Christmas Day Mass at Mississippi Abbey
Scripture Readings: Is 52:7-10; Heb 1:1-6; Jn 1:1-18
“When the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find lodging in the village, he went to a cave nearby; and while there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger” (St. Jerome).
Twenty-five years ago, I visited those caves high up on a hillside at Bethlehem. When I looked across the valley stretched out below all the way to the Dead Sea, there is one site that dominates the view. It’s the fortress of King Herod, called the Herodium, built on top of a cone shaped hill, rising almost 2,500 feet above the plain. King Herod built his palace and fortress as a protection for his future, a defense against those who would try to topple him from his throne. But his best hope for the future was not in a fortress. It was in a baby born in a cave only three miles away. Today it is easy for us and our country to make the same mistake by relying on our own strength and resources to protect us from harm. Because it is Jesus, and Jesus alone who can save us.
But wouldn’t it be nice to skip all that weighs us down at this season, and enjoy the simplicity of that first beautiful Christmas in Bethlehem with angels and shepherds over two thousand years ago?
Well, that first Christmas wasn’t really so simple or easy, was it? Winter in Israel isn’t like the Bahamas. It gets cold,1 with an occasional icy rain. Imagine walking from Madison, WI, to Dubuque, IA, in cold, wet weather! Joseph and Mary had no paved roads for their journey, just some mucky trails that sucked at their soiled sandals. Perhaps they had a donkey to carry food, extra clothing, blankets and a tent. But there were no hot baths along that four to five-day journey. Traveling and preparing for the first Christmas was not simple at all. It was really hard, especially for a woman at the very end of her nine-month pregnancy.
No relatives welcomed this road weary couple when they arrived. No warm greetings, no festive meals, no fireplaces or soft beds. Nothing but a dark, damp, dreary cave. Yes, that first Christmas was very hard. So, when we are worn out from the burdens of this season, then we are actually sharing more fully in what the Holy Family experienced on that first Christmas. So, have a hard but very merry Christmas!
- Remember Peter trying to warm himself at a courtyard fire during the Passover when Jesus was on trial: Mk 14:67, Luke 22:55.
Christmas Day Mass at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Is 52:7-10; Heb 1:1-6; Jn 1:1-18]
The readings of the liturgy for this morning seem very formal, structured, even hieratic, great truths descending down upon our heads. They are a contrast from the other liturgical readings of the midnight mass which spoke in narrative terms of movements and happenings that touched our imaginations and awakened allusions that we preserve in our many Christmas customs. This morning's readings are almost more than we can digest. They stop us in our tracks. I think we can compare these readings to the iconostasis that is a feature of Orthodox churches: a clear barrier between what we normally take for granted and the mystery that has been revealed and which has to be accepted on its own terms. Their simplicity and formality focus us on what is essential in an undiluted form. Like the iconostasis, these texts confront us with a threshold which, by its very difference, lets that world appear. Crossing that threshold requires a transformation, the working out of that restoration of our human nature that the birth of Christ has introduced into our world.
The silence which this feast evokes in us is more than a hushed reverence. It is itself a process of withdrawing from the fabrications and constructions of that verbal world we are constantly producing to affirm, protect, and nourish ourselves. Affirmation, security, freedom, and survival are great human needs, but not ones which we can meet at the expense of others. We construct our own barriers through words and speech. Silence allows us to move out of those barriers and across the threshold created by the Word. We experience the deep shock that creation, our communities, our very self are not really finished. The Word through whom all things are created and who sustains all things by his word is not finished either.
Our society lives on the assumption that it is “buffered” and enclosed, working out its own codes from which there are not exceptions and which it rigidly enforces (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age). The feast and event of the Nativity of the Lord are a defiant rebuke to that assumption. For all the simplicity and innocence that suffuse this feast, it is at its heart a defiant challenge to attempts of regulating human life through manipulation, coercion, or exclusion. Not just the way we inflict these on others, but also the way we are victims of our own manipulation, coercion, and denial.
In silence, we die to the whole complex of self-preservation and self-articulation. Listening and receiving are not just accidental extensions of our self, a temporary halt to what is normal and “real.” All we are is this emptiness waiting and ready to receive. The great question is whether or not we still have the capacity to receive. The infant at the center of our celebration is one who does not speak (in-fans) and who must receive everything in total dependence. Anthony Bloom once said that, in liturgy, emotions must be destroyed so that we can come to the level of feeling, the level of vulnerability in order to find ourselves led by something deeper than our thinking and emotions. I think he is talking about what we, in our Cistercian vocabulary, call “affectus.” This is the gift to be sensible, to be sensitive to reality, to allow our flesh to see the glory of God. Accepting this gift means letting the dignity of our human nature be restored by Christ, to work out our salvation in a world we now know to be sustained by the word and presence of Christ.
