25 December, 2016. The Nativity of Our Lord
Happy Christmas all! Please let us know who you are, and where you’re writing from…
1st Reading. Isaiah 9:2-7
God promises a saviour to rescue his people from darkness and bring them to peace and security
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
2nd Reading. Titus 2:11-14
Saint Paul invites us to look forward to the coming of Christ in glory
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.
Gospel: Luke 2:1-14
At a fixed time in history, and in very simple circumstances, Jesus our Saviour was born
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see-I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
Opportunity and challenge
Christmas is a very special time, offering both challenge and opportunity. From a preaching point of view, there are several challenges: more young people present and also many people who come only rarely to Church. All this represents a challenge and an opportunity. Now is the time to get to the heart of the Christian proclamation and plant some kind of seed of faith…you never know. [Kieran O’Mahony ]
Kieran’s exegetical notes for Christmas Day provide an excellent starting-point when preparing the homily. They are accessible here: 1) Midnight Mass; 2) Dawn Mass; 3) Day Mass. His audio-commentary on the Christmas Masses is also well worth a listen, via computer or smartphone.
Let’s remember the refugees
While sharing a “Thought for the Day” on the radio this past week, Prince Charles of England suggested that Christians should be more mindful during the holidays of the plight of many Muslims today, who are refugees from war-torn areas.
“Normally at Christmas we think of the Birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. I wonder though if this year we might remember how the story of the nativity unfolds, with the fleeing of the holy family to escape violent persecution. And we might also remember that when the prophet Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina he was seeking the freedom for himself and his followers to worship. Whichever religious path we follow, the destination is the same – to value and respect the other person, accepting their right to live out their peaceful response to the love of God,” he said. He also compared Brexit and other pro-border movements to European Fascism in the 1930s:
“We are now seeing the rise of many populist groups across the world that are increasingly aggressive towards those who adhere to a minority faith. All of this has deeply disturbing echoes of the dark days of the 1930s…. I was born in 1948, just after the end of World War Two, in which my parents’ generation had fought and died in a battle against intolerance, monstrous extremism and an inhuman attempt to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe. That nearly 70 years later we should still be seeing such evil persecution is, to me, beyond all belief. We owe it to those who suffered and died so horribly not to repeat the horrors of the past.”
Santa’s most popular helper by far is Rudolf, the red-nosed reindeer, who had a very shiny nose. We all know his story, as told in the Christmas song, how all of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names. They never let poor Rudolf play in any reindeer games. But one day, all that was turned upside down. For on a foggy Christmas eve Santa came to say: Rudolf with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?.. The story of Rudolf is modelled on the story of salvation. It connects with our story both as individuals and as a community. It is not Santa who saves us but the newborn Jesus.
Rudolf starts as a misfit. Compared to the image of the ideal reindeer we can say that something was definitely wrong with him. What is more, he was not in any position to help himself. So are we all, misfits, as the Bible tells us. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6). Like lost sheep we are not in a position to help ourselves. Rudolf could not help himself. All his fellow reindeer only made things worse for him. Only one person could help him, Santa, the messenger from heaven.
Today we celebrate the birth of the real Messenger from heaven. As we read in today’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). He comes to free us from our predicament of sinfulness. For it is sin that mars and disfigures the beautiful image of God that we all are. Sin turns us into a despicable Rudolf, the red-nosed reindeer. But the heavenly Messenger comes, not to take away the red nose but to declare to us the Good News that we are acceptable to God even with our red nose. Rudolf’s red nose was a defect. But Santa chose him precisely on account of that. The heavenly Messenger has the ability to turn the defects and red noses of our tainted humanity into assets for the service of God. Jesus is this heavenly messenger.
What makes the reindeer gospel so poignant is that Santa does not use his magic wand to heal Rudolf of his defect. He let him go on with the red nose even as his chosen reindeer. Certainly Rudolf would have wanted nothing so much as to be a normal reindeer like all the rest. Similarly Jesus does not simply make us good men and women, rather he makes us into people who can use all their strengths and defects to the service and the glory of God. This is the proof to us that it is not by our own will power that we are able to become children of God. It is by God’s grace, by God’s unmerited and unconditional love of us. As God tells St Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Like Rudolf’s yes to Santa, let us today listen to what the Child Jesus asks of us, following him without looking back, even when we do not know where the journey will lead us, knowing one thing for sure: that the grace of God will supply the strength we need for the long journey of faith ahead. “For to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God”.
A Christmas Experiment
A certain parish priest was well regarded by his people and by his fellow priests. One year he was on holidays for a couple of weeks before Christmas. During his vacation he let his beard grow, and he was thinking about Mary and Joseph, and how they must have felt when door after door slammed in their faces, as they looked for a place for Mary to give birth to her baby. He kept thinking: ‘No room for them at the inn! And is it any better today?’ All his life this padre had been interested in social work, and so he was thinking not only of the plight of Mary and Joseph and their baby, but also of the plight of refugees and homeless people everywhere.
