Christmas Homily

I trust that this atypically long reflection will not bother anyone. More importantly, I hope that everyone enjoys a truly blessed Christmas. Thank you for the attention to my thoughts and for any good works they may inspire. May you come to know Christ better as his coming, love him more sincerely, and live with him in peace forever.

The Nativity of the Lord. Mass at Midnight.

(Isaiah 9:1-6; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14)

Fifty years ago there was a controversy about what the angels said that wondrous night when Christ was born. According to what Catholics called “the Protestant Bible,” the angels proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” Meanwhile, the so-called Catholic translation had the angels saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of goodwill.” Our present translation is politic in not using the word “men” at all, which is certainly found in the Greek original. But if we insert the more proper term “humans,” we would have the angels saying, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those humans(,) on whom God favor rests.” Who “those humans” are depends on the way we read the text. If we pause after saying “humans”– as if we were inserting a comma – then “those humans” would be equivalent to “all humans.” But if we speed on to the relative clause, then “those humans” are the only ones upon whom “God’s favor rests” – presumably Jesus’ disciples or, we Christians.

Just for tonight let us consider the first alternative – that the angels are extending peace to all people on this mystic night. This interpretation makes good sense since the angel first proclaimed “...good news of great joy that will be for all people.” In what ways then does the coming of Jesus bring peace to all people, whether Christian or not? This is the question we want to address.

First, we can say that the coming of Jesus brings peace because Jesus advocated non-violent resolution of conflict. He never proposed war as a solution to problems. It is true that he drove money-changers from the Temple, but only the Gospel of John shows him with a whip in hand, and not even there does it say that he struck anyone, much less killed for his purpose. More typical of Jesus is his admonition, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Remembering Jesus, German and English foot-soldiers locked in combat across the trenches during World War I called a truce on Christmas night, 1914. They suspended the war to sing Christmas carols and exchange small gifts in honor of the Prince of Peace.

Second, the coming of Jesus brings peace by his example of attending to the needy. Jesus gave as a mark of his authenticity his preaching to the poor and his healing of the lame, the blind, and the deaf. There will never be peace as long as people lack basic necessities. Those with means must not sit back comfortably saying how they acquired their wealth honestly. Rather, they have to address the needs of those who live on the margins of decency and those whose lives are being snuffed in gestation. In a magazine article a woman describes how she bought a green coat with red trimming at a department store close-out. Happy to find a “Christmas coat,” she went home excitedly without trying it on. When she finally did, she found it way too small. Then she had the inspiration of giving the coat to a street person she had encountered. But, she had to ask herself, was the person’s need or her own vanity behind the gift? When society realizes that the poor need more attention than paper-platefuls of food at Thanksgiving and presents at Christmas, it is on the way to social justice and peaceful living.

Finally, Jesus’ coming brings about peace as he appeals for repentance. Even non-believers should acknowledge the need to examine what they are doing and to make the necessary adjustments to conform to what they believe to be true and good. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol exemplifies this kind of corrective. Ebenezer Scrooge comes to realize that dreadful Christmas night that his penny-pinching is not bringing him happiness but misery. Graciously he changes his ways.

Before concluding, we should indicate why Jesus’ birth is especially good news for those who implicitly follow his ways. The world would be a much better place if all peoples limit their use of force, meet the needs of the poor, and correct their errors. But this does not exhaust the gospel’s message. Jesus further exhorts us to pursue his path of self-sacrificing love. Tonight we recall how he left behind his divinity to take human form. The manger in which he lies, made of wood, reminds us of the wood of his cross. He invites and, more critically, empowers us to let go of our own comforts and self-satisfaction. As results we become the inheritors of a new earth -- the kingdom of heaven.

Homilette for Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Advent

(II Samuel 7:1-5.8-12; Luke 2:67-79)

A boy returned home from school to tell his grandmother that Jesus was not born in December but in March. The date, he explained, was changed for commercial reasons. It is possible that the lad is at least partly right. No one today knows exactly when Jesus was born. It may have been during the month of March or any of the other months.

The indications that the gospels give regarding Jesus’ birthday – a census decreed by Caesar Augustus and a strangely moving star – appear to be more theological than historical markers. The Church (not Macy’s) placed the date at the end of December because this too conforms to what we believe about Christ. As Zechariah says of him in the gospel this morning, Jesus is “the dawn...that shine(s) on those in darkness and the valley of death and guide(s) our feet into the way of peace.” In other words, Jesus is like the sun that appears every morning and especially like the sun of late December that reverses, in the northern hemisphere at least, the trend of decreasing daylight throughout the latter part of the year.

Comparing Jesus to the sun helps us appreciate his significance. Just as the sun provides heat and light so Jesus provides us love and truth. Without Jesus our love would be like a firecracker that glows for a moment and then fizzles cold. Without Jesus we would wander in the darkness of sin choosing, like a dog gulping down rotten meat, what is harmful. The date on which Jesus was born is not important. What is important – indeed absolutely necessary – is that he is with us.