Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Nativity of the Lord: Mass at Night

Readings: Isa 9:1-6; Ps 96:1-3.11-13; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14

We gather here in the darkness of a winter’s evening not only to celebrate an event that occurred over 2,000 years ago, but to express our hope in the return of that same Someone whose birth we celebrate. St Paul, in our second reading, taken from his Letter to Titus, sums up both our commemoration and our hopeful waiting very well: “The grace of God has appeared, saving all” (Titus 2:11).

God’s grace is not something abstract and theoretical. God’s saving grace is concrete; it happens in time and space. God's saving grace is Jesus the Christ. In addition to being born of the Virgin in a manger, being crucified, rising, ascending back to the Father, and sending the Holy Spirit to be His presence in us and among us until He returns, Christ showed us what godliness looks like, sounds like, smells like, feels like, and in Holy Communion, even tastes like.

Jesus shows us, in the words of the apostle, what it means “to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age” (Titus 2:12). To live in this way is what it means to live in hope, what it means to live as Christians and not as practical atheists affected by a little religious sentimentality. Paul tells Titus that living temperately, justly, and devoutly is how one hopefully awaits “the appearance of the glory of the great God… our savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). Beloved, it is Christ who delivers us from lawlessness, who cleanses us, who transforms our hearts so that we are “eager to do what is good.”

Too often in our culture Christmas is reduced to syrupy sentimentality. When we reduce the great mystery of God-made-man-for-us in this way, we deny it the power to change our lives. It is not an exaggeration to note that history, with one approximately thirty-three-year interlude, consists of two long Advents. The first extended from the Fall of our first parents to the Nativity of Jesus Christ. The second extends from Christ’s Ascension into heaven until His return in glory. During this second Advent we live in a state of tension between the already and the not-yet.

Whether we’re here when Christ returns or He calls us to Himself before then, our lives are to be shaped by the reality of the Incarnation, which, it has been observed, “is so earth-shattering that it enacts something akin to the psychoanalytic concept of trauma” on the world (Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology 7). A life shaped by the Incarnation of the Son of God is cruciform, that is, cross-shaped. It is a life marked by temperance, justice, and devotion to God.

To live temperately means that if you are fairly well-off or very well-off to live below your means. To live justly means to be concerned for those less well-off, who should be the recipients of you living below your means. To live devoutly means to worship God.

Christmas is about repentance because it is about the Father reconciling us to Himself through His Son by the power of their Holy Spirit. Stated simply, Christmas is an invitation to follow Jesus more closely, to let His teachings become your life. This is what it means to belong to the “people who walked in darkness” and who “have seen a great light” to be among those who previously “dwelt in the land of gloom” but on whom now “a light has shone” (Isa 9:1). In His Sermon on the Mount, our Lord taught: “your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Matt 5:16). Whatever light of ours shines before others is but a reflection of that Light who shines upon us.

With our Mass earlier this evening, we brought the much-neglected season of Advent to a close. We fail to observe Advent to our own great spiritual disadvantage. Jesuit martyr, Alfred Delp, who, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was executed by the Nazis towards the end of World War II for his persistent and public resistance, observed:
The deepest meaning of Advent cannot be understood by anyone who has not first experienced being terrified unto death about himself and his human prospects and likewise what is revealed within himself about the situation and constitution of mankind in general.

This entire message about God’s coming, about the Day of Salvation, about redemption drawing near, will be merely divine game-playing or sentimental lyricism unless it is grounded upon two clear findings of fact.

The first finding: insight into, and alarm over the powerlessness and futility of human life in relation to its ultimate meaning and fulfillment . . . The second finding: the promise of God to be on our side, to come to meet us
Of all places, God came to meet us in a manger in Bethlehem. Manger is the biblical word for what we, in English, call a trough; the thing from which farm animals eat. The word manger is a French verb, simply meaning “to eat.” In turn, the French word manger is derived from the Latin verb manducare, literally meaning “to chew.”

God comes tonight to meet us in this Eucharist. The altar is the manger on which He appears under the signs of bread and wine. Just as God’s glory could only be seen through the eyes of faith in the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, that is, wrapped in rags, His coming to us in the bread and the wine can be difficult to see, which is why He lets us touch and taste Him. You see my dear friends, Christ comes not only to dwell with us. He comes to dwell in us and accomplish God’s purposes through us.

“God loves man so much,” observed Romano Guardini, “that He wants to renew the mystery of the Incarnation in every one of us. To become a true believer means to receive the risen Christ within us” (The Rosary of Our Lady 53). Or, as contemporary Christian songwriter Michael Card sang, “The mystery of life in Christ is that Christ can live in you” (“Live This Mystery”).

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