“He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him.” “To those who did accept him he gave the power to become children of God.” Our acceptance, our receiving him, is itself his gift. The giver, here, is not separate from his gift. When God gives a gift, he gives himself. Perhaps a banal way of trying to describe the Incarnation. The Greek word for “power” is exousia: bursting up from the sphere of reality, life, and being. Not a dominating force, but the spontaneous participation in true freedom, authority, and life. One philosopher has expressed this as, “God's insistence is our existence.” The passion and imperative of God is really the font of our being and life. “All things were made through him and without him nothing was made.” This is the gift God gives to those who can accept it. This is human dignity coming to its real expression, not the futile and failing counterfeits of a human nature unwilling to admit the flaws that have become enduring habits.
The great cry of our time is for peace. The Beatitudes proclaim that the peace-makers shall be called children of God. Those who accept the gift of God shall be called his children. The peace that the angels proclaimed can burst forth in our world from those who live from the word and gift of God, who can be silent and find in that silence the Spirit restoring the dignity of human nature which reflects the very image, the very imprint of the being of God. Children of God have trust that unity will prevail over conflict, as Pope Francis has said, because it is the Holy Spirit who harmonizes and draws into unity all the works of creation. It is the Spirit who draws into harmony and peace what is scattered in our own lives and opens our eyes to see the glory of God revealing itself before us.
Christmas Day Mass at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Is 52:7-10, Heb 1:1-6, Jn 1:1-18]
Christmas is a time for embracing. But on Christmas Day in 1944 the German army and the allies were fighting each other across the frozen fields of Southern Belgium. The Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last great offensive, took the allies by surprise. They were thrown back with great loss of life on both sides. As the German army push forward with desperation the fighting intensified on Christmas Day. Soldiers on both sides of the front wanted to be home with their families. Guys who were reluctant to hug their fathers as teenagers now ached with longing to embrace their parents, sisters and brothers. For many it was their last Christmas. They would never have the chance to embrace anyone again. Over 76,000 Americans were killed, wounded or missing in the Battle of the Bulge.
On that day, in a small farm house close to the front lines, Fr. Francis Sampson anointed men who were dying, among them a young, horribly injured, German prisoner of war. His stomach and intestines had been ripped open. An American with a serious head injury lay on a stretcher a short distance across the room. The only available medic had folded a blanket under the American’s head to comfort him, but later his head slipped off the blanket and he began groaning in pain. The German lad, seeing his agony, pushed himself on his back across the wooden floor to the American, repositioned the blanket under his head, and then inched his way back to his own stretcher. The German boy, hardly 18 years old, died an hour later. This act of kindness was his last Christmas gift, an act of love shining through the darkness of hostility and war. He could not embrace his father and mother, but he could embrace his nearest neighbor, the enemy American, and he did. He showed that Christian love can rise above personal tragedy and shine even brighter in the midst of suffering and death. He died in a farm house far from home and the loving embrace of his parents. But in another sense he went home for Christmas after all, into the embrace of his heavenly Father.
The four gospels are shouts of joy about the divine embrace, proclaiming that the Father loves us the way he loves his only Son. Mark begins his gospel, his shout of joy, with Jesus being baptized in the waters of the Jordan River, hearing his Father say, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Matthew’s shout of joy goes further back in time, to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem where Magi find the child tenderly held in the arms of his mother. Luke goes back even further in time, to the conception of Jesus at Nazareth by power of the Holy Sprit, where he is wrapped in the warm womb of the Virgin Mary, because nothing is impossible with God. But John’s shout of joy goes back even before creation, before time began, and proclaims that Jesus is the Word of God, always at the Father’s side, the one closest to the Father’s heart, caught up in the divine embrace.
Matthew and Luke show Jesus cuddled in the human embrace of Mary and Joseph at Bethlehem. John shows Jesus wrapped in the divine embrace of his Father’s arms before time began. The heavenly scene is easily missed in translations. The New American Bible describes Jesus as only being “at the Father’s side.” The New RSV describes him as “close to the Father’s heart.” But the Greek word St. John uses is kolpon “in the Father’s lap or bosom,” where the Father can wrap his arms around his Son and draw his head close to his heart. This is the same word used in the parable about Lazarus resting in the bosom of Abraham, and about the beloved disciple at the last supper who rests his head next to the heart of Jesus. It is the word used to describe a bay of water in which a ship can find protection by the surrounding arms of land from the tumbling crashing waves. The Latin text captures the image with the words “in sinu Patris.” Jesus is in the bosom of the Father. This is the way our Father wants to love us. He wants to fold us in his arms and press our heads close to his heart.
