Homily: The Nativity of the Lord (Vigil)
It was the fall of 2008 when I sat down to the first session of my Early Church History class at Saint Meinrad (which is the seminary I attended). In shuffles a rather elderly monk: thin, nearly swimming in his black habit, slightly bent over, a few wisps of gray-white hair still on his head (and on his beard, for that matter), thick glasses, a few books in his hand and a gentle smile on his face. He set his books on the desk and arranged a few papers on the podium (his notes for class, I assumed) and checked his watch to see that it was time to start class. He began with a simple prayer asking for God’s wisdom to be with us (Fr. Cyprian’s prayers always felt sincere, never contrived, which revealed a deep, heartfelt spirituality). Then he looked out at us and said: “History is about making dead skulls talk.”
Of course, the joke is that Fr. Cyprian teaches Early Church History because he is old enough to have been there to experience it himself; but the truth is that he has a deep love of history—not dates and names, but the true human drama that took place at those times and places—and he loves sharing that experience with others. If Fr. Cyprian was here today to tell us about this great feast that we are celebrating today, I’d imagine that he’d begin in this way:
“Today, we are celebrating a birthday. And not just any birthday; but rather the birthday of a king: a king who needs no pedigree of his own but who nonetheless shares one with the ancient people of Israel. He was born into a peasant family—the son of a carpenter and a poor Jewish girl—but his birth was heralded by nothing less than the full army of heaven’s angels. Yes, my friends, today we celebrate a day unlike any other: a day in which God made history.”
As you might imagine, I did quite well in his class and I learned from it a love of history. In his spirit, I think that there are three things that we who are here to celebrate this feast should take away with us today.
First, we must acknowledge that with the birth of Christ something definitive has happened in history. The birth of Jesus, the Son of God Most High who took on the nature of a human being without diminishing any of his divinity, is most definitely something new. Even though we did not read through the genealogy of Jesus, which was an option for today’s Mass (and trust me no one here is more grateful for that than Father Eder over there), one can quickly look at it and see that the birth of Jesus marks something new in history. After forty-two generations of recounting that so-and-so was the father of so-and-so, and he the father of the next one, Matthew arrives at Jesus and says “Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Christ.” Jesus is the only one on that long list whose biological father is not named. This was definitely something new.
Then Matthew recounts how the birth of Jesus comes about. Joseph, who, I’m sure, would have never thought that he would amount to anything more than a small-town carpenter, and who probably never aspired for anything more than to have decent work, start a family, and to leave a patrimony for his children, suddenly finds that his virgin wife has conceived a child. He can only assume the worst. As righteous man, he knew he had to divorce his wife (for that is what Jewish law demanded); but apparently he was also a caring man and so he decided to divorce her quietly, so as to keep her from shame. His dreams, however, began to crumble. That’s when the angel revealed a new dream.
Now, I don’t know what my reaction to this dream would have been, but I can assure you that “when he awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him” would not have been one of the options! I mean who ever heard of a virgin conceiving a child without having relations with a man? That’s just crazy, right? Perhaps it was the prophecy that the angel quoted: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” Isaiah prophesied this to the Judean king Ahaz—one of those kings named in Jesus’ genealogy. Perhaps Joseph remembered this prophecy and thus, even though he was surprised by its fulfillment, he could have the courage to believe the angel’s message. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his book about the infancy narratives of Jesus, wrote that the idea of the Messiah was not yet part of the Jewish religious mindset when Isaiah prophesied this to king Ahaz and so what he did was he formed a keyhole whose key had not yet been made. Over six-hundred years later, Jesus became that key.
This, of course, was something new: something that could only happen by God, something that would change the course of history forever. In fact, it is bigger than history itself. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once wrote: “Christmas is not an event within history but is rather the invasion of time by eternity.” This—that something definitive happened at the birth of Jesus—is the first and most important point.
The second thing that we should take with us today is that this “invasion of time by eternity” is a gift; and it is a gift for all peoples. In today’s second reading we heard Paul speaking to the congregation in the synagogue in Antioch and addressing not just the Israelites but all who were present (even the Gentile believers, who were called “God-fearers”). There is no discrimination here. The Son of God took on human nature to bring salvation—that is, redemption, hope for a life without suffering, and help in the midst of suffering—to everyone: to you, to me, to everyone here and to everyone who is not here. Jesus is the common ground where everyone, regardless of background, can meet and see in each other a brother, a sister, a friend.
The third thing is that the receiving of this gift forms those who receive it into a community. When any one of us looks upon the child of Bethlehem lying in a manger and sees in him—even if only dimly—eternity somehow present in time and accepts it in faith, that one becomes united to every other person who has ever accepted this same truth into their hearts. We become a community distinguished by this belief who live by this belief and thus become the privileged place of encounter with Emmanuel, God with us. Therefore, our acceptance can never be partial. We can never say, “Oh, I like to celebrate Christmas, but I don’t believe that Jesus was truly God made man.” This is empty! It is the beautifully wrapped gift box that has nothing inside. It is a promise of some joy that ultimately goes unfulfilled. Either you receive the gift, and become one with the community of believers, or you refuse to receive it, and remain outside of it.
My brothers and sisters, as we celebrate this great day—the day the Word made Flesh became visible to us—let us remember that something new has happened, something that changed history completely; and that it is a gift to us, a gift that still has the power to change our history, too. And let us remember that when we receive that gift we receive with it a community of brothers and sisters who share in our joy and who long for the day of ultimate fulfillment when Christ returns.
Today, eternity was made visible to us. Here in this Eucharist we come face to face with it once again. And so, to all of us who have received the gift of faith in the Christ-child I say “come, let us adore him.”
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – December 24th, 2014