The Abiding Presence of God in His Word Made Flesh
Homily for Midnight Mass, Christmas 2014
It is my pleasure and privilege to welcome you all to our Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption tonight, especially all of our visitors and guests, and most especially those of you who have travelled long distances to be with us. We are happy that you have done so, for it is always a joy for us to welcome new friends and join together with you in the most sublime action possible for human beings: the worship of God.
The Incarnation: The Mystery of God’s Presence
To travel long distances at this time of the year certainly involves hardships, given the expense and extra congestion on the roads and in the airports, and so many other inconveniences and frustrations. I am always heartened, though, by the sacrifices people make to be with loved ones at this time of year. It speaks to me of the power of the bonds of family and friendship. People make these sacrifices in order to be together, that is, in order to be physically present to each other. We can send emails and letters to those whom we love, we can make phone calls and, nowadays, we can Skype, but nothing can replace the sense of physical presence: that sense of being in the other person’s presence, to be able simply to touch them. Yes, with Skype you can see the one you love while you talk to them, but you won’t get much warmth from hugging the computer monitor.
This reality of our human nature sheds a lot of light for us on the mystery we are celebrating tonight. The birth of Jesus of Nazareth is the appearance of God’s physical presence to us here in our world. That, in fact, is Jesus’ very name: “Emmanuel,” “God is with us” (Mt 1:23). This is the one to whom we sang all throughout the season of Advent to come and be with us. And, he does; he has. But notice how he does it; in fact, look closely, because you could easily miss it.
He was born in a stable, into a poor, working class family, in an insignificant little town. As is common with people who live in big cities, also back then in Biblical times, to the people in the great city of Jerusalem Bethlehem was, what people with such a condescending attitude nowadays would call, a “hick town,” it was “out in the sticks.” One might think that God, the Creator and Master of the universe, would want to enter this world with great pomp and majesty and glory; and yet, He chooses the way of poverty and humility. And doesn’t this, too, correspond to our human experience? When you really love someone, what really matters, the only thing that really matters, is your presence to each other: fancy, elegant surroundings don’t really matter much; in fact, in such surroundings you would still be sad without the one you love. And so we see again God’s sensitivity to our human condition.
But there is even more: this God of ours comes into our world in the quiet and darkness of night. Christians have always seen in this the fulfillment of the prophecy from Book of Wisdom: “For when peaceful stillness encompassed everything and the night in its swift course was half spent, Your all-powerful word from heaven’s royal throne leapt into the doomed land” (Wdm 18:14-15). That is why, in keeping with the Church’s ancient tradition, we are celebrating this Christmas Mass of our Lord’s birth in the middle of the night. It is a prophecy which finds echo in the much loved Christmas carol, “Lo, How A Rose E’re Blooming”:
Lo, how a rose e’er blooming,
From tender stem hath sprung!
From Jesse’s lineage coming,
As men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright,
Amid the cold of winter
When half spent was the night.
The Incarnation: The Mystery of God’s Word and Light
It was in the quiet of night that God spoke His definitive Word to us, a Word of mercy and forgiveness that takes the form of human presence; it was in the darkness of night that God’s light broke into the world, a light to shine upon us who dwell in this land of gloom, to bring us “abundant joy and great rejoicing.”
This prophecy is also fulfilled tonight, the prophecy which we just heard from the prophet Isaiah in our first reading. At that particular period of ancient Israel’s history, the people were suffering oppression from the kingdom of Assyria, their powerful neighbors to the east. It was understood at that time as a prophecy of liberation from this oppression: the child God would send would be a king to free His people from the Assyrians, signified by the destruction of the symbols of oppression – the yoke, the pole and the rod.
Yes, tonight God fulfills this prophecy, but in an altogether singular and unexpected way: the child-king He sends is not a human ruler fated to pass away, but His own, co-eternal Son; the oppression from which He sets us free is not that of a temporal power (as all temporal powers, likewise, will inevitably pass away), but the true oppression of sin and death. This is precisely the point St. Paul is teaching us in his Letter to Titus which we just heard proclaimed in our second reading, where he speaks of the appearance of God’s grace to train us “to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age.”
Walking in the light of Christ, we can be freed from the shackles of sin, from all of those compulsive, self-centered behaviors and attitudes which only serve to lock us in the darkness of loneliness and despair; in him we can walk freely in the light, we can be people of virtue and holiness, enjoying the true freedom of the children of God. His grace is there for us, in abundance; it has appeared, we need only approach him with faith and confidence, unafraid to cast off our old ways in order to be made new in him.
We have seen a great light, the light of Jesus Christ, a light whose presence remains with us still. He did not appear in our world only to abandon us. He continues to appear, every time we celebrate this Holy Eucharist; at every Mass, he, God’s Word, leaps down from heaven into the gloom of this world in order to transform the humble and simple elements of bread and wine into his Body and Blood. He is present, he is with us. We need only take notice, to be present to his presence, and he will fill us with light, gladness and peace.