Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Divine Mercy and the Birth of Christ


Homily: Christmas – Mass During the Day
          In April of 2015, I joined a group of pilgrims on a journey to the Holy Land.  I wasn’t leading the trip, like many priests do, but rather “tagged onto” a trip that another priest was leading; and this for a couple of reasons.  First, because I wanted my first trip to the Holy Land to be a “personal” pilgrimage, in which I could just focus on praying and engaging the pilgrimage on my own.  This, because my first trip may be my only one and I wanted to be sure that I didn’t get lost worrying about keeping a group together.  The second reason was to make a pilgrimage of thanksgiving for have been in remission from cancer for five years (at that point).  This, again, necessitated that I make a “personal” pilgrimage, instead of a pilgrimage in which I’m trying to lead a group.
          Nevertheless, on the pilgrimage, I couldn’t escape the fact that I am a priest on a pilgrimage with a group of lay persons and so, inevitably, I was asked to lead certain portions of the trip, like celebrating Mass on some of the days (which I was happy to do).  Since that pilgrimage, every time that Christmas rolls around, I’m reminded of that trip; and here’s why.
          As I said, the trip was in April.  In fact, the trip left the Wednesday after Easter, which meant that we were celebrating much of Easter week in the Holy Land.  It was awesome to be celebrating the Easter Solemnities in the land on which Jesus walked and which was the birthplace of the Church.  A certain set of circumstances, however, meant that we were presented with an interesting situation when the Second Sunday of Easter—Divine Mercy Sunday—rolled around.
          The day before—Easter Saturday—we attempted to visit the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  As it turned out, however, the Eastern Orthodox Christians weren’t celebrating Easter week that week, but rather Holy Week.  Thus, it was Holy Saturday according to the Orthodox calendar and the church of the Nativity was full of Christians preparing to celebrate the Easter Vigil.  This meant both that there was a long line of people waiting to descend the staircase to the crypt to visit the location of Christ’s birth and that access was about to be cut off since the Easter Vigil was soon to begin.  As it turns out, we didn’t get to make our visit that day.
The next day—again, the Second Sunday of Easter for us—another turn of events meant that our schedule for that day was upended.  Our very experienced tour guide decided to take the opportunity to take us back to the church of the Nativity so that we could make our visit.  In addition, he arranged it so that we could celebrate Mass there that day.  As it turns out, it was my turn to celebrate Mass and I was excited to be able to do so there.
One thing to note about celebrating Mass at these pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land is that, when you celebrate Mass at one of them, you celebrate a votive Mass for the events or persons honored at that place: including using any scripture readings that refer to that event or person as the readings for Mass.  Thus, at the church of the Nativity, we were handed scripture readings for the Mass of Christmas.  So, there we were, celebrating Divine Mercy Sunday, while hearing the readings we heard today, which proclaim Christ’s birth to us.
It was a striking contrast, but it immediately made sense to me: for we do our faith harm if we try to separate the birth of Jesus from the death and resurrection of Jesus; and we have to recognize that the mercy that we celebrate in Jesus’ death and resurrection was first made manifest to us in his birth as an infant in Bethlehem.  The message of Christmas is, therefore, one of mercy: God’s Divine Mercy made manifest to us.
Let’s pause and take a moment to think about mercy.  Although there are many ways that one could define mercy, I like to think of it in this way: that mercy is giving something to someone that he/she absolutely does not deserve.  To use perhaps a most common example: often when we forgive someone, we do so even though he/she doesn’t really deserve it.  He/she has hurt us in some way and the apology, though sincere, has not restored to us what has been lost and so he/she does not deserve our forgiveness.  Yet, we forgive: often, I guess, in the hope of restoring the peace and harmony in our lives that was lost by the offense.  Nonetheless, this is mercy: even if it doesn’t qualify as mercy in the grand sense that we may often think about it.  And so, in light of this, how is the birth of Jesus a manifestation of God’s mercy?
Let’s take a look at our Gospel reading.  There we find the prologue of John’s Gospel.  In it, he begins by speaking of Jesus’ “other”-ness: that is, that the Word of God, the Divine Logos, is not only separate and set apart from the world, but also completely above and before all creation.  Christ, the Second Person of the one God, existed before all things and needs nothing of creation to be complete in himself.  This Divine Word of God “became flesh and made his dwelling among us”.  Later in John’s Gospel we’ll hear the reason for this: “sic Deus dilexit mundum... for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life”.
This, my friends, is the greatest act of mercy ever made.  We sinful humans could not be any more undeserving of God’s forgiveness, yet “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”.  As we celebrate the birth of our Savior today, let us remember and acknowledge God’s mercy: that we, completely undeserving of this gift, have nonetheless received it.  And let us give thanks, as we do here in this Eucharist today.  Then, as recipients of God’s unfathomable mercy, let us go forth from here to be generous distributors of God’s mercy to all those around us.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – December 25th, 2018
Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord