Saturday, December 24, 2011

Showing Up

One of the most quoted Christmas homilies in Church history is a late 6th-century one from Pope St. Gregory the Great (540-604) that begins: “Since by the Lord’s favor we are to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass three times today, we cannot speak at length upon the lesson of the Gospel. Yet the Nativity of our Lord compels us to say something.” And so indeed it does!
In one sense, of course, Christmas has been going on all around us for weeks now. Some people perhaps are tired of it already! What is there that is new to say after weeks of Christmas carols and shopping and parties? And anyway what is there that is new to say some 2000+ years after the fact that we call “the 1st Christmas”?
The Christmas story, as St. Luke tells it, begins by announcing who the Emperor was and what was going on in the world at the time. Luke wants us to understand that the story he is telling really happened as part of the history of the world. Jesus was really born. God’s Son became Mary’s Son, a human being like us.
What if in fact it had never happened? Well, for one thing, we wouldn’t be here tonight celebrating Christmas! We wouldn’t be here tonight at all, because this beautiful church, that has graced this hilltop now for 125 years, would never have been built! And, whatever year this would be, it wouldn’t be 2011 – A.D. 20011, Anno Domini 2011, the year of the Lord 20011. Some try to avoid acknowledging that and use other terminology to obscure the meaning of the calendar, but nothing can change the number and its meaning. What happened that 1st Christmas was so fundamentally important that, even now, we still calculate our calendar and date our years from it. But more important than numbers and dates, if Christmas had never happened, the whole history of the past 20 centuries would have been very, very different. And, even more important than that, we ourselves would be very different. As St. Augustine (354-430) so succinctly expressed it: “If [God’s] Word had not become flesh and had not dwelt among us, we would have had to believe that there was no connection between God and humanity and we would have been in despair.”
But instead, because of Christmas, we do have an alternative to despair! Hence the angel’s reassuring words to the shepherds: Do not be afraid! We heard those same words this past Sunday, spoken by the angel Gabriel to Mary. 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.
Of course, all those people – Mary, the shepherds, the disciples at Easter – all really were afraid, for good reasons. And for all our holiday cheer, so perhaps are we as well, as we come to the end of another very difficult and challenging year of economic and personal struggles and look ahead to the new year – with hope, to be sure, but also with anxiety. It’s not for nothing that we pray every day at Mass that we may be safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Our distress is real enough, and our anxiety about it is honest, but so must be our hope - the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
That is why we celebrate Jesus’ birth not with a birthday cake but with the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of the Risen Christ. For this is not some nostalgic holiday pageant, and the baby whose birth we celebrate is not just some distantly ancient historical figure, but God-with-us!
“Christmas comes but once a year,” lamented the narrator in one of Charles Dickens’ Christmas stories. I think Dickens may have 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. Christmas shows up, in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, in prosperity and recession, in war and in peace.
How often have we all heard the saying – perhaps even quoted it ourselves – that “90% of life is just showing up”? That’s what God did for us on Christmas. He showed up in our world – in a somewhat out-of-the-way place under the less than optimal conditions that are so often experienced by immigrants, then as now, and with only some shepherds taking notice.
But he showed up! And he stayed! He stuck with us! He’s still showing up! He’s still sticking with us – here in his Church! And that in turn makes it possible for us – as his Church – to show up, without fear, to continue what he started, in our world today, this year, and every year.
We celebrate tonight what we profess every Sunday: that the Only begotten Son of God … for us and for our salvation came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man. This is the Christmas story. Tonight, we kneel when we say those words, to highlight the fact and solemnize what we celebrate, but we say those words all year round. The Christmas story is the Christian story – our story – all year round. It’s the story of God showing up and sticking around – to free us from fear, once and for all. And so, every time we come up this hill to hear this story of God-with-us, it really must become our story, challenging us, as we go back down the hill, to be remade by it ourselves and so to reimagine our world – and so transform our frustration into fulfillment, our sadness into joy, our hatred into love, our loneliness into community, our rivals and competitors into brothers and sisters, and our inevitable death into eternal life.
In showing up in his Son and sticking around in his Church, God really has given us the greatest of all Christmas presents. As St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) so memorably expressed it in the 12thcentury: “It is as if God sent upon the earth a purse full of mercy. The purse has been burst open to pour forth its hidden contents.”
Merry Christmas!
Homily at Midnight Mass, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, Christmas Day, December 25, 20011.

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