Brief synopsis of the readings: We have several choices for Christmas readings. There are different readings for Christmas Eve, Midnight Mass, Mass at Dawn, and Mass during the day. I’ve always loved the readings from Midnight Mass and I’ve chosen those readings once again. Isaiah speaks about how those in darkness have seen a great light. They will now enter an end of suffering. This will be accomplished by the birth of a child who will become “Wonder-Counselor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace.” Luke’s Gospel described the birth of Jesus. Luke explained why Joseph and Mary needed to go to Bethlehem and how an angel appeared to local shepherds. The angel invited them to see Jesus and described how they will find him.
Of all Christian celebrations, Christmas is far and away the most evocative. We remember celebrations in years past, we draw on rituals that we pass along, and we go to great lengths to be with family (however we define them). In 1223 St. Francis of Assisi assembled the first nativity scene and launched a whole new revenue stream. Full disclosure my wife owns dozens of nativity scenes. Every baby boomer I know made a point in watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” where Linus recounted this Gospel when asked what Christmas is all about.
But our familiarity with the celebration of the birth of Jesus can sometimes outshine this incredible event. A tour of world religions throughout history gives us a wide variety of the relationship between deities and people.
Among religions that profess one God, only Christianity believes that God became human at a fixed point in time. Only we describe someone as “fully God and fully human.” And I can tell you from experience that explaining this to a non Christian does not normally go well.
This raises an obvious question: Why did God do this? Why did God decide to take on human form and dwell among us. We’ll never fully know the answer and it’s easy to use this as an excuse not to wonder. But the ability to wonder is truly a gift from God, and it’s great fun.
While we can see how Jesus grows and matures (hold that thought for Sunday’s Feast of the Holy Family), we don’t think of God growing and maturing, or even having experiences. And yet I like to think that the basis of the Incarnation (Jesus’ birth) lies in God’s falling in love with us.
Thinking about this possibility has forced me to move away from what I was taught as a child, that we had messed things up so badly that God had to intervene. There’s even a cartoon of a group of people gathered and a voice from the sky booms out: “Don’t make me come down there!”
And yet… Anyone who has seen an American football game is well versed in John 3:16: “Yes God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life.” For those who don’t watch American football, spectators will often hang large bed sheets with that verse written on it. It is as if God created us and said “good, but not good enough.” It is as if God realized that he loved us so much there could not be a barrier between him and us and the only solution is to unite God and humanity.
But over 2000 years since this event, what does it mean for us today? We Christians are often asked this question: “Does this look like a world that has seen the Messiah. And truthfully sometimes it doesn’t.
On the other had, this has allowed us to become more like God in ways that we continue to explore. Genesis tells us that we were created in God’s image but belief in Jesus tells us that we are not merely images, but that a spark of God’s light and love is in us.
The image of light is not chosen lightly. It is partly true that we celebrate light because in the northern hemisphere we are in the longest darkness of the year. But it’s more than that. We know that light travels at 186,000 miles per second but we also know that light never stops. It doesn’t run out of fuel or even slow down. When we point telescopes into space we look at light that was emitted in the past. When we see the sun we are looking at it from 8 minutes ago because that’s how long it takes the light from the sun to reach us. Light from our closest other star, Alpha Centauri, takes more than 4 years to reach us.
Ultimately the light of Christmas gives each of us and all of us a spark of the divine. And that spark informs how we are to treat each other. When we say “I love you” we really mean we see that divine spark in each other. When asked what we love in our spouses, I hope we can all give a thoughtful answer. But that love needs to go beyond those closest to us.
On March 18, 1958 the mystic Thomas Merton received a revelation that he described this way:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun
The call to love one another, to see that spark makes radical demands on us and in this day and age we see great evidence that we are going in the wrong direction. But those nativity sets will always point is in the right direction.