Christmas Midnight Mass
Scripture Readings: Is 9:1-6; Tit 2;11-14; Lk 2:1-14.
Most of us at some time have had the experience of being happily overwhelmed by an experience: meeting someone, being given an award, being offered a position. It’s too good to be true is the sense that surged up in us. It was more than we could have hoped for. It exceeded our wildest imaginings.
Not many of those experiences lasted. Flaws and disappointments crept in and all did not remain as it had first seemed. What appeared to be a fresh beginning eventually became routine or problematic. Now when things come along that are too good to be true, we became more skeptical and withheld our commitment.
The angel’s proclamation of good news of great joy for all the people might also seem to be too good to be true. Isaiah’s promise of the end of violence and war, the liberation of the oppressed doesn’t seem to have found noticeable fulfillment through the centuries. Too good to be true. The truth of observable reality seems to demythologize these visions and dreams. They don’t seem to have much impact on life as it is lived.
The angel didn’t make this proclamation to the innkeepers or the census takers. They would have dismissed it out of hand. The proclamation was made to one of the lowest social rungs, shepherds, who were sitting in the night to protect their property from danger and theft. The night is a dangerous time when it is difficult to discern and distinguish the shapes and movements in our environment. Their job and role formed them to habits of attention and readiness for surprises. They were open and in open spaces.
The shepherds were struck with fear. The appearance of the angel opened to them the presence of an overwhelming power which penetrated to the inner core of their awareness, even as it made them defenseless. At some point, the crust of habituation and the shell of normalcy must be broken through for our inner self to be addressed. The knowledge that we have “accumulated” in life can immobilize us. We stick with the true that we have known. We need to be thoroughly convinced before we will enter another world of possibility. And this makes it almost impossible to enter a world of joy or accept the good news of joy for all the people. Entering into joy means discovering an inner contentment and peace through finding ourselves in others. It is an effect of having loved and stepped out of ourselves for the sake of others.
The proclamation of the birth of Christ is too good to be true. It is the goodness of God which demythologizes what we cling to as true. “The world is really ruled by the forces of power, by the security of wealth and possessions, by the pursuit of self-concern and stimulation.” The goodness of God simply doesn’t square with this myth. God is too good to be confined by the limits of our “truth.” He is too good to be true. The incarnation of the Word is too good to be true.
The grace of God has appeared (Titus 2:ll), and further in Titus it says When the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared. This is the God revealed in Jesus Christ, a God of unspeakable tenderness. Pope Francis has called for a revolution of tenderness. Is this the God we know and are called to embody in our lives? Francis calls this tenderness the first step in overcoming withdrawal into oneself and leaving behind the self-centeredness that disfigures human freedom. The grace and gift of Christ is the appearance of God’s love and goodness touching our flesh, our emotions, and our affections. It is too good to be true. To accept the gift and enter into its joy is to become like the Giver, our transformation into divine life.
The image of true human freedom is given to us in the scene of the infant in the manger. Rather than the power which needs to take inventory of its assets by an enforced census, we see the infant (one who does not speak), the innocent (one who does not harm), the one who is peace. Rather than one who is known by his possessions and property, who guards against theft and loss, we see one who is in abject poverty and lying in the feed trough of animals. Rather than one who is committed to the pursuit of pleasure, stimulation and self-gratification, we see one who is wrapped in swaddling clothes: dependent on the help of others, vulnerable to the imperatives of nature and society but a free sharer and participant in the world of limitations and interdependence. The goodness of God has appeared in forms which reveal the true image of humanity.
Christmas Midnight Mass
Scripture Readings: Is 9:1-6; Titus 2:11-14; Lk 1:1-14
This past Advent I read the Advent sermons of Pope Leo the Great, then began the ones for Christmas. In one of those, of this Solemnity of the Birth of the Lord, Leo says, “a new light radiates even in the atoms themselves. On this day, we recall “the astonished Mary,” and “the Maker of the world brought forth from a virginal womb, and the one who established all natures made the Son of her whom he had created” (S 26.1). “Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.”
This sentence from tonight’s Gospel recalls yesterday’s Gospel. There, we heard of “a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,” but only later does that virgin get a name, Mary. Now, she is Mary from the start, a person in her own right, and added to her status of betrothed, she is “with child.” I am caught by this addition, “who was with child.” It is in apposition to her name, Mary: Mary, who was with child, or, simply, Mary, being pregnant. Being pregnant is who Mary is, her identity, we might say; only secondarily is she betrothed to Joseph. There is nothing more present than a pregnant woman. There is something about her posture, her whole being, a sometimes disconcerting possession-taking by a pregnant woman of a scene or circumstance, a reality more real than anything else around, an unquestioned confidence, if not a defiance, a joy without words, a glow without refraction. Mary, being pregnant. We know what that means, from the Gospel we had yesterday. It is the localization in her, in Bethlehem, with Joseph, of divine power and the Holy Spirit, what Paul said in the letter to Titus, our second reading, was the grace of God appeared, grace become her very being, Mary, being pregnant, full of grace.
Luke says nothing as Matthew does about Joseph taking Mary as his wife. He leaves it at that, betrothed to Joseph, and pregnant. Mary is that, and wills to be that, and to be seen and known as that. It is her pride that could have been her shame. In our culture today, and especially in our Church, where there is so much talk about marriage and pregnancy, or not, Luke’s Christian silence is a little troubling, maybe. He lets Mary be pregnant and not espoused. It offers no purchase for a catechetical word on the sacramental nature of marriage, one man and one woman for the sanctification of both and the nurture of children. Instead we see something else, a woman having said yes to God bearing the consequences of it to the very end, and a man a faithful friend, a respectful companion, a confidant and protector, to the very end. Mary, with the one she carries, constitutes the great light upon those who dwell in the shadow of death.