The cave of Bethlehem is only five miles from the hill of Calvary. On that hill the greatest battle on earth was fought between Christ and sin. Jesus, the beloved Son, was crucified by our sins. He saw our need and was moved with compassion. He pushed himself along the wood of the cross to slip the blanket of grace under our gravely injured heads. After three hours of agony he died out of love of us so that we could be with him in his Father’s embrace, who wants to fold us in his arms and press our heads close to his heart. That’s why Christmas is a time for embracing.
Christmas Day Mass at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Is 52:7-10; Heb 1:1-6; Jn 1:1-18]
I want to tell you a story, an allegory, about the three purposes of Christ’s coming. Once there was a very young girl who was the only child of her widowed mother. On a chilly morning in December, as she gathered sticks for firewood, she happened upon a leather pouch full of gold coins. Running home, jumping with joy, twirling around, she gave her mother the treasure she found. Together they counted the coins, 15 of them. The girl could not stand still. She danced, she smiled, she laughed, she waved her arms in the air. Her mother, being an honest woman, sighed deeply and said, “My child, this money does not belong to us. You must go back and try to find the rightful owner. Perhaps you will receive a reward.” The girl, in shock, returned with heavy steps along the way where she had found the pouch.
Villagers were coming and going, wishing each other a Merry Christmas here and a Merry Christmas there. About noon a rich man came down the path, turning his head this way and that, searching for something. The girl stepped forward and said very timidly, “Sir, what are you looking for?” “A purse,” he replied, “I’ve lost my purse.” The young girl held out the pouch of gold coins and asked apprehensively, “Is this your purse?” “It certainly is,” he replied, and he snatched it from her hand. She looked at him expectantly, but the man was a miser. He did not want to give a reward. After looking inside the purse he turned a mean eye toward the girl, and said loud enough for those passing by to hear, “Are all twenty coins still in my purse?” “But sir,” the girl replied trembling, “there were only fifteen coins.” Grabbing her by the shoulders, the rich man shouted, “Give me back the five coins you have stolen.”
People gathered around when they heard the child crying and proclaiming her innocence as the man shook her vigorously. Just then the local magistrate came forth from the midst of the crowd and stepped between the girl and the man. “Did you count the coins yourself?” he asked her. “Yes,” she sobbed, “and my mother counted them, too.” The judge called for the mother and when she came he asked how many coins were in the purse. “Fifteen,” she said. The rich merchant bellowed out, “They are lying! I had twenty gold coins.”
The wise magistrate looked up and down at the well dressed man in his fine clothes, and then looked at the poor widow with her ragtag daughter. He pondered for a moment. A serious look crossed his face as he asked the red-faced, puffy-jowled merchant, “Are you absolutely certain there were 20 gold coins in your purse?” He replied angrily, “Yes, of course I am.” Turning to the mother and child, the judge smiled and said, “The merchant assures me he lost a purse containing 20 gold coins. This one contains only 15. Clearly, it cannot be the same one. Because no one has come forward to claim a lost purse with 15 coins you may keep this one. The case is closed.” At this judgment the crowd broke into cheers and the rich man went away shamed and undone by his own greed. The lesson is clear: God raises the lowly and sends the greedy away empty.
But the story is more than a lesson about being good for goodness sake. Christ came into the world not only to be our Teacher of goodness, but also to be our Savior, to free us from the grip of the devil. The story of the lost purse is an allegory about salvation. The selfish rich man is Satan who was once the greatest, most beautiful of all angels, the angel of light, Lucifer. But he was so proud and greedy that he lost his divine treasure and became the adversary of God and humanity. The poor widow and her child are the anawim, the poor of the world, all people of good will. The wise magistrate is Christ, judge of the living and the dead, who saves us from the clutches of Satan. Yes, Christ is our Teacher and our Savior, and something else.
Like the good judge in the story, Christ does even more. He graciously bestows on us a treasure of immense value. The leather pouch full of gold coins given to us by Christ is a treasure beyond all imagining. No matter how many coins we take from this purse it never becomes empty, because it is infinite, it is the divine life of Jesus himself making us children of God. Jesus is our Teacher, our Savior, and our Treasure.
Today’s gospel says it all: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God. He came into the world, and to all who received him he gave power to become children of God. … The Word became flesh and dwelt among us … from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”
The story of the lost purse illustrates the threefold purpose of Christ’s coming. Christ came to teach us goodness, to save us from the evil one, and to give us a divine treasure. Or, in the words of Lumen Gentium, Christ came as prophet, priest and king. As we continue our celebration let us prepare to receive the King’s Treasure. He gives us his flesh and blood making us one with him, making us partakers of his divinity.