Disclaimer: This was a homily written for my homiletic's class in the seminary. Hopefully it can be helpful in preparing for Christmas.
Friends, happy Christmas!
On this most sacred night, radiant with the splendor of the true light: Christ our Savior is born.
Perhaps like me, you hear echoes of Charles Dickens in today’s holyday. No. Not a Christmas Carol. But a Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
Christ is born! And Christ has died and risen….but has the world really changed?
Indeed God has effected a marvelous exchange: God became poor, that we might become rich.
Our Gospel today points to a Tale of Two Kingdoms—of Two Competing Conceptions of Power. If we begin to examine them, I think we might find an answer to the change God has and is effecting in human history and in our lives today.
C.S. Lewis points out that Jesus entered the world anonymously and clandestinely--because he is a warrior slipping behind enemy lines. He enters into enemy occupied territory as a Divine Warrior. St. Luke describes in our Gospel the reign of Augustus Caesar who rules over “the whole world.” Certainly he is not hidden. In fact, he is known by everyone. He lives in peace and as Caesar is the protector of peace. And yet God, who is the Prince of Peace, who truly rules over the world comes to us in a small remote village off the beaten trail with no pomp or solemnity.
We see Caesar using his power to enroll the world. And in doing so little does he know that God’s will is being accomplished. By his decree he is moving Joseph and Mary from their hometown of Nazareth to the City of David, Bethlehem, where the Messiah is prophesized to be born.
Upon arriving in the City of David, Joseph and Mary are unable to find a place to stay; “there is no place in the inn.” Our little King—our God—is turned away. There is no room in the inn. Again we can imagine in contrast the great and mighty Caesar ruling from his comfortable palace on the Palestine Hill in Rome. And the genius of God is manifested here: Real Divine Power we are being told is above worldly power. And God uses worldly power for his end.
While the emperor is lives lavishly in Rome, as the focus point of attention there, our Lord is born in a stable, “wrapped in swaddling clothes, laying in a manger.” St. Luke is revealing to us that the power that animates the cosmos has much more to do with emptying of self that with the pampering of self. For Augustus’ home would be the most comfortable in the known world, yet the King of Kings and Prince of Peace expresses the vulnerability of God. in being born in poverty and obscurity. And this vulnerability of the Christ Child teaches us that real power comes not from the protection of the ego from danger, but the willingness to expose the ego to danger for the sake of love. For bound by no one, Augustus seems utterly free, but real freedom Luke is showing us, is enjoyed by the child who is totally bound by his Father’s will.
Lastly we see angels inviting the shepherds to adore the Christ the Lord. But we should not romanticize over the shepherds as we often do. The shepherds of those days were shady characters, unreliable and dishonest. They certainly would never be found in the emperor’s circle. But the Lord of Hosts sends his angels to invite them, sinners, to adore him. We should find comfort in this because isn’t this our experience? If we are honest we can see ourselves here. And the good news is we are invited to adore the Christ Child. And we learn throughout the Gospel that Jesus will constantly spend his time with sinners and end his life crucified to a tree between two criminals.
But what does this have to do with us and our celebration of Christmas this year? Amidst the hustle and bustle of the holidays maybe we have lost focus about the true significance of our feast. With the commercialization of Christmas the heart of our celebration can often slip through the cracks, even if unintentionally.
But Christ wants us to confidently approach him and place our lives under his rule, and if we do so he has the power to drastically change our lives. His is a rule of love and of peace and humility. It is a reign of hiddenness, vulnerability and joy. But it is as we have seen very different that Caesar’s rule or the powers that be in the world today that exist often only to oppress us. Today is born Christ our Savior! He comes to liberate us from this oppression. The oppression of isolation and of sin. He comes to draw us out of ourselves to live a life of radical vulnerability and love.
But even if our commercialization of our holyday has affected the way we celebrate the mystery of God’s birth, there are still positive signs. Signs that point both the goodness of the human heart and to the mystery of this marvelous exchange: and that is the giving of gifts. For in giving gifts to loved ones an impulse of the heart to love and communicate itself shows its face. Has commercialization though ruined this gesture of giving? For doesn’t Jesus himself say “If you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not tax collector’s and sinners do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even Gentiles do the same?” (Mt. 5:46-47)
Joseph Ratzinger points out that in fact Christmas has largely degenerated into a kind of calculated exchange and thus lost its soul. But our Christmas liturgy this evening speaks of a holy exchange of gifts initiated by God. And this exchange consists of God taking upon himself our human existence in order to bestow his divine existence on us. And thus Ratzinger points out, if we learn to see this exchange as our model of gift giving, we would practice a more human form of giving and would be concerned more with generosity that looks for no gift in return.
In the birth of God in the manger of Bethlehem, we have our first encounter with God’s saving mercy. How comforting this is for us! Amid all the self-assertiveness of this world’s power, we have the peaceful tranquility of God and thus experience a security emanating from a power that in the end will be stronger than any other force and will outlast all the loud triumphal cries of the world. “What freedom proceeds from such knowledge, and what loving kindness it contains!”
Our post-communion prayer tonight asks God that we might “catch our breathes” by means of the celebration of the birth of Christ. And amidst the hustle and bustle of decorating our homes, buying gifts and preparing meals, this is a God-send. Tonight for a brief moment, in the solitude of this holy night, we can catch our breath and take in the beauty of God’s great love for us, and find comfort that God-is-with-us. Then again, we can catch our breath, for as the world plays its power games, we know we follow the True King who uses even the power games of today’s rulers to accomplish his will. But to share in these fruits we must accept a life of hiddenness, humility and love—love that gives not only gifts to others but our own hearts.
Is this not the original Christmas gift? God has determined that on this holy night he would give his very self as man as a gift to man. The real Christmas gift to each of us is Jesus Christ himself. And thus with the Prophet Isiah, whom we heard in our first reading we can find consolation in that fact that:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. You have brought them abundant joy and rejoicing.” (Is. 9:1)
And so following our Little King we can be confident in his power to save and in his mighty love for us—a love beyond all telling. For with Christ truly it is the best of times; assuredly in Christ it is the age of wisdom, an epoch of faith, a season of light and a spring of hope. I know, all the signs point to the opposite, but tonight revealed in the obscurity of a manger, we receive the greatest Christmas gift of all: God is with us and he loves us.
Rejoicing in the birth of our Little King; brothers and sisters: happy Christmas!