A decree had gone out from Caesar. It was another manipulation that made the place even more than ever a land of gloom. Mary and Joseph with all the others are mobilized, but refuse to be victimized. In contrast to Caesar, who actually does nothing but is just a reference point from which the decree went out, Mary-being-pregnant accordingly acts responsibly, decisively wisely, caringly: she gives birth, she wraps the child, and she lays him to bed all without a word. She does what Paul tells us to do, and all Christians, simply, to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world. These three acts alone are almost a pushing back against empire, and they establish her without a doubt as sovereign of her own domain, a place, a manger, a shed she makes a home and a throne room open to all.
As Pope Francis said in his Mass yesterday, Mary’s fiat to the annunciation “is a brief phrase, which doesn’t speak of joy, it doesn’t speak of privilege, but only of availability and service.” “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests.” Mary and Joseph understand her child as this child, and that from that time and forevermore the way things work will have been turned upside down. As if mocking the onerous and joy-killing decree gone out from Caesar, in parallel fashion an angel appeared evangelizing shepherds with news of great joy: to you, is born, this day, a Savior: Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: “you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”In other words, the sign is simply the human and humanizing gestures of the sovereign person of Mary fulfilling her vocation as mother, turning gloom and darkness into peace, welcome, and light. The sign includes, we note, the finding: you will find. We want a sign? We need to look, we need to be prepared in humility and detachment, to find and accept what we probably don’t expect. And so, as we will hear at the dawn Mass, the shepherd’s Mass, “they found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.” It is this that we find in this Eucharist, not even a baby, but simple bread and wine, handled, though, with the greatest care and conscientiousness. Let’s conclude with Pope Leo the Great: “As we worship the birth of our Savior,” he said, “we find ourselves celebrating our own origins as well. . . . We, too, have been born along with him in his Nativity. Whenever believers . . . undergo regeneration in Christ, they become transformed into ‘new human beings’ . . . . It was precisely so that we might be able to become children of God that he was made a child of a human being” (S 26.2).
Christmas Midnight Mass
[Scripture Readings: Is 9:1-6; Ti 2:11-14; Lk 2:1-14]
Do not be afraid; I announce to you a Gospel of great joy for all the people.
These are the angel's words to the shepherds.
Our Mass will close with the dismissal,
"Go, and announce the Gospel of the Lord."
All of us are commissioned as Gospel-bearing angels. This is how the Gospel spreads,
from person to person, face to face. Christians are angels, messengers of the Good News to all the people in all the humble and ordinary situations of life, in situations of sin, of grief, and despair.
We note two things always accompanying the Gospel: no fear, and great joy. These two things go together. Who can be joyful and afraid at the same time? You can't be, and that is why there are all those astounding stories of Christian martyrs singing under the knife.
Take children on Christmas bikes the day after Christmas. You can't stop or corral them for anything. Their wind-blown exuberance makes fear irrelevant and obsolete. The joy of the Gospel is something like that. The joy of the Gospel is like Midnight Mass in Mosul or Baghdad where prayers are made even for ISIS. Who can be afraid when you love and pray for your enemies?
These last weeks the novices and I have been reading Saint Bernard's Sermons on the Song of Songs. It seems that the first sermons were set in the season of Advent. But reading through several of the eighty-six sermons during Advent, it seems that the whole bunch of them is a prolonged meditation on the Incarnation of God. At Christmas, says Bernard, it is not, as the Psalms says, Great is the Lord, highly to be praised, but rather, little is the Lord and greatly to be loved. Bernard sees in this little child born of Mary the splendor of God in the forms of a slave to free us from slavery; the brightness of eternal light dimmed for the enlightening of mankind (SC 28.2).
The Incarnation is how God comes close to us. Taking on our embodied nature, he uses the feelings and sensations of the body to know by experience our miseries so he might the better
know how to be merciful (SC 56.1).
Christmas Midnight Mass
[Scripture Readings: Is 9:1-6, Ti 2:11-14; Lk 2:1-14 ]
I think we are all familiar with the glass half full, the glass half empty analogy describing two different ways of looking at a situation or event. What is interesting to note is that both are right. The glass is half full and yet it is half empty, too. Carrying the analogy forward to how people approach situations we can say both the optimist and the pessimist are right most of the time because life situations are not all black and white, clear cut and definitive; they are more likely to be ambiguous, unclear and on-going.
Usually the glass looks half full at the start of things, for instance a marriage, joining a monastery, beginning a new job, starting a business. You wouldn't start anything unless you thought it was going to work out. But there are always naysayers around, people on the sidelines who say, this marriage is not going to last I could have told you that from the beginning, it took them ten years to realize what I knew from the start.
A wise person has a balanced view of the glass, sometimes it is half full and sometimes it is half empty. St. Benedict was a wise person. He encourages newcomers to truly seek God, to be zealous about the monastic life and give it all they got, but then he reminds the abbot, who is always wise and balanced, to be sure and tell the beginner that things might be great right now in your new fervor but there will be hard days ahead; hard and difficult days. He is not saying this to discourage them but to be realistic about their life. You could say this about any beginning, any marriage, new job, monastic profession, ordination.
This evening we are liturgically reliving the birth of Christ. The beginning of his life on earth was just proclaimed to us not as past history that is indeed interesting but as a revelation from God about our life. The story we just heard is full of tenderness and joy. St. Francis of Assisi took the story and put it into three dimensions and so was born the creche which dominates our Christmas imagination to this day: all is calm, all is bright. There is a deep, deep peace and serenity surrounding Christmas, that is if you do not have to go shopping!
