Homily for Christmas Mass During the Night
“God’s Gift, Our Gratitude, and the Path to Perfect Happiness”
Homily for Christmas, Mass During the Night
December 25, 2022
“What did you get for Christmas?” This is a question we hear asked with great frequency during these days of the year. Of course, people also give gifts at Christmas (obviously; otherwise, no one would receive any!), but generally we don’t ask the question, “What did you give for Christmas?” We are much more accustomed to asking, “What did you get for Christmas?”
Christmas challenges us to invert this mentality, for it is, as the saying goes, the “season of giving.” Think about when you give a gift seriously, when you put a lot of thought and heart into it, and want to make it truly something special – it takes a lot of planning, of time and timing, doing everything just right, especially to make it a happy surprise.
This kind of giving mirrors God Himself – He is a God of giving, not of getting: Christmas is, indeed, about gift-giving: God’s gift to us, the greatest gift of all, the gift of His Son. And God, too, put a lot of planning into it; He indeed took a long, long time to lead up to the perfect point in history when He would give us this gift.
We get a hint of this from the prophet Isaiah, as we heard in our first reading for Mass tonight. The passage is a hymn that was sung at the coronation of a king. God established David at the head of the lineage of kingship; with every descendant of David who acceded to the throne, the people’s hope was that he would be the ideal king like David: “His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, from David’s throne, and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice.”
Why David? Despite his many flaws (and they were serious), he never wavered from his loyalty to the God of Israel. While others would make covenants with Israel’s pagan neighbors and worship their idols, David was always pure in his worship of the one, true God. So the people hoped for an ideal king like him, descended from him, who would set them free from the oppression of their occupiers (specifically here in this passage, at the time Isaiah was writing, the oppression of their Assyrian occupiers – “the yoke that burdened them, the pole on their shoulder, and the rod of their taskmaster” referring to the implements of that oppression).
This ideal king, the Messiah, the future anointed one whom God would send to set His people free, then, was to be a descendent of David. And in the fullness of time God fulfilled this promise, as we just heard in St. Luke’s account of the birth of Christ: “Joseph … went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David.”
God’s plan, though, was much bigger than what His people had hoped for: the oppression from which He would set them free was not that of a political power, as such powers will all eventually pass away. Rather, it was the oppression of sin and death from which He would set them free, for that kind of oppression has the power to hold us captive forever. And He goes beyond their highest hopes in another way as well, for the one He would send them was not just a physical descendent of David, but His very own Son.
What a gift! Truly there could be none greater. Are we thankful? Think about when you receive that very special, thoughtful gift filled with love. Think about the gratitude you feel. Now, imagine that it is not a material object but an action, a truly heroic action, such as someone risking their life to save your life. Think about the gratitude you would feel then. It’s not just a matter of saying “thanks,” and then going on with life as before. You feel a certain debt that you cannot pay back, and you cannot do enough to express your thanks.
How, then, do we express our thanks to God for this greatest gift of all, His Son who came to set us free from eternal death by taking on a human body, so in that body he could die on the Cross for us? We owed this debt to God because we incurred it by our sin, but it is a debt we could never pay on our own. We needed God’s divinity to pay it back, for only the power of God could accomplish. Therefore, God assumed our humanity so that, as man, He could pay it for us.
So, now the debt we owe to God is a debt of gratitude. That, too, is a debt for which we can never pay God back, but gratitude makes us want to try, anyway. In his annual Christmas address to the members of the Roman Curia this year, Pope Francis spoke about what this virtue of gratitude really entails, following the example that God Himself set for us. He said:
Just as [the Son of God] chose poverty, which is not merely the absence of wealth, but utter simplicity, so too, each of us is called to return to what is essential in our own lives, to discard all that is superfluous and a potential hindrance on the path of holiness. And that path of holiness is non-negotiable…. The realization of our poverty, without the realization of God’s love, would crush us. Consequently, the interior attitude that we should deem most important is gratitude.”
Lived Out in Concrete Actions and Attitudes
This is indeed a valuable lesson for us today, living as we do in a world immersed in so much anger, greed, the drive to destroy others in order to grab power, all leading to resentment. In contrast, we are instead called to live a life of gratitude to God for His supreme gift to us. And what does that look like? Listen again to what St. Paul tells us in his letter to his disciple Titus: “The grace of God has appeared, … training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope.”
