Homily: Christmas – Vigil Mass
Having been here for close to six months now, I have been asked a lot of questions by many of you as you all try to get to know me a little better. Many of those questions centered around my family, my interests, where I went to seminary, my life as an engineer before entering the seminary and—much to my delight—what types of food are my favorite to eat. The one question that I feel like I most often received, however, is one that is probably the most complicated for me, or anyone else for that matter, to answer. The question? “So, Father, where are you from?”
Looking just at the bare facts, answering that question really isn’t that complicated at all. For many of us here, in fact, it is rather simple: “I’m from Lafayette. I was born and raised here and I’ve lived here all my life.” For folks like myself, that answer gets a little more complicated, but it is nonetheless still digestible: “I was born and raised in Joliet, Illinois, I went to college in Flint, Michigan and then moved to Indiana, where I’ve lived for the past 18 years.” But even this bare-bone answer contains indicators that reveal other things about me, that is, about “where I am from.” Almost to the person, once someone hears that I grew up near Chicago they assume that I am a Cubs fan (which, of course, is the only valid assumption to make, since being a Cubs fan is the only morally correct choice for any Christian to make: for it is a sign that one is in possession of the Christian virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, without which it would be impossible to remain a fan of the Chicago Cubs).
If we start to ask questions beyond that basic question, however—such as those I’ve already mentioned: how big is your family, where did you go to school, did you play sports—we begin to find that the answer to the question “where are you from” is far more complicated and nuanced (and, perhaps, embarrassing) than we might be ready to share.
Today, we, as the Church, celebrate God’s coming to us as a human person. The absurdity of that statement is so great that we could stay here until tomorrow morning’s Mass trying to talk ourselves into a way to rationalize why God—who is without limits—would ever want to put on this limited human nature, but you all would never allow me to do that, so I suppose we won’t try. No, today we acknowledge—and celebrate—that the eternal God entered time and, thus, that God, who has no beginning or end, no past or future, but only an eternal present, now has a history. In other words, in celebrating that the Son of God has come to us in the flesh, we are celebrating—at least in part—that he came from somewhere.
In our Gospel reading today, we hear where that somewhere is. And much like our own answers about “where we are from,” the Son of God’s newly-acquired history is complicated. Taking a look back at his genealogy, we find that Jesus’ heritage contains not only shining examples of righteousness and faith, but also men of whom it is safe to say that most followers of Jesus would have rather left out. In between are men whose lives were a complicated mix of righteous deeds tarnished by poor decisions and others who, quite frankly, were so unremarkable that they’d be all but forgotten if they weren’t part of this lineage. I’d venture to say that these very same descriptions could be applied to each and every one of our family trees.
At the end of this line comes, however, Joseph, the poor carpenter from Nazareth. Although it is noted that he is a righteous man (and rightfully so, for he should be noted for that), if it wasn’t for his role in giving the Son of God a history—that is, a heritage—Joseph would otherwise have been one of those unremarkable names on this list (that is, if it would have even gotten there in the first place). Notice, we didn’t hear Mary’s genealogy, but rather Joseph’s. And why? I mean, isn’t Joseph just a ‘fill-in’ so it doesn’t look strange that the Son of God is raised in a single-parent home? I mean, can’t we just drop Joseph out of the picture all together? No, we can’t. To understand why, we have to go back to the beginning.
In the Book of Genesis, right after our first parents, Adam and Eve, committed the first sin, God condemns them to a life of suffering: the man must labor to bring forth food and the woman will suffer pain in childbirth. But then, he makes a promise: that an offspring of the woman (that is, Eve, the mother of all mankind) will one day crush the head of the serpent—that is, the evil one, who tempted Eve into sin. And so we see that the Son of God who was to come and redeem all of human kind needed to be born of a woman. Thus, we see Mary’s indispensable role. As the years went on, the prophets of Israel began to reveal God’s plan that the Messiah—that is, God’s Son who would come to crush the head of the serpent—would emerge from the royal lineage of King David. Thus, we see now Joseph’s indispensable role: for it is through him that the Son of God received his heritage as a “Son of David.” And so, while Mary gave God his humanity, Joseph gave God his history. And the parallels don’t end there.
In the Annunciation to Mary, the angel waited for Mary’s response: for the Holy Spirit would not overshadow her unless Mary gave her consent, and she had every right to say no. As we read today in the Gospel, the Annunciation to Joseph by the angel in his dream holds the same suspense. Joseph had every right to divorce Mary. He even had the right to divorce her publicly, inducing even greater shame on her. Because he was a righteous man, however, he had decided to do it quietly, knowing that, although he couldn’t rightfully take her into his home, she would be shamed enough in that culture just by being a single mother. This is when the angel bursts onto the scene and says, “I know that this goes against every righteous bone in your body, Joseph, but go ahead and take Mary into your home anyway, because God has a plan.” And so, just as God asked Mary to make space for him in her life, so, too, did he ask Joseph to make space in his. And just as Mary reversed Eve’s sin of disobedience by listening and responding to God’s will, so, too, does Joseph reverse Adam’s sin of consenting to Eve’s disobedience by consenting to Mary’s obedience and thus receiving her into his home.
My brothers and sisters, I don’t think that it would be a surprise to any of us if I said that our world has become increasingly hostile to God. Day after day, it seems, the media culture is closing itself off from God and we are so afraid of being left out that we are rushing to get in with it. Packed in like sardines, there is, it seems, no more room for God in our lives. Yet, we are here, aren’t we? Many of us have been here all year and some of us haven’t been here since last year, but nonetheless we are all here. Perhaps that means that there is still room for God in our lives. If so, then there is a message for you here today.
Now, I cannot know what it was that motivated any of you to come here today, whether you came by your own free choice or out of obedience to a parent, grandparent, spouse or fiancée, but I can tell you this: If you are here today it is because God wanted you to be here. And if you can hear my voice then I can tell you assuredly that God wants you to hear this message: Do not be afraid to take God into your home, for it is by the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of goodness, righteousness, and truth—that he comes to you. God wishes to bless you with his presence—his healing, consoling, and strengthening presence—if only you would make a space for him.
Perhaps, however, we are afraid. We’re afraid that if we give him a little space, that he’ll take over everything. Don’t worry, though; just like with Mary and Joseph, he won’t take more than we give him. He doesn’t need much to start out, anyway: perhaps just a wood box out back with some straw to sleep on. And if we’re afraid that we won’t know what to say to him when he comes, well, then, why don’t we just start with a simple ice-breaker: “So, Jesus, where are you from?”
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – December 24th, 2018
Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord