Sunday, December 25, 2022

Merry Christmas

I suppose practically everyone in the English-speaking world has heard of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Some have read it. Many more have seen one or more of the many movie versions. In Dickens’ story – as in the Gospel according to Saint Luke – while a lot happens during the night, it’s on Christmas morning when it all seems to come together.

Historically, this 2nd Mass of Christmas – the Missa in Aurora, “Mass at Dawn” – has sometimes been called the “Shepherds’ Mass,” because of the prominent part played by shepherds in the Gospel we just heard. Back in the 4th century, St. Ambrose of Milan (340-397) famously called their arrival at the manger “the beginning of the infant Church.”

That said, the shepherds do have a way of fading into the background, don’t they? In Christmas pageants, how many try out for the role of shepherd? (it’s no accident that, in that other great Christmas classic, Charlie Brown’s Christmas, it was poor Linus who was assigned that role). And it surely doesn’t help that the shepherds sometimes seem as if they were mainly just filling in the time between the great Gloria in excelsis Deo of the angels and the star-lit arrival of the Magi. As for their day job, how many of us would choose to make our living as shepherds? How many people in any period would prefer being a shepherd to, let’s say, being a king?

Back in 1st-century Israel, shepherds didn’t merit much status either So, as often happens with low-status jobs that provide essential services (think of immigrant day-laborers today, essential workers during covid), the shepherds were under-appreciated and probably poor. The widespread tendency to admire the rich and despise the poor – what Adam Smith (1723-1790) called “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments” – was likely as universal then as it is now.

Thus, it was probably a surprise to everyone (including the shepherds) when the angel announced the birth of a savior - to them. To thema multitude of the heavenly host proclaimed peace to those on whom God’s favor rests (implying that the shepherds themselves were numbered among those so favored by God). For perhaps the very first time, the shepherds experienced a free gift, rather than a commercial transaction. That gift was nothing less than what Saint Paul called the kindness and generous love of God our savior. The shepherds were being invited to experience God’s kindness and generous love themselves, and then to share it with others. And, just as surprisingly, that’s exactly what they did!

In standard Nativity scenes, the shepherds stick around for a while. They’re still kneeling there when the Magi arrive. In reality, however, they stayed just long enough to find Mary and Joseph and Jesus. And then the shepherds went back to work and to their ordinary lives. But nothing for them would ever be the same again. They returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. However socially insignificant they may have been, however ordinary the lives they returned to, the kingdom of God was being born among them. And, however insignificant and ordinary we and our daily concerns may seem today, the kingdom of God is also being born among us – if only, like the shepherds, we hasten to find it in Mary’s Son.

The same Son of God who revealed himself to the shepherds in the Son of Mary continues to reveal himself to us in his Church this Christmas morning. Like the shepherds, we too hasten with wonder to find him and to be found in turn. And, as his Church, we continue doing what the shepherds did, making known to one another and to the world the message about this child in whom the kindness and generous love, the mercy and forgiveness, of God our savior have appeared and forever more continue to appear.

Among us this Christmas morning, no less than among those shepherds so long ago, the kingdom of God is being born, breaking into our otherwise ordinary, self-enclosed world and offering it the precious possibility of hope. So, when the last carol has been sung and we disperse from here to our happy homes and holiday meals (or perhaps, as many must, to a somewhat sad or lonely home, or to a modest, maybe meager meal), may that same precious and powerful hope move us and fill us and change us, as surely as it did those long ago shepherds – 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.

Merry Christmas!

Homily for Christmas morning, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, December 25, 2022. 

 To anyone anywhere, who reads this, 

Merry Christmas!

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