We have the great blessing in our Catholic faith tradition to have very many illustrious examples to demonstrate for us with their lives what this looks like, shining examples in every generation for the last 2,000 years. Many of them we know as officially canonized saints. But I would like to share one example with you that is truly extraordinary, not canonized and not very well known, and yet very close to our own generation.
I was privileged to be living in Rome in 1996 when Pope St. John Paul II invited all priests throughout the world who were ordained the year he was (1946) to come to Rome to celebrate together their fiftieth anniversary of priestly ordination. At the celebration where all of the jubilarians celebrating the golden anniversary of their Priesthood were gathered together with the Pope, I heard the powerful testimony of one of them, Fr. Anton Lull, a Jesuit priest from Albania.
Of course, 1946 was right after the end of World War II and the beginning of the communist regime in his country, a very dark chapter in the history of the world. Forgive me if what I’m about to share with you seems out of keeping with the spirit of the usual Christmas message, for it is a bit graphic and brutal, but there is also a very valuable Christmas message hidden in it for us. Here is what he told us:
I had recently become a priest when the communist dictatorship took over in my country. Some of my comrades … were shot and died as martyrs of the faith….
Instead the Lord asked me to live….
On 19 December 1947, they arrested me and charged me with provoking unrest and with propaganda against the government. I lived in solitary confinement for seventeen years, and for many more in forced labor. My first prison in that freezing month of December was a lavatory in a village situated in the mountains…. I stayed there for nine months, forced to crouch on hardened excrement, and never being able to stretch out because the space was so small. On Christmas night that year … they … hung me up with the rope passed under my arms…. The cold gradually crept up my limbs, and when it reached my breast and my heart was about to give in, I gave a desperate cry. My torturers arrived; they pulled me down and kicked me all over. That night, in that place and in the solitude of that first torture, I experienced the real meaning of the Incarnation and the Cross.
But in this suffering I had beside me and within me the comforting presence of the Lord Jesus, the Eternal High Priest. At times his support was something I can only call ‘extraordinary’, so great was the joy and comfort he communicated to me.
But I have never felt resentment for those who, humanly speaking, robbed me of my life. After my release, I happened to meet one of my torturers in the street: I took pity on him; I went towards him and embraced him.
They released me in the 1969 amnesty. I was seventy-nine years old.
From Resentment to Happiness
This is a man who spent his entire Priesthood in prison and forced labor, beaten and tortured. Surely, no one ever had more cause for resentment than he. His entire Priesthood was spent, not making the sacrifice of Christ present sacramentally on the altar, renewing the mystery of the Incarnation by the Word of God coming down from heaven and taking flesh in the Eucharist by the power of his word, but rather by incarnating the mystery of the Lord’s Passion and sacrifice in his very own flesh. And where did his fidelity to Christ lead him? In his own words: “extraordinary … joy and comfort.” And (I would add, given what he recounted about his encounter with his torturer on the street), forgiveness. What an extraordinary testimony! And yet, how utterly Christian.
We live in a world filled with resentment, which always results from the attitude of getting: “What am I going to get?” This is the path that leads to misery. Christmas reminds us, as did Pope Francis recently, that God chose to be poor in order to be with us, and to save us, and that the recognition of our poverty, with gratitude to God for His love, is what helps us to live a life of utter simplicity and so set out on the path to holiness – that is to say, authentic and ever-lasting happiness. For truly, the only way to be really happy, no matter the circumstances of our life, is to be in a right relationship with God. And that means inculcating within ourselves the interior attitude that Pope Francis teaches we should deem most important of all: gratitude.
Jesus Christ, though, is the one who gets us there. Gratitude opens the door for him to do that for us. Thank God for the example of so many saints, canonized and not, such as Fr. Lull, who give us the model and inspiration to live our life in a way that lets Jesus put us in that right relationship with God.
Conclusion We can never repay God for all that He has done for us. But if we are grateful, truly grateful, then we will want to try, anyway. Again, as Pope Francis reminds us, gratitude is “the interior attitude that we should deem most important.” That is, we will want to live lives that are pleasing to Him, because what pleases Him is what makes us happy, and that means living a life of giving, not getting. Let us follow St. Paul’s advice, then, and “reject godless ways and worldly desires and … live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope.” That blessed hope is our Lord Jesus Christ himself, the fullness of God’s revelation to us, God’s final word to us: a word of mercy, forgiveness, and eternal salvation.
 L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, November 1996.