We have a choice of readings for Christmas. We can read from Vigil Mass, Midnight Mass, Dawn Mass, and Mass During the Day. I’m choosing Midnight Mass only because it’s my favorite. When I was an altar boy I loved being at mass in the middle of one of the longest nights of the year. We begin with Isaiah describing those who have walked in darkness seeing a great light. “For there is a child born for us, a son given us…and this is the name they give him: Wonder-Counselor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace.” Luke’s Gospel describes how Joseph and his pregnant fiance Mary were forced to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem but were unable to find a place to stay. They found themselves in a barn where Mary gave birth to Jesus. Nearby shepherds were told of this and were told that “[t]oday in the town of David a savior has been born you; he is Christ the Lord. And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
Merry Christmas! It’s worth noting that we celebrate Christmas close to the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. During this season Jews celebrate Chanukah, Pagans celebrate Saturnalia, Americans of African descent celebrate Kwanzaa, etc.
And while Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus we really don’t know when he was born, not for the lack of trying. Numerous sources recognize that shepherds sheltered their sheep during the winter and they would not have been in the fields in late December. Furthermore, while the Romans did conduct censuses there was no census while Caesar Augustus ruled. And even if he did it’s hard to imagine Joseph would have been required to return to Bethlehem because he was of David’s line. I was born in Washington D.C.; my parents were born in Gardner, Massachusetts; and their parents were born in New Brunswick, Gardner, and Boston. Given this census, where would I have to travel to?
The actual day of Jesus’ birth has caused the Jehovah’s Witnesses to essentially cancel Christmas. They believe that while none of us knows Jesus’ birthday we shouldn’t choose an arbitrary day to celebrate it.
And yet we do. Much like the 4th Sunday of Advent we need to look to our first reading to gain an understanding.
I sometimes joke that a baby in the uterus has limited understanding of our world. He (or she) doesn’t experience respiration or gravity. He (or she) also has no sight and cannot tell the difference between light and dark. But once born the baby finally “sees the light.”
And this changes the baby’s life. Early on we learn how much we gain from light and how much we lose from darkness. Many of us recognize the correlation between darkness and depression and understand the need for nightlights. I lived in Boston for a little over three years, and while I loved the city I experienced something called “seasonal affective disorder” during the winter when daylight was short.
There I learned that only those who have lived in darkness can fully appreciate the light. As a counterpoint to my time in Boston I spent the summer of 1992 at St. Nicholas Church in North Pole, Alaska. I spent that summer enjoying 24 hours of daylight but I also recognized that everyone I met suffered a dark, dark winter. They told me how they kept track of each other and made certain nobody succumbed to the depression formed out of the dark. I came away feeling blessed that I got to spend a summer with nothing but light.
If we look at the history of the Israelites we can certainly find darkness. Our first reading from last week promised an heir to David who would rule without enemies or suffering. Frankly, this has not happened and we can be forgiven for wondering if that reading gave us a false promise.
But the birth of Jesus gives us a game changer. If all we do is wait for a Messiah, our lives are both simple and passive. It doesn’t matter what happens or what we do, because in the end a Messiah will save us.
Jesus crashed into our lives because he didn’t want our lives to be simple and passive. Jesus crashed into our lives to empower us to create a world that was worthy of the God who created us.
We Christians are funny people. Followers of other religions follow commandments; through intellect or prophecy they learn how to live their lives. But our God found us too beloved to teach us from afar. Our God created us and found his creation too good to rule remotely. God decided that needed to crash into our darkness and empower us to join with him in building the Kingdom.
People who know me, or those who have been reading my work, know that I have little patience for passive Christians, those who believe that as long as they are good with God they owe nothing to those around them. I grew up in a part of the country where the majority of Christians held onto a belief in something called the Rapture (if you’re familiar with the Left Behind series you know what I’m talking about). Followers hold the belief that some point in time God will immediately take all the righteous people into heaven and those left behind will face tribulations.
I have several problems with this teaching but here’s one of them: it makes this passivity much more appealing. We don’t have to work to build the Kingdom of God here because at some point this will end. We don’t need to care about climate change or hunger because God’s clock is ticking. I remember seeing bumper stickers with the phrase: “At the Rapture this car will be unoccupied.” In addition to it’s smugness I’m troubled by the idea that the first thing those of us who are left behind will have to do is dodge empty cars at high speeds.
Jesus wasn’t born to fix everything we’ve broken. Jesus came to empower us to fix the world ourselves. We could wait for God to fix everything, but God dreams bigger than that for us. Let us dream better too.