We gather here in the darkness of a winter’s night 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 well: “The grace of God has appeared, saving all” (Titus 2:11).
God’s grace is not something abstract. Salvation happens in time and space. It is happening right now. Jesus Christ is our salvation. In addition to being born of the Virgin, being crucified, rising, ascending 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 tastes like. In the Mass, we experience all of this for ourselves in our gathering together, in our hearing God’s word proclaimed, and by receiving Holy Communion.
To be Jesus’s disciple means “to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age” (Titus 2:12). Living in this way is what it means to live in hope. Living in hope is what it means to be a Christian as opposed to a practical atheist who is affected by a little religious sentimentality this time of year. Paul noted 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 by delivering us from the Law. It is Christ who cleanses us, transforming our hearts so that we are “eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14).
Often, we reduce Christmas to syrupy sentimentality. When we reduce the great mystery of God-made-man-for-us in this way, we deny its power to change our lives. It is no exaggeration to point out 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 his becoming incarnate of the Virgin Mary. His Incarnation “is so earth-shattering that it enacts something akin to the psychoanalytic concept of trauma” on the world (John Milbank, Slavoj Zizek, Creston Davis, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press), 7). The trauma enacted is cross-shaped. A cross-shaped life is one of 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 the largesse that results from living below your means. To live devoutly means to worship God, rejoicing always and praying without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17).
Christmas is an invitation to follow Jesus more closely, to let his teachings become our 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.” 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” (Matthew 5:16). Whatever light of ours shines before others is but a reflection of that Light who shines upon us.
With our Mass earlier today, we brought the much-neglected season of Advent to a close. We fail to observe Advent to our own spiritual disadvantage. Alfred Delp, a Jesuit who was executed by the Nazis toward the end of World War II for his persistent and public resistance, observed on the First Sunday of Advent 1944 when he was being held in Tegel Prison in Berlin:
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.Of all places, God came to meet us in a manger in the little, insignificant town of Bethlehem. Manger is the biblical word for what, 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.”
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 (Alfred Delp, Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Writings-1941-1944 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press)
God comes tonight to meet us in this Eucharist, which is the intersection in time and space between the already and not yet. 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 rags and lying in a feeding trough, his coming to us as bread and the wine can be difficult to see, but nonetheless, we can touch and taste him. You see my dear friends, Christ comes not only to dwell with us. He comes to dwell in us and make himself present through us, especially by our caring for those in need.
“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” (Romano Guardini, The Rosary of Our Lady, Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 53). Or, as contemporary Christian songwriter Michael Card sang, “The mystery of life in Christ is that Christ can live in you” (Michael Card, “Live This Mystery”).