But on a more serious side life is not always calm and bright and we have never heard angels sing. Let's look at what St. Luke tells us. Mary and Joseph had to leave home to be registered. Behind this phrase is the reality of taxes and in those days underlying taxes was greed. Then there is the part about no room in the inn so Mary has to give birth is some sort of stable and lays the infant in a manger. Mary and Joseph were part of a subjugated people with very little means. Then there is the flight into Egypt and the slaughter of the Innocents. This year that feast will have an all too familiar ring to it. Finally the day after Christmas we celebrate the feast of St. Stephen, the first one to shed his blood for Christ.
There is a message in all this, a revelation really. Something is revealed that we could never come to on our own. It is very simple but very hard to believe unless we have direct experience of it. It is this, suffering in life is inevitable and so is death but both have ultimate meaning. We can say we believe this but unless we have tested this truth by suffering ourselves or coming close to death we might just be talking but not saying anything.
I will close with a rather long quote from St. Hilary. In a meditative frame of mind he looks around and says, “The sky and the air are beautiful, the earth and the sea are beautiful. By Divine grace the universe was called by the Greeks, 'Cosmos' meaning ornament [think of our Christmas tree ornaments, round like the cosmos]. Surely the author of all created beauty must himself be the beauty of all beauty. But if we are blessed with an intuition of God what shall we gain from it if death does away with all feelings and puts an end to a wary existence? My mind was bewildered, trembling for itself and for its body. But then I read that the Word was made flesh and my soul joyfully received the revelation of this mystery. By means of my flesh I was drawing near to God… I was assured that I could not be reduced to non-being.” (The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pages 20, 21).
Since the Word was made flesh, since Jesus assumed a human body, our body draws us near to God. Both the joyful body and the suffering body, the half full and the half empty existence which Jesus took upon himself to redeem. Our body is a means of salvation. This is the good news of the season but it is good news that does not come easy. It is only by faith we know this but we do see good people all over the world and right now I am thinking of the good people in Newtown who are calling on their faith to get them through the suffering they are now enduring. The sky opens over their heads and the Angles sing once again the good news of salvation.
Christmas Midnight Mass
[Scripture Readings: Gen 3:9-15; 1 Chron 17:7-14; Micah 5:2-5a; Is 9:1-7; Titus 2:11-14; Lk 2:1-14]
Once St. Bernard began a homily to his monks by saying, “Today we will be reading from the book of your own experience” (Sermon 3, Song of Songs).
Just a few minutes ago we heard the Genesis account of the Fall and the promise of salvation. I know we have all experienced the affects of the Fall but how do we experience Salvation? We can begin to find an answer by asking the question how badly do you want salvation. Is it something you occasionally think about or is it a fire in your belly?
Once the devil was talking to God about a man named Job and said he was a good person only because everything was going his way. God did not agree so the devil said “Skin for skin. All that a man has he will give for his life, but touch his bones and his flesh..and see what happens” (Job 2:4). Do we long for salvation in our bones as if our life depended on it?
Almost every day during Advent we had a reading from the prophet Isaiah, words of heart wrenching pathos. His people were desperate. Barbarians were literally at the gates of Jerusalem and their lives were on the line. The king and the whole population wanted to save their skin but they were to a man doing the wrong thing. Like the devil said they would do anything to save their lives. Isaiah was heartbroken about the way they were acting, “(You) are wholly profane and sinful for wickedness burns like fire among you” he said, (Is 9:16-17). Nevertheless God tells these wicked people, through his prophet, “My love will never leave you, though the mountains leave their place and the hill be shaken” (Is. 54:10). During Advent we appropriate the world view of 8th century Jerusalem with its impending doom and prophetic promise.
This evening we are celebrating the fulfillment of the promise. But, before we go into that let us look at our own life situation. Do we have anything touching our skin that makes our hearts cry out for salvation, deliverance, redemption? Jerusalem at the time of Isaiah was not a very big city and neither is Dubuque for that matter, but following Isaiah’s injunction let us “Enlarge the space of our tents.”
and take a global look at our situation. I truly believe we are like the people in Jerusalem who walked in darkness. The headlines in our papers each day are like a description of a wasteland. Children starving to death, people sold into slavery, terrorism, multiple acts of violence, poverty, wars and unheard of natural disasters. Doesn’t your heart cry out for the victims of all these terrible things. Don’t you long for peace and that all the people of our earth may share in its bounty in an equal way? This is longing for salvation and you can feel it in your bones. I do not mean to be pessimistic, especially on this night, but the first requirement for understanding salvation is to know what you are being saved from.
There are many people who think our sins cry out to God louder that any in history and God will surely intervene in a dramatic way. I cannot say they are wrong but I would rather see an intervention in line with the feast we are celebrating this evening. The Angles told the shepherds that an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes would be a sign to them and it is a sign for us also. Isaiah said, “A little child will lead them” (Is 11:6). I believe it will be little things that will move our world toward salvation, even our personal world.
God said, “My love will never leave you.” What do these words remind you of? They remind me of marriage vows. Basically the partners look into each other’s eyes and say, “My love will never leave you.” I like to believe that at solemn vows a monk says that to his community also. Being human we know this does not always happen but if it can it is world changing. It brings us a little closer to salvation.
