Christmas Eve – Mass at Night
Dignity/Northern Virginia (at Immanuel Church on the Hill, Arlington, VA)
December 24, 2007
Yesterday I was speaking with a friend who is traveling this Christmas, visiting family. He knew I would be standing here this evening and he asked how my preparation was going, if I had my homiletic thoughts together. I told him that I had a few “thematic ideas” in mind, but that I didn’t have a good story or illustration to open with … after all, a good homilist, a good preacher always has a good story to tell, right?
Well, he then asked me what the scripture readings were, and I told him briefly about the gospel passage we just heard – about this passage from Luke where Mary and Joseph have traveled to Bethlehem because of the Roman census, how there’s no room for them where travelers stay, how the birth of Jesus takes place where animals are kept, and how this good news is shared by an angel with shepherds in the surrounding area.
There was this brief pause … and then he simply said, “well, isn’t THAT the story?” Of course, he was right. THE story for us to focus on and to reflect upon this Christmas night IS indeed the story of the birth of Jesus.
And so it’s good that we are gathered here in the quiet and stillness of this place – this place whose very name – Immanuel / God with us – is so closely connected with the celebration of Christmas – to pause at the end of whatever holiday preparations we’ve been pre-occupied with these past weeks, and before whatever busy or not-so-busy day lies ahead of us tomorrow – it’s good for us to pause and reflect on what the story we just heard really is all about.
Yesterday I happened to catch part of a show on the History Channel that was about this very subject – trying to understand what Christmas is all about. It was followed by another show that chronicled some of the various ways in which Christmas has been celebrated socially and culturally here in the United States, but this first show’s focus was on the “Jesus of the Bible” and interviewed theologians and biblical historians who were discussing what we really know about the historical facts surrounding the birth of Jesus. Although there are certain discrepancies between the accounts presented by Matthew and Luke, and also some historical inaccuracies in their accounts about what actually happened over 2,000 years ago, we come here this evening not as students of history, but as people of faith who believe that this rather unremarkable event (it was, after all, simply the every-day occurrence of a birth of a child), in an out-of-the-way and quite unremarkable place, involving relatively simple and unremarkable people, at a time so far removed from our own ….yet somehow this event still has meaning for us here in our 21st century world.
One of the ways we can get at that meaning is to think about what we call this feast that we celebrate. Certainly it is called “Christmas” – but that word, which is rooted in Old and Middle English and which literally means “Christ’s mass” – doesn’t really tell us much, does it? As the Gospel reading we just heard spoke of a birth, the birth of Christ, we also call this the feast of the Nativity, and so that gives us a little bit more to go on. But the word that I think means the most and that I believe has the strongest implications for us a people of faith — is to speak of this celebration as the feast of the Incarnation. Christmas is the celebration of the coming of Christ, in time, into our world; it is the celebration of God becoming Incarnate – the “enfleshment” – of full divinity in full humanity. That, in itself, is almost incredible. Do we really believe and take to heart the fact that God – the Creator and source of all Being – chose to come among us, the created, to know our human life, to live and breathe walk and cry and love as one like us, like us who live and breathe and walk and cry and love? And if we do believe that, then does this belief cause us to live our lives in a way that is any different from how we would live if this event hadn’t taken place?
The second History Channel show I mentioned noted that one of the more recent developments in the way that Christmas is celebrated is with the practice of gift-giving. Without getting into the discussions about the over-commercialization of Christmas, I think there’s something about this practice that helps us embrace the deeper meaning of this day. In gift-giving, there are always two parties – the one who gives, and the one who receives.
In the Incarnation, God gifts us not with a new sweater or an in-edible fruitcake or a new 52” flat-screen HDTV – no, God gifts us with God’s very Self. That’s the “what” in this equation, but in the Incarnation, the “how” is just as important as the “What.” What are the circumstances of how this Gift of God’s very Self comes into our World? God does not come barging into the world or our lives with earthly power and might and force. God does not become Incarnate as one who can command armies or exert commercial or political power. On the contrary, the divine presence comes in a truly helpless human infant, a newborn child who is vulnerable and utterly dependent on others.
If Christ is both the Giver and the Gift of Christmas – then we, like anyone to whom a gift is offered, have a choice to make – and that choice is either to accept it or reject it. Acceptance or rejection — what will it be? Mary and Joseph were the first to whom this Gift of God’s very self was given. Mary accepted the gift into her very body and being; Joseph accepted the gift into his heart and home.
We come together this evening as individuals and as a community who know both what it means to be accepted and what it means to be rejected. Most of us have probably been met with varying degrees of acceptance or rejection from family and friends. In so many ways the wider Christian community and the political structures of our day reject us, not because of anything we’ve done, but simply because of who we are. Fortunately, there are places like this community and other “islands of acceptance” in our lives where we are able to experience the acceptance and love of God, a love and acceptance made flesh in one another.
If that gift of acceptance has been given to us, are we not also called to extend it to all others whom we can so easily turn away from and forget? Are we too, not called to bear the gift of Christmas to the poor, the outcast, the foreigner, the imprisoned, the despised?
Allow me to end with what I found to be a very poignant thought about Christmas by Thomas Merton – the famous Trappist monk. Merton once observed that Christ came into this world uninvited, and when he came into this world, there was no place for him, no room for him. And because, in a certain sense, Christ is “out of place” in this world… Christ’s “place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, excommunicated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.”