Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Nativity of the Lord: Mass During the Night

Readings: Isa 9:1-6; Ps 96:1-3.11-3; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa 9:1). We are gathered here at midnight because we have been drawn to the light. Just a few days ago, we observed the Winter Solstice. The Winter Solstice is the name those of us who live in the northern hemisphere give to the shortest day of the year. As we drive and walk around the neighborhoods of our city this time of year, we see many lights. As you walked into the church tonight it is likely you noticed the lights illuminating the lovely stained-glass window above the main doors. In the dark and cold of a deep winter’s night, the light draws us, comforts us, gives us hope for longer, warmer days.

But the light we hear about in our reading from Isaiah is not electric light, firelight, or even candlelight. Rather, Isaiah has in mind the Light of World. Jesus Christ is the Light of the World. The light of Christ was given to each of us symbolically at our Baptism when the priest or deacon lit a taper from the Paschal Candle and, handing it to one of our godparents, said: “Receive the light of Christ” (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, sec. 579). Once we received the candle from our godparent, or, if baptized as an infant, with the godparent standing next to us, the celebrant exhorted us to:
keep the flame of faith alive in [our hearts].
When the Lord comes, may you go out to meet him
With all the saints in the heavenly kingdom (Ibid.)
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his followers: “You are the light of the world.” After speaking of what it means to be the light of the world using two brief images- a city set on a hill and setting a lamp on a lampstand in order to give light to the whole house- the Lord exhorts his disciples: “your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Matt 5:16). Last Friday, in his annual Christmas speech to the Roman Curia, Pope Francis noted: “Salvation is a gift … but one that must be accepted, cherished and made to bear fruit” (Matt 25:14-30; Pope Francis, Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia). Our Baptism marked our own passage through the Red Sea that delivers us from what Isaiah described as the “land of gloom" (Isa (9:1). This safe passage was given us by Christ, who is our Passover, so that we might “live in the freedom of God’s children” (Isa 9:1; Rite of Baptism for Children, sec. 94).

In our second reading, taken from the Letter to Titus, we receive practical guidance on how to heed the Lord’s exhortation to be the light of the world. Living as a Christian means living ascetically. The Greek word askesis, or “ascesis,” as it is usually pronounced in English, “means ‘exercise,’ ‘practice,’ or ‘training’ for the purpose of obtaining something that is worth aspiring to, that represents an ideal” (R. Arbesman. “Asceticism,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, 772).

Living temperately, justly, and devoutly means practicing the three spiritual disciplines taught to us by our Lord himself: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. Prayer corresponds to being devout, fasting to being temperate, and alms-giving to being just, not merely charitable. This is how we make ourselves and the world ready for “the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ” (Tit 2:13).

Advent, the season that ended at sundown yesterday, far from being a season for parties and feasts, is the time are to use preparing ourselves for the feast of the Lord’s coming-into-the world. As Christ’s disciples, we should always be sober and alert, ready for his coming. What it means to live between the already and the not-yet is to encounter Christ is unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable ways: in the distressing disguise of a person in need, as a piece of bread or sip of wine, as a gracious reconciliation, or in someone who is gravely ill.

Living ascetically is not an end in itself. It is the means to the end of making God’s reign present here and now. Christ’s birth dramatically shows us how this looks in reality. We meditate on Jesus’s Nativity as the third Joyful mystery of the Holy Rosary. The spiritual fruit of this mystery is Poverty. It is far too easy to sentimentalize the Lord’s birth. In English, we say he was “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). But what is meant is that poor couple, who were forced to stay in shelter used for animals, where their baby was born, wrapped the newborn in rags and laid him in a feeding trough.

Since Jesus, as the great Church Father Origen insisted, is autobasileia: “the kingdom in person,” it is no exaggeration to say that the reign of God on earth began with a baby wrapped in rags and lying in a feeding trough. It’s difficult to imagine a less imposing start to a kingdom that, once fully established, will encompass the universe and last forever. But until Christ returns in glory, God’s reign is established almost exclusively in ways that are inconspicuous, not likely to make the headlines, the evening news, or trend on Twitter.

Msgr Luigi Giussani insisted: “we get up every morning… to help Christ save the world, with the strength we have, with the light we possess, asking Christ to give us more light and more strength” (Luigi Giussani, Is It Possible to Live This Way?: An Unusual Approach to Christian Existence, Vol. 3- Charity, 127). We do this by living ascetically, by practicing temperance, justice, and devotion to God through Christ. This is what it means to be to be people who have not only seen a great light but who have been bathed in light by the “Father of lights” and called to illuminate “this present darkness” (James 1:17; Eph 6:12).

Going back to Baptism, the sacrament by which we are reborn as children of the Father through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, once those who have just been baptized are holding their tapers lit from the Paschal Candle, the celebrant, addresses them directly, saying: “You have been enlightened by Christ. Walk always as children of the light” (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, sec. 579). It is by our walking as children of the light that the light of Christ, the light of Christmas, continues to shine in the darkness until the dawning of that day when he returns in glory and the “not yet” becomes the eternal now.

The city of God, we learn in the Book of Revelation, will have “no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God” will give “it light, and its lamp” will be the Lamb of God (Rev 21:23). The one who will be all the light the city of God needs is the same Lamb of God who was born in Bethlehem and was wrapped in rags and placed in a feeding trough for animals. The same Lamb of God who died, rose, ascended and will return, by our participation in this Eucharist tonight, will illumine us from within before sending us out to radiate light in the darkness of this world. This is the same Lamb of God who is Emmanuel, God with us. “Behold,” says the angel of the Book of Revelation, “God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them” (Rev 21:3). It is God always with us, Emmanuel, we celebrate in the darkness of this holy night.

As Martin Luther observed: "For this purpose Christ willed to be born, that through him we might be born anew" (See "Born to Us"). Alleluia! Merry Christmas.

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