Love has many, many expressions, I suppose as many as there are people to express it. I know of an elderly couple married over 60 years when the husband had a stroke and his wife took care of him. She was not a big women and he was a big man. Her children were concerned she would wear herself out but would simply say, “I will take care of him as long as I can.” That is just another way of saying, “My love will never leave him.” She was really acting like God. We are doing the same by the way we live with each other in peace and harmony and justice and each time we so act we bring salvation into the greater world.
Because God became human all human life is holy and it is true that the kingdom of God is within us Christmas is a wonderful time for family gatherings for meals and gift giving and it may seem so ordinary but underneath all this are the unspoken words we say to each other, “My love will never leave you.”
Christmas Midnight Mass
[Scripture Readings: 1. Gen3:9-15; 2. One Chron 17:7-14; 2. Micah 5:1-5a; 4. Is 9:1-7; 5. Titus 2:11-14; Lk 2:1-14]
The word virtual, long forgotten and gathering dust in the back of the dictionary, has been renewed by recent developments in technology. You can play virtual chess on your computer, you can test your skills as a race car driver or play virtual golf or even take on an army of aliens with your laser gun. Add to this video games and reality TV and you have a multi billion dollar industry built on virtually nothing.
All these games and forms of entertainment are artificial environments in which you, the player, are partially controlling. They test your ability to win, to succeed, to overcome, to compete, to beat a virtual opponent all the while never leaving your living room. Meeting challenges, overcoming obstacles, struggling against odds make up the themes of plays, movies and books of all kinds. We seem to have a gene programmed to get us excited by challenges that often are no risk to us. On the other hand there are people who risk their lives to achieve something no one else has ever doneto go around the world in a balloon, to climb a mountain so high that you have to bring your own source of oxygen. What motivates such behavior? What is the appeal?
It seems to me that from the video games to climbing Mt Everest an important aspect of life is being reflected back to us, an aspect we cannot control and so these virtual games are comforting in that we can control them. Life is a struggle, there is no way around it. St. Benedict in his “Rule for Monks” warns us about the hard and difficult thing of life. He then goes on to describe four kinds of monks, two are in the fight, engaged in facing what life brings them, even going out to face it with courage, the other two are trying to control life to suit their own comfort. One he calls soft as lead, the other wanders around looking for someone to take care of him. They look like monks but they are virtual monks, artificial monks, not even real persons. The drama has gone out of their lives.
The ascetical life, which all Christians are called to live, especially monks, means we face reality, we do not replace the struggle with virtual reality. We have to be human before we can be anything else. To be human means to live at the level of soul, of spirit. It means to face the great challenges of life, be they ill health, aging, relationships, community life, anxieties, doubts of faith and reason. Whatever it is, we cannot escape it. We are reading a set of pamphlets in our refectory currently about several recently beatified monks and nun. To be beatified or canonized you have to show heroic virtuethat is patiently enduring some out of the ordinary obstacle and persevere in the faith. I had a Christmas card from a young friend who asked, “Has the church ever canonized a married couple/parents? I know two families with special needs kids and the sacrifices they make are amazing and inspiring.” I think we all know people like this and to my mind they are saints.
The good news we are celebrating tonight is that God has come into our world to teach us how to live, how to be, how to find our spirit and face life. The promise that sustains us is that God said he would be with us. Therefore, we begin our journey with God at his birth as Jesus. The scene we conjure up in our mind of Christ’ birth is one of great peace and tranquility, but remember there was nothing but struggle to arrive at the cave or stable where Christ was born. Our culture erases that part of the story. However, maybe that is all right. You can focus on the difficulties of life only so long. The soul needs a resting place. To do this we need to take another look at virtual reality. Virtual reality involves our imagination. We frequently downplay imagination, as in “its only his imagination, it is not real.” This quip was made to Joan of Arc, “The voice you hear is only your imagination.” to which she answered, “Of course it is, how else would God talk to me.”
St. Francis of Assisi used his imagination to great effect when he re-constructed, from Scripture, the first crib scenehe recreated in his mind what he thought the first Christmas was like. We still use his pattern. It has in fact become a cherished form of prayer, taught in the Church for centuries. We were not present at the birth of Christ but we can re-create the scene described by Luke in our mind. Not only that, we can become part of the scene. Let us try it for a moment. Kneel on the margin of the stable where the shepherds are. Experience their awe and wonder, move closer to the crib and adoreoffer yourself to God, return to your beginnings, trace backward to your first memories and see where along the way God has been your Emmanuel, God with you, in the solitude of your heart stay there with God in the peace and inner stillness that his presence brings. Is this virtual reality? Yes, but it is one of the only ways we have of opening our hearts to the grace of the past.
The other way is virtual also but more real than reality, we see with our eyes. In a few moments, we will continue with our celebration. The priest will take the bread and wine and by virtue of an anointing of the Holy Spirit, Jesus will be present to us once again. By virtue of our Baptism, we will participate in his offering to the Father and receive his body and blood. This is the ultimate God with us. Usually what we eat becomes part of us; here we become part of God. We are assimilated into the life of the Trinity.
All the great events of our life are sacramentalised, that is they share in the incarnation as the marriage of the human and divine. When we really get down to it, our life in this world is virtualnot totally real because we do not see what is happening in our soul. Contemplation anticipates the end, the full picture, the time when we will see God face to face.
Christmas Midnight Mass
[Scripture Readings: Is 9:1-6; Ti 2:11-14; Lk 2:1-14]
Jesus was born when Caesar Augustus was emperor of Rome from 30 BC to 14 AD. Does it strike you as strange that his birth should take place at this particular time of history or that it should be in the context of a census when Quirinius was governor of Syria? What do these people have to do with the birth of Jesus? Why does Luke give these political figures such notice in the announcement of the greatest mystery of our faith?