The priest felt so deeply about their plight that he decided to find out what it would feel like to walk in their shoes.. so when he got home he tried an experiment. On Christmas Eve he dressed in some shabby clothes and set off around the parish with a knapsack on his back. Wearing a hat and with a stubble of beard, he found that none of his parishioners or friends recognized him any more, as he went knocking on doors looking for their help. He found too that those who were better off were less likely to help than those who had little themselves. In fact, rich people sometimes set their dogs on to him.
He arrived at a certain rectory where one of his priest-friends lived, but was not recognised for who he was. However, the housekeeper had pity on him, let him into the kitchen and gave him a piece of toast and a cup of coffee. While he was sitting there in a spot he knew very well, his priest colleague and friend came in .. and told him he should leave immediately. So leave he did.
That priest who went around looking for help found out far more from experience than anything he had read in books and newspapers, or from anything he had seen on television, just what it is like to be a homeless person, poor and defenceless. He also understood so much better than before what it must be like to be a refugee and an asylum seeker, doors slamming everywhere. He also felt closer than ever before to Mary and Joseph, forced to find a shed as a roof over their heads for themselves and their baby. Never before had the Christmas story been so real for him. Never before did he feel so close to the Christ-child.
For Christ came on earth, not as a powerful prince, living in a fine mansion in the most powerful nation on earth. Rather he came as the foster son of a poor carpenter, to be born in an outhouse in one of the weakest nations on earth, a nation ruled by the Roman emperor, a nation paying taxes to a hated foreign occupying power. When he arrived in our world, he was not met or visited by dignitaries, generals, or celebrities. He was greeted and visited by poor shepherds, probably smelly and unwashed. In their time and place they counted so little that their testimony was simply not accepted in any court of law. But it was to those shepherds that God gave his good and wonderful news: ‘I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people.’
Choosing such people on the margins as the first to receive the Christmas message, shows that God’s love is not focussed on the rich and famous and powerful, the movers and shakers of this world and the manipulators of markets. On the other hand the God of the Gospel does have a special care and affection for the victims, the suffering, the poor and the downtrodden. Our God is on their side. This vital truth is illustrated by the condition of the Christ-child himself. The sign the shepherds are to look for is a baby wrapped in rags and lying in a manger, the feed box of animals. So within and beyond these signs of poverty, vulnerability and weakness, there is to be discovered the power of love, which is to say, the power of God, of Love Itself. The impact and the significance of the circumstances of the birth of Jesus could not be better expressed than in two sentences from our scripture readings today. The first says that ‘The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light.’ The second says: ‘Today a saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
In a nutshell, Jesus was born to us and among us, so that we might be born in a new way. Born to live like sons and daughters of the God who is particularly caring about the poor, the deprived, the lonely, the lost, the grieving, and the heart-broken! Born to live with the same sensitivity and compassion as Jesus .. walking his way, telling his truth and living like him! So the Christ-child whom we adore makes everything new again. He invites us to look at and respond to the hundreds and thousands of needy and human beings who won’t be having even a tiny fraction of what you and I will be enjoying at our Christmas celebrations today.
We can’t pretend that the invitation of Christ to opt for a new way of looking at life, or indeed a new lifestyle, always happens at a time of perfect peace, tranquillity and contentment. Here’s an extreme example. A newspaper reporter has said that whenever he was assigned to the Christmas shift he always wrote about how many more murders occur on this day than on any other in the whole year. Sadly, what is meant to bring out the best in people when they get together to celebrate Christmas, sometimes brings out the worst.
But we who are gathered here for this feast, have only kind and gentle thoughts for one another and for all our fellow human beings as we celebrate God’s supreme, overwhelming love. My own Christmas and New Year wish and prayer for you is that the God who loves you individually, personally and dearly, and who has sent you his Son, will bless you with patience and endurance, with mercy and forgiveness, with faith, hope and love.
God near to us
[José Antonio Pagola]
Christmas is much more than all the superficial and manipulative things going on around us these days. A feastday much deeper and joyful than all the fads of our consumer society. We believers in Jesus must recover again the heart of this feast and look behind so much superficiality and bling to discover the mystery that gives us true joy. We need to learn again to «celebrate» Christmas. Not everyone knows what it is we’re celebrating. Not everyone knows what it is that opens our heart to such joy.
We only understand Christmas if we know how to be silent in our heart, and open our soul to the mystery of a God who is near to us, and rejoice with the life that is offered us, and really taste this feast of the arrival of God our Friend.
