter, Christmas itself has been and often is celebrated in less than optimal conditions – by those who are alone, or with only strangers for company, by the sick in hospitals, by immigrants in refugee camps, by soldiers fighting a war (by my own father, for example, 66 years ago tonight, fighting with the 186th Field Artillery Batallion at the Battle of the Bulge, what one historian has called “the worst Christmas for American soldiers since Valley Forge.”)
Yet the point is that Christmas continues to be celebrated. The birth of that baby in Bethlehem some 2010 years ago was so special, so important, so wonderful, that we even calculate our calendar and date our years from it, from Christ’s 1st coming that 1st Christmas – and not, let it be noted, from Caesar Augustus, or Quirinius, or any of the other important, rich, talented, attractive people whom we like to see as the stars of the human race. Secular society has become somewhat embarrassed by our calendar and sometimes uses euphemisms like “the common era.” But the calculation speaks for itself. More important than numbers and dates, however, if Christmas had never happened, then the whole history of our world would have been totally different. We ourselves would have been different – for we would never have known God’s great love for us and would have had no other real alternative but to be afraid. As Saint Augustine so succinctly expressed it: “we would have had to believe that there was no connection between God and humanity and we would have been in despair.”
But now, because of Christmas, we do have an alternative. Hence the angel’s reassuring words to the shepherds: Do not be afraid! We heard those words this past Sunday, spoken by the angel to Saint Joseph. We will hear them again at Easter, from the mouth of the Risen Lord himself, the same Risen Lord whom we encounter whenever we celebrate the Eucharist. The fact that we celebrate Jesus’ birth not with a birthday cake, but with the Eucharist, the body and blood of the Risen Christ, signifies that this is not some nostalgic bit of playacting, and that the baby whose birth we are celebrating is not some distantly ancient historical figure, but the presently alive God-made-man – now risen from the dead and living forever at his Father’s right hand.
“Christmas comes but once a year,” lamented the narrator in one of Charles Dickens’ Christmas stories. I think Dickens put the emphasis on the wrong part of the sentence. The point is not that Christmas comes only once a year, but that it comes – year in, year out, in good times and in bad, in prosperity and in recession, in peacetime and in wartime.
The Christmas story is a proclamation. It is a proclamation of God’s infinitely powerful presence and action on our behalf in our human history – announced by angels to shepherds and proclaimed ever since by the Church, whose main mission and purpose is to announce this good news to all, to proclaim Jesus Christ by words and actions and so be his instrument in the world. Thus, Saint Paul proclaimed to Titus that the grace of God has appeared. God’s gift of his Son – the 1st Christmas gift – has been given to us and stays with us, casting out fear and filling us with hope – hope in the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to deliver us.
The language of hope seems especially powerful to us at Christmas. At no other time of the year are our homes and streets and cities so beautiful. At no other season does the world seem so bright and hopeful as it does at Christmas. At no other time of the year are people so ready and receptive to the hopeful message contained in the sights and sounds and symbols of this season.
So let us not be afraid to let the Christmas story speak to us in all its power – and, then, let us not be afraid to let that same Christmas story speak to the world, through us, in all its power – the power of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to deliver us.
Let us not be afraid to accept this Christ, to conceive him in our hearts as Mary did and to bring him forth into this confused and frightened world as Mary did. Let us not be afraid to identify ourselves fully with his Church, that network of friendship with Christ, uniting heaven and earth, spanning space and time, uniting peoples and cultures, past, present, and future, in one communion of saints. Let us not be afraid to let the power of Christ in us make a real difference, not just in some things, but in everything.
So, then, when the last carol has been sung, and we leave this warm, bright church and go back out into the cold and dark, Christ’s light will shine – through us – and we will light up the dark winter of our world with a light full of love, a love full of joy, the joy that the angel brought to the shepherds, the joy of knowing that, because of Christmas, we need never be afraid again. And, then, what a wonderful difference Christmas will make, not just today and tomorrow, but every day, all the year, every year!
Homily at Midnight Mass, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 25, 2010.