It seems to me that a more propitious time for Jesus as a Jew to be born would have been during King David’s rule or even Solomon’s. David centralized the government, Solomon centralized the liturgy so the Jewish state was an independent republic, secure from its enemies and free.
Tonight’s Gospel could have begun like this: “During King David’s reign a son was born of his royal line to Mary and Joseph of the house of David. They named him Jesus, and he was a Prince“. There would be no mention of Roman Emperors or Syrian governors. There would be only one nation involved, and Jesus would have been born in the royal palace itself instead of a stable. We know it did not happen this way and we know it was for a reason. The chosen people were living under a foreign rule. Their country was occupied by Romans. The census mentioned by Luke was for the purpose of taxation, so not only were the people under foreign dictators but they were made to pay for the upkeep of the very army that subjugated them! The Greeks did this to them before the Romans so the Jews were used to living in occupied territory but this did not make it any easier. They longed for freedom, for autonomy, for the restoration of their religious state and the departure of the Roman. They were more than ready for a Messiah.
The tragedy is they missed him when he came. You can hardly blame them however, would we have done any better? Look at the circumstances of his birth. Who would be impressed with it? As far as appearances go a birth into poverty is a disadvantage, but even this could have been put to his advantage if his teaching would have been about overthrowing Roman Rule. If Jesus could have marshaled an army and driven out the Romans he would have been a hero. Instead he dies on a cross an enemy of the state and a failure to his people.
How are we to understand all this? Say Jesus did muster and army and restored the Jewish state. How long would this last? The major premise of this type of thinking is that a good army saves the nation. It might for a few centuries or even a thousand years but eventually someone with a stronger army comes along and overthrows you. There is no wisdom in this type of thinking. Jesus’ message is not about political power. If it were it would have passed away long ago. His message is not tied to any political regime or era of history. It is meant to be active for every situation; all ways and everywhere relevant. Jesus came, not to restore a state but to restore our soul, our spirit, our being before God.
His message begins with the circumstances of his birth. If he was born in a royal palace who could identify with him? He was born the poorest of the poor, in a dispossessed nation and never for one minute aspired to riches or power of any kind. In fact it was just the opposite. Jesus embraced poverty, humility, meekness and silence before the very people who took his life. This was his revolution. A way to freedom, inner power, true riches and peace that no one can take away.
The infancy narrative given us by St. Luke is composed of human words with divine meanings, just as Jesus himself is God in human form. God in human words and human form appeals to us from a position of weakness. There are real similarities in Jesus’ birth and death. In both God appears helpless. Born into poverty and oppression, dying nailed to a cross. No matter how poor we are, no matter how shameful our sins, or our death, Jesus embraces us because he bore our shame and sin. No one should feel left out, everyone can approach a new born child or a condemned prisoner. They have no status, nothing to make us be afraid or hold back. Anyone can stand with the shepherds at the crib, or at the foot of the cross. Let us go there frequently in our minds eye, in our inner thoughts and prayers.
God is an awe inspiring mystery. He is a consuming fire, a whirlwind of ferocious power and destructive force. Who can endure it? But God born as an infant is a new expression of Divinity. God uses the movements of our hearts towards new borns as an entry way into our souls, as a way of communicating His love to us. Let us draw near and let this love cast out all fear from our hearts.
Christmas, Midnight Mass
[Scripture Readings: Is 9:1-6; Ti 2:11-14; Lk 2:1-14]
There is an old saying, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. The earthiness of this saying leads me to believe it came from a wise old farmer. If it came from a university professor it might be, “If it is not broken do not repair it”! Whichever it is, we generally do not follow this bit of wisdom. I used to take perfectly good things apart as a child just to see how they worked. The problem was I couldn’t get them back together. Usually the saying applies only to mechanical things, but in fact, it has been applied to all kinds of things from personal relationships to marriages to history. There is a thing called revisionist history. I imagine this to be something like taking history apart and putting it back together in a new and improved way. There are several new biographies of Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. There seems to be no such thing as a definitive life of the great historical figures.
This is legitimate because historians are interpreters of the past. The facts are not enough, there has to be interpretation. History is just too complicated to offer one interpretation. It is made up of drama and struggle and wars and prosperity and impoverishment. It records good times and bad, sickness and health. It is a record that lends itself to many ways of being understood. How else could all these new books be printed?
This evening we heard readings from the dawn of history up to the writings of St. Paul. Thousands of years of history. How do we interpret it? One way is to know what kind of history we are talking about. The Scriptures are salvation history. The ultimate author is the Holy Spirit. What comes down to us are true historical events but their purpose is to give us the mind of God. These are words of God coming to us in human form. These words are proclaimed to us. They are not just read in the privacy of our homes or monastic cells. They are proclaimed in the assembly and we listen and receive the divine meaning of God’s message. There is a mixture of the divine and the human in the proclamation. This can happen because of the feast we are celebrating tonight. The Incarnationthe Word becoming flesh. This is a true historical event but there is no way we can prove that the baby in the manger is true God and true man. That is an interpretation of faith. The leap from the historical event to the mind of God is the leap of faith. “Only faith can guarantee the blessing we hope for, or prove the existence of realities that are unseen,”. Faith is the key that opens the door to the mystery of God. Faith compels us to see the continuity in all the history that leads up to Christ and further yet, in all that leads from Christ to this very hour.
One of the golden threads running through this history is that God loves the poor. The weak poor and the strong poor. I would think that everyone gathered here this evening is among the strong poor. We are not destitute or impoverished but we do know our situation. We know that our life is very fragile, that it is, as the Psalmist says, “over like a sigh,”. The meaning of our life is not found in ourselves. It is outside ourselves. To know this, to feel it, to experience it, is true poverty and thus precious to God.
