Midnight Mass for the Nativity of the Lord at Mississippi Abbey
Scripture Readings: Is 9:1-6; Ti 2:11-14; Lk 2:1-14
“Be not afraid, for behold I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people.”
Tonight the angels tell the shepherds and us that the first effect of this child in a manger is that we have become a community. Communities are formed around a shared affection. The affection is accompanied by joy that we all share tonight. This infant is the cause of our joy. He has not taught us doctrine. He has not given us a moral code. He has united us in love because He is love.
With the shepherds we bring to this night our restless hearts. A restless heart is the second best thing in life because it is the road to the best thing.
And that best thing is the cause of our joy. Joy is different from pleasure. Pleasure is what our senses experience when they possess a good they can understand. Joy is what the mind and heart experience when they possess a good that leads to perfect happiness, the enduring kind our hearts can rest in. The Wise Men symbolize this difference when they bring goods appealing to the senses: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They give these to the infant in exchange for “the joy set before them.”
With joy our hearts move beyond valuing by satisfaction to valuing by intrinsic worth. That is how we are taken from bondage to liberation. That is how we respond to the liberation by entering into the new covenant which we will do in this Eucharist. That is how we come to Christian maturity and become a mature Christian community. The CCC describes mature faith when it says, “Recognizing this utter dependence with respect to the Creator is a source of wisdom and freedom, of joy and confidence.[i]”
This spiritual joy is an effect of charity. It is plainly an effect of the experience of this infant, the love He arouses, and the sharing of that experience with others. St. Aelred stressed the monastic community-building effect of affection and joy when he wrote of this gospel: “Be not afraid, but love. Be not sad but rejoice…Rejoice for yourself and rejoice also for others because this joy is not just for you but, it is “a great joy that will be for all the people.”[ii]
St. Benedict points out at the end of the Prologue (.49) and at the end of Ch.7 on Humility (.69) that joy and affection fuel the virtues needed for community living. It does this for the family as well. One can be generous out of real, self-forgetful concern for the good of the other for the others own sake. The concern is rooted in the shared affection for the infant. In the joy of this shared affection we no longer are left to live on the basis of unsatisfied demands.
Yet the infant did not come to make us nice or to make us content; He came to make us new people. The goal of human life is the vision of God. Spiritual joy is realized in proportion to our possession of God. This joy is perfect when nothing remains to be desired. That will only happen in heaven. Until then, we are incomplete (not neurotic!).
The central mystery of Christianity is the Incarnation of the Son of God. He came to make us children of God. That is the meaning of Christmas. The infant is a promise and from a promise there always arises an element of unrest. Its purpose is to give hope. The child has come to prepare us for a journey, not for rest.
Again, that is why our restless hearts are the second best thing in life: they are the road to the best thing.
[i] CCC, 301
[ii] Sermon 3.24, cited in This Day (December, 2016) p. 261.