Monday, December 25, 2017

Do Not Be Afraid!

One of the most quoted Christmas sermons in Church history is a late 6th-century homily by Pope Saint 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! Even in this divisive time when it is so hard to get people to agree on anything, I think we might all agree with Gregory about that!

On the other hand, 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 cards and shopping? 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 Saint Luke tells it, the same familiar story that we have heard over and over again all our lives, 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! Certainly we wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas! And we wouldn’t be here either, because this beautiful church that has graced this hilltop now for 131 years would never have been built!

And, whatever year this would be, it wouldn’t be 2017 – A.D. 2017, Anno Domini 2017, the year of the Lord 2017. 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 Saint Augustine (354-430) so famously said: “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 have an alternative to despair! Hence the angel’s reassuring words to the shepherds: Do not be afraid! We heard those same words just yesterday, spoken by the angel Gabriel to Mary and later to 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.
Of course, all those people – Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the disciples at Easter – all really were afraid, and for some very good reasons. And for all our holiday cheer, so perhaps are we as well, as we come with anxieties we may be reluctant to name or even acknowledge, buffeted by bad news of all sorts, to the end of another very difficult and challenging year of political and social setbacks, economic and personal struggles, and apocalyptic natural disasters that warn of even worse to come. We watch Frank Capra’s great 1946 Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful life, and can hardly help noticing its terribly tragic portrayal of a world in desperate need of heavenly help - America as Potterville, where the rich get richer and the poor poorer.
Not for nothing do 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. The world’s distress is real enough, as is our anxiety about it, but so is the hope we celebrate tonight - the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Too many of those who call themselves Christians today seem trapped by fear. But such fear is the opposite of the faith, the hope, and the love that Christ’s coming into our world has made possible for us.
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 have often thought that 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 and year-out, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, in prosperity and in recession, in war and in peace. Christmas comes and is able (as Pope Francis reminded us just 10 days ago) “to warm the coldest hearts, to remove the barriers of indifference to one’s neighbor, to encourage openness to the other and free giving.”
Christmas comes because God comes. At Christmas, God showed up in our world – in an out-of-the-way place amid the poverty and political persecution that are still so often experienced by refugees and immigrants, here and now even in our own society, as we are regularly reminded whenever we turn on the news. At the time, only some shepherds took any notice. But tonight we are there too.
Back when I was a little boy, in the early days of television, my family would watch a weekly program called You Are There, which aired from 1953 to 1957. Each show was a dramatic recreation of some event in history, with modern-day reporters covering the event and interviewing the historical characters. At the end of each episode. Walter Cronkite would conclude: "What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times... all things are as they were then, and you were there."
We are there tonight with those same shepherds – not by some fantasy of technology but by the miracle of God’s coming – because at Christmas God didn’t just show up, he stayed. He stays with us, here and now, here in his Church! His showing up and staying with us is what enables us, his Church, to show up and stay in our world today, to continue what he started, without fear, 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 staying with us – 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, we must be willing for it to become our story too, 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 staying with us in his Church, God really has given us the greatest of all Christmas presents. As Saint 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 for Christmas Day (The Mass at Midnight) Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 25, 2017.

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