So how does faith help us interpret the feast we are celebrating as recounted in the Gospel of Luke? One of the great features of this account is the poverty of it all. The child is born in utter poverty. There is no room in the inn. He is laid in a manger. Many of the Fathers of the Church make a connection between the birth of Christ and his death. The wood of the manger and the wood of the cross, the swaddling bands and the shroud. Item by item you might not be able to draw a direct comparison but to me the main similarity is the utter poverty of both events. This poorness makes both approachable. Christ’s death was so shameful and humanly debased that no ones death needs be deemed shameful. His birth was so poor that no one need be afraid to approach the stable. That is the point. God humbled himself before us. God went to the depths of our weakness to win us over to his love. I remember seeing a scene from the life of Mother Teresa she was walking in the academic procession at a Harvard commencement. She looked so small and insignificant among the greats but in her poverty of appearance her inner authority stood out all the more.
True wisdom comes from true poverty of spirit. This means we know our place in the world. We know how utterly dependent on God we are. We know that life is a gift, that love is a gift, that Jesus is a gift from the heart of God. Underlying all the gift giving of Christmas there is the truth of God’s humility; the gift of himself as a defenseless infant, the gift of himself as a falsely accused criminal dying that we might live. Infants are meant to be held. God wants to be held in our hearts and in our minds. He wants to honored by the way we live and relate to others. He wants to make us his own. He has gone all out to show us his love and win our hearts.
It is the season of gift giving. Let us give the gift of ourselves to the one who gave himself up for us.
Christmas Midnight Mass
[Scripture Readings: Is 9:1-6; Titus 2:11-14; Lk 1:1-14]
For a week now the Gospels at Mass have been leading up to the birth of Christ. We began the week with the genealogies of Jesus then the Annunciation, the Visitation, the birth of John the Baptist. The first readings tried to match the Gospels with messages from the prophets. For instance last Thursday the Gospel described the birth of John the Baptist. The first reading began, “Look, I shall send my messenger to clear a way before me“. This fits John perfectly. Then we heard, “And suddenly the Lord whom you seek will come to his temple“. This, of course, refers to Jesus. But then we have the words, “Who will be able to resist the day of his coming? Who will remain standing when he appears?” (Mal.3:1-2). This refers to us.
These words are more ominous. More like a day of reckoning , a day no one can resist, a judgment we are forced to endure. But, we know God does not force us. God appeals to us, he invites us. I believe the words of Malachi are true but not in a way you might expect. The words, who can resist his coming, who can stand when he appears, make sense when applied to tonight’s Gospel. Who can resist the appeal of a new born infant, who remains standing at the crib scene? There is no cause for fear, for dread. Everyone can approach a new born. At this birth all are invited to kneel and adore.
Here at the monastery we don’t really get the opportunity to see a new born child. I hate to say it but about all any of us have witnessed is the birth of a calf! Even that is a remarkable thing. The calf is up and running ,or at least wobbling around within a few minutes of birth. A human baby on the other hand is totally helpless for months. You have to care for them very tenderly and carefully. My nephew, who recently became a father, sent me a “quote of the day” last week. It goes, “Making the decision to have a child — its momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body”. Elizabeth Stone. You don’t have to be a parent to understand the truth of this statement.
I recently saw a series of pictures taken by ultra sound of a baby in the womb, 13 weeks old. It brings tears to your eyes to see this tiny body 2 ½ inches long with the beginnings of a spinal column and arms and legs. New life just starting to take form.
In the Gospel this evening we are told the tiny infant lying in the manger is a sign. A sign of what? It is a sign of God’s tender love for us. “Who can resist his coming?” What a profound understanding of the human heart God has. To send his only son as a new born infant in order to win our love. Not to force our love. Love that is not free is not love. God appeals to our paternal and maternal instincts, to our senses, to our hearts. Once our resistance is gone and we bow down over the crib we are ready to return love for love. But, God asks more. There is the presence of the invisible God in this child. The child Jesus is both human and divine. If being a parent is like having your heart walking around outside your body, making an act of faith is like dying while still being alive. You die to what your senses tell you, you die to what common sense tells you, you die to what reason tells you. To many this sounds foolish, unreasonable. This word unreasonable was a favorite of our founding fathers. They were deists. Thomas Jefferson, for example believed in God, in divine providence, in the divine moral law, and in rewards and punishments after death, but he thought the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation were unintelligible. They were unreasonable. But, it is unreasonable too to have your heart living outside your body.
Tonight as we celebrate the birth of the man-God we are called upon to make a profound act of faith in Jesus, human and divine. Jesus is the heart of God outside the Trinity. He was sent to us in such an unexpected way that most missed his arrival. We are asked to make an act of faith in this child who is God. We are asked also to believe that he comes to us in our times in unexpected ways. Our liturgy this evening is surrounded by a cold dark night, but at the heart of this darkness is the warm light of this assembly of believers professing their faith that the Prince of Peace can bring peace into our world but it has to be through us now or rather through him living in us. We have to welcome him into our hearts, give him a place in our minds and hearts just as Mary conceived him in her womb and loved him in her heart.
We live in a Christian country. Is it the weak Christianity of the deist or the strong faith of the martyrs? Do we hold our heart tightly in our chest or let it live outside our bodies by loving others with the love we have been given in Christ Jesus Our Lord?