In the midst of a daily life that is too often boring, tired and sad, we are invited by God to rejoice. «Sadness has no place when life is being born» (St. Leo the Great). This is not a joy that is insipid or superficial, the partying glee of those who seek solace in abundance of food and drink. «We have cause for a radiant joy, one that is full and suited for the solemn feast: God has become human and has come to live among us» (Leonardo Boff). There is a joy that only can be enjoyed by those who open themselves up to God’s closeness and who allow themselves to be drawn by God’s tenderness. This joy is one that frees us of fears, mistrust and inhibition as we face God. Why fear a God who comes to us as a child? Why avoid One who comes among us as a fragile, defenseless baby? God hasn’t come armed with power to impose decrees on us humans, but in the tenderness of a child whom we can welcome or reject.
God can’t be at the same time the «all-powerful» and «mighty» One that we must fear; rather, God is this child given lovingly to humanity, this little one who catches our gaze in order to make us happy with his smile. The fact that God has become a child says more about divinity than all our musings and speculations about the Holy Trinity. If we would know to pause in silence before this child and welcome God’s closeness and tenderness from the depths of our being, maybe we would understand why the believer’s heart can be pierced with a completely new kind of joy during these Christmas days.
Mass of Christmas Day
Today we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in our world, though he was with God the Father before all ages. His birth opens up for us a glorious new identity, as children of God.
1st Reading. Isaiah 52:7-10
The joy of the faithful watchmen, when they see the Lord, their Saviour, face to face
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
2nd Reading. Hebrews 1:1-6
The son born of Mary is the eternal Son of the Father, the image of the invisible God
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”? And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.”
Gospel: John 1:1-18
The opening words of John’s Gospel, about the eternal nature of the Word-made-flesh
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John . He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”)
From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known
A New Beginning
Seeing human suffering God did something daring, and physically entered our world. As the Gospel says: “In the beginning was the Word and Word was with God and the Word was God.” (1:1) John then describes the descent of the Word – “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (1:14) The next part may sound mind-blowing. Even though many reject Jesus, yet “to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God.”
That’s the Christmas invitation. Come to Jesus. He will enable you – no matter what what you’ve done, no matter how badly you feel – Jesus can and will empower you to become what you’re meant to be: a beloved son, a beloved daughter of God. Come to him… and yes, even if you’re reluctant. “I don’t like organized religion,” you say. OK, I get that, but please let me say two things, one light and one serious. First, if you don’t like organized religion, we’re the very church for you. Nobody has accused this parish of being organized. Second, a more serious – nobody really likes religion. The philosopher-mathematician, Blaise Pascal (who invented the first computer) said: “People despise religion. They hate it but are afraid it may be true.” However, in the Bible this phrase comes up again and again: “Do not be afraid.” God became like a helpless child so we would not fear him.
The truth is, God wants to take away our fear and replace it with grace and power. To those accept Jesus into their hearts, he gives power to become children of God. I want to make an invitation to each person here today. This day we can make a new beginning as individuals, as family and as a parish. What does God want of us here and now? As a parish we can make a new beginning. Of course, it has to start with you and with me. So let me say it again. Come to Jesus this Christmas Day. His mercy – his heart for those who suffer – has no limit. To those who accept him he gives power to become a child of God. Come to Jesus, and make this Christmas really happy. Amen. (adapted from José Antonio Pagola)
If the Word had not been made flesh
(From Augustine’s homily on Saint John’s First Epistle)
Who could ever touch the Word with his hands unless the Word was made flesh and lived among us? Now this Word, whose flesh was so real that he could be touched by human hands, began to be flesh in the Virgin Mary’s womb; but he did not begin to exist at that moment. We know this from John’s phrase: “What existed from the beginning.” See how the letter bears witness to his Gospel, where it says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.”
Some might interpret the phrase Word of Life to mean a word about Christ, rather than his body itself which was touched by human hands. But see what comes next: “and life itself was revealed.” Christ therefore is himself the Word of life. And how was this life revealed? “It existed from the beginning,” but at first it was not revealed to men, only to angels, who looked upon it and feasted upon it as their own spiritual bread. Then what does Scripture say? “Mankind ate the bread of angels.” Life itself was therefore revealed in the flesh. In this way what was visible to the heart alone became visible also to the eye, and so could heal the human hearts. For the Word appears to the heart alone, while flesh is visible to bodily eyes as well. We had the means to see the flesh, but we had no means of seeing the Word. The Word was made flesh so that we could see it, to heal that part of us by which we could see the Word.
John continues: “We are witnesses and we proclaim to you that eternal life which was with the Father and has been revealed among us” — one might say more simply “revealed to us”. Be sure to grasp the meaning of these words. The disciples saw our Lord in the flesh, face to face; they heard the words he spoke, and in turn proclaimed the message to us. So we too have heard, although we have not seen.
Are we less favoured than those who both saw and heard? If that were so, why should John add: “so that you too may have fellowship with us?” They saw what we have not seen; and yet we have fellowship with them, because we and they share the same faith. And our fellowship is with God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son. And John wrote this to make our joy complete — complete in that fellowship, in that love and in that unity.