Christmas Midnight Mass
[Scripture Readings: Gen 3:9-15, 1 Chron 17:7-14, Micah 5:2-5a, Is 9:1-7, Titus 2:11-14, Lk 2:1-14]
When you live in a big city like New York or Chicago, or better yet St. Louis, you can say you are from that particular city but in reality you are from a neighborhood. You can virtually grow up in a neighborhood without ever going into other neighborhoods. First of all, it wouldn’t be safe. Secondly, why go out when your neighborhood had all you wanted. Many cities still maintain these neighborhood boundaries. Chicago has Buck Town and Wrigleyville. Dubuque has Little Dublin, the Flats and the North End. St. Louis has the Hill. The Hill is the quintessential Italian neighborhood. Needless to say I have never been there. But my curiosity was aroused when I saw a review of a book entitled, “The Hill, Its History, Its Recipes.” The Hill produced such luminaries as Yoggi Berra and Joe Garagiola. St. Ambrose Parish was the center of the Hill. One of its parishioners, Eleanor Berra Marfisi, wrote the book. She talks about growing up poor. As a little girl she didn’t want to go to a birthday party because she didn’t have a pretty dress to wear. When she told her mother here is what happened. “My mother,” she says, “put her two hands on my shoulders and said, ‘Eleanor, I want you to remember this for the rest of your life. ‘Feathers do not make the bird.’ Then she pointed to her heart and her head and said, ‘These are the two most important things in your life.'” Eleanor never forgot the lesson. Heart and head representing our love and our knowledge. We need both. You need to love someone before you really know them and you need to know someone before you really love them.
This evening we heard readings from all parts of the Scriptures. We can’t possibly know all there is to know about each of these readings. But we can love what they tell us. We can let our heart lead us. If we do that where does it bring us? What is the focal point of all the readings? The heart knows, where does it bring us? To the Child lying in a manger. When I was reading over the Gospel in the cottage on my hermit day the only text at hand was a contemporary English translation: “Mary gave birth to her first born son. She dressed him in baby-clothes and laid him on a bed of hay.” And a few lines later the angels tell the shepherds that they will know the Christ because “When you go to Bethlehem you will find him dressed in baby-clothes and lying on a bed of hay.” Reminds me of Eleanor and her pretty dress.
What the angel really tells the shepherds is, “The child will be a sign to you.” We are left to figure out on our own what is the meaning of the Child as a sign. The Gospel story as presented to us has two parts. We can call them a human part and a divine part. The human part comprises the first nine verses. It is a detailed account of the historical period: the census, the people involved, Augustus, Quirinius, Mary and Joseph, the geography, the birth, the shepherds, the country side, everything we see in a modern day crèche. It is a wonderfully detailed picture that we can compose in our minds, and our hearts follow along and interject feelings and emotions so that we become personally involved in the story. We can identify with every twist and turn.
But then at verse nine the story changes. Over this wonderful pastoral scene the heavens open and angels appear, first one angel and then a whole sky full of angels. The shepherds are told a Savior has been born and the sign of this is a Babe lying in a manger. So we are back to where our hearts brought us in the first place. To a new born infant less than a day old. But now with our minds informed by the Scriptures we know this
Child is Jesus, the Savior, the Son of God, God incarnate. The Child is a sign of God, God with us.
So as we kneel in our minds eye we can contemplate, beginning with God and ending with the Christ Child. “God has no form. He is beyond every form. Precisely for that reason he can reveal and manifest himself under any form. Nothing comprehends God.”1 But God chose to manifest Himself as this Child. Everything that appeals to our hearts in a new born infant, everything an infant evokes in us, our love, tenderness, care, protection, nurturing, is a revelation of God’s essence. We are loved by God in this way and we love God in this way. As the infant Christ Child grows we know him better and love him more. Our human love and knowledge leads us step by step into the mystery of God until we realize that the temple the prophet Nathan spoke of is in us and around us, and we are in God and God is in us, and we are all being born into a new and everlasting life in God.
Christmas Midnight Mass
[Scripture Readings: Is 9:1-3, 5-6; Titus 2:11-14; Lk 2:1-14]
“And here is a sign for you . . . a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12). This verse is sandwiched between the glory of God
shining on the shepherds and the heavens opening and the angelic hosts
singing Glory to God in the Highest. Given these cosmic events, finding a
baby lying in a manger doesn’t seem to be much of a sign. If I were a
shepherd, I wouldn’t be too fast to leave the angelic scene to hunt for a
child. After all, the Glory of God and the Host of Heaven mean only one
thing-the Divine presence. A baby lying in a manger can mean anything; it is
ambiguous. When it comes to religion, Americans don’t like ambiguity. We
thrive on the separation of Church and State. Church is for Sunday; the rest
of the week is business and politics.
We are told in no uncertain terms that the baby lying in the manger is a
sign. What is this sign pointing to? There are different ways to read this
sign. I can think of three. The first we could call a soft reading. Looking
at this babe we immediately think of the tenderness of God. God touching our
hearts through this child. The warmth and intimacy radiating from the crib
scene moves us. It is what creates this wonderful Christmas spirit we all
enjoy. Through the centuries every culture has added their creative touch to
this delicate reading until we have hundreds of Christmas carols, gift
giving, family gatherings, even Santa Claus, and I hesitate to say, Bing
Crosby’s “White Christmas.” All these traditions find their source in the
tenderness of an infant, a sign of God’s delicate touch of love.
But there is another group of people, a much smaller group that looks at the
child as a sign pointing in another direction. We could call this a hard
reading. When they look at the child, the babe in the manger, they see
poverty and exploitation. They see an occupying army led by a tyrant counting
the people for the purpose of taxation, subjecting Mary and Joseph to a
dangerous journey just when Mary is about to give birth. Everything in the
story points to homelessness, refugees, outcasts, powerlessness, even a
subtle violence that puts and keeps people in these poor situations. People
all over the world today suffer these same humiliating circumstances. Jesus
the Babe of Bethlehem born in a stable identifies with them and they with
him. People with a strong sense of social justice are moved by this Gospel to
help the homeless and unemployed, the immigrants, especially at Christmas
time to help bring some of the warmth and tenderness to them. After all, this
is the level of society into which Jesus was born. The babe in the manger is
a sign to all of us not to crave wealth and domination.
We have been looking at the child in the manger and trying to discern the
sign. We know that when we look at something our eyes tell us only so much.
There is more than the eyes see. It is fitting that we are here at midnight,
the darkest hour, a symbol of evil. Light and darkness do not mix. Jesus will
prevail. But Paul tells us we live in a murky place; we perceive as through a
smoky mirror. This brings us to the third way to read this sign. The angels
tell the shepherds the child is our savior. But he doesn’t looks like a
savior. Our eyes tell us this is a poor infant lying in a manger. Our faith
tells us it is God made human for our salvation. The saints tell us “faith is
a blind man’s guide.” “Perceiving blindness” is how we read this sign.
Intuitively we all know there is more to human events than we see. Our eyes
take us only so far. There are spaces to be filled in, gaps in our
understanding. Take for instance the common practice of making your Christmas
card with a photo of your family or, better yet, just a picture of the
children. I received a card with five children ranging from 6 to 16 years of
age, all standing shyly looking out at me. You just knew the parents were
looking on in admiration. In fact, you could almost feel the love surrounding
those children. It was like a halo. It nourished them as much as any food.
Doesn’t this complete our sign? Mary and Joseph looking on with adoring love
at their infant son, inviting us to join them. God, after all, does not speak
to us by opening the heavens; he comes in the ordinary ways of life. God is
love and where love is there is God.
Christmas Midnight Mass
[Scripture Readings: Gen 3:9-15, 1 Chron 17:7-14, Micah 5:2-5a, Is 9:1-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14]
I want to offer a special welcome to all our guests this evening. It is encouraging to our community when so many come to celebrate the Christmas liturgy here at New Melleray. You are most welcome.
As I look out on this assembly of monks and guests I am trying to establish some common ground to address. We are all searchers, pilgrims on the journey of life. We are all in some way seeking God, but there is a vast difference in the way we go about it. Is there anyway to neutralize all these differences? Is there anyway to make us all equal? How about this-instead of looking at ourselves as seekers or pilgrims what if we reversed it and said we are the ones being sought? We are being searched after by God. After all, didn’t the first reading begin with the words, “And God called to the man, ‘Where are you?'” Adam answered, “We were hiding because we were afraid.”
When we come together this evening at the most mysterious and hidden time of the night, midnight, we are coming out of hiding and saying to God, “Here we are-what do you want?” God wants something from each one of us and it is expressed in the Gospel we just heard. First of all, God wants, he craves for our love. He came looking for it in the garden and he came looking for it at his birth in Bethlehem.
The scene that St. Luke describes of the birth of Christ elicits our love, it is such a tender scene. There are Christmas cribs everywhere: outside Churches, in homes, in Churches, in shopping malls, all reminding us of the tender love of God coming to us in the Christ child. Everyone is moved in their heart either to join the shepherds in prayerful adoration or to do simple random acts of kindness. This is the season to be kind and generous to each other.
We sometimes read of road rage but I heard of something that happened on the road the other day that warmed my heart. Two young women were returning from Chicago to Dubuque for Christmas. As they approached the first toll booth to pay the fee on I-90, the attendant told them that the car in front paid their toll. So at the second toll booth they paid for the car behind them. Who knows how far the chain reaction went-for forty cents a lot of Christmas cheer spread up and down that highway.
So the first thing God wants is our love, but as we read this Gospel there is a second thing, our conversion. We are all equal in God wanting our love, and we are all equal in God wanting our conversion, our change of heart. In the Gospel we just heard there is the phrase, “There was no room for them in the inn.” Much has been made over this fact, a lot of sympathy has been aroused. When I was a child there were two bible stories that made me feel sad. This one and the one where Moses is on the mountain overlooking the promised land. In our bible history book God is standing next to him, a bit taller and older looking, telling him he cannot enter, he cannot go across the Jordan river with all the people. I used to feel so bad for Moses. But these stories are not meant to make us feel bad, they are suppose to stir us to conversion.
When Luke says there was no room for them in the inn he is identifying Jesus, Mary and Joseph with a certain segment of society, the very poor, the homeless, the refugees of the world. This is how Jesus lived all his life. He said of himself, “I have nowhere to lay my head.” In his trial he was denied his civil rights and died a criminal’s death on a cross. And yet Jesus tells us, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions. I go to prepare one for you.” What graciousness!
So, what is our response to all this? What is our call to conversion? What if we viewed the world as an inn, a place for all people to stay, a home where all have a right to sit at the common table and eat what this home has to offer all the family. Since we occupy this common space, this world that is our home, our inn, we have a duty to respect the space inhabited by all, to avoid violence against our common environment and wasting the heritage that belongs to everyone. [Thoughts inspired by “Loreto” magazine, Sept/Dec 2001 issue.]
From the night Mary and Joseph were denied a place to stay the call has gone forth: Change your way of living, practice justice to all. This change might be as small as a forty cent toll fee or as dramatic as St. Paul’s conversion, but each day God asks us to act justly, to love tenderly and walk humbly before the Lord.