Homily for Christmas 2011
(Homily for Christmas Eve Liturgy with a Catholic intentional community in Bonita Springs, FL)
When your pastor called and asked me to stand in for him at this very special celebration of the Christian year, I must admit I had a mixed internal response. First, he called when I was taking a short “Tim time” vacation, and so his call caught me a little off guard. On the one hand I was happy and pleased and willing to help, but I also thought, “who am I to preach to this group”? In Christian and most faith communities that have some sort of sermon or homily as part of their communal prayer, that sermon or homily is best when it speaks to the concrete circumstances of the community. That was true throughout the Scriptures that we proclaim each week – both Hebrew and Christian. The Scriptures we read were written not for some generic audience unknown to the author, but on the contrary were intended for a very particular group of people in a very particular time and place and facing very particular circumstances. To underscore this, we simply need to look at the letters of St Paul, which are clearly addressed either to individuals or mostly to relatively small communities of people. We all know how much we dislike getting “junk mail” or “spam” which is not addressed to us as individuals, or as part of a group we belong to. And we especially dislike it because it’s certainly not from anyone who knows us, our hopes, our struggles, our successes, or our lives.
And so it was for this reason that I felt a little awkward knowing that my “yes” to that request would involve doing what I’m doing now … knowing full well that probably any one of you could probably deliver a more appropriate, more timely and more relevant reflection on this feast of Christmas than I could. …. Any takers???
Earlier this week, your pastor called me again and asked what readings I’d like to use – Christmas being a bit unique in that we have four Masses and corresponding Scripture readings, though they are linked to the time of day that the feast is celebrated. I looked at the readings for the Vigil Mass and the Mass at Night/Midnight, knowing full well that we’ve all probably heard ALL of the readings associated with Christmas more times than we care to remember. We’ve all heard the long genealogy from Matthew, which goes to such great lengths to make sure we know Jesus is a descendant of David. We’ve heard the readings from the liturgy at dawn in which Luke’s angels proclaim to shepherds that a wonderful birth has taken place; and certainly we’ve all heard the beginning of John’s Gospel where we hear that poetic introduction, “In the beginning was the Word…” And so, as I looked at the options, I almost impulsively suggested that we use the ones we just heard, which are in fact the readings for the Mass at Midnight.
What struck me was the first line from that first reading: “A people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
Christmas fundamentally is the celebration of our unique Christian belief that God is present not simply in some spiritualized “out there” kind of way, but that God – in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – became present in human life and human history in the most intimate way possible … by becoming one of us. Christmas is the celebration of God’s presence in all aspects and absolutely every dimension of life: Present in all of Creation, but most especially in each and every human person – young, old; black, white; male, female; gay, straight; rich, poor; documented, undocumented; Christian, Muslim, Jew; atheist, believer – whatever labels or categories or dichotomies we can think of, none of them diminish that belief. And yes, despite rumors to the contrary, God is even present in a few bishops!
This was in the back of my mind when that read that opening line from the Prophet Isaiah, and I think it struck me for a couple of reasons. “A people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” First, we all know what it’s like to be in darkness. The countless darknesses and burdens of human life are too numerous to mention. Collective and social darknesses such as war and violence and poverty and exclusion and discrimination – you know as well as I how much these burden our world. More personally, I daresay each one of us could come up with a list of those darknesses in our own lives that hinder us from seeing that Presence of God which Christmas reminds us of.
But what jumped at me most of all was this: Isaiah doesn’t say the people were stuck in the darkness, or that they languished in the darkness or that they became embittered in the darkness. No … the prophet says they were walking in the darkness. In some way that may seem counterintuitive, and maybe even a dangerous and treacherous, bringing, as it does, the possibility of stumbling and falling in the midst of darkness. But it especially challenges us in that no matter where we find ourselves – even in what might seem like the darkest of times – our task and our challenge is to keep moving. No matter what darknesses may be around us today – in our own lives, our communities, our country, our world, our church – the important thing is that we keep walking, that we keep moving forward, that we continue to seek that Light which Isaiah also says is the source of abundant joy and rejoicing.
Let me end by sharing another scripture passage that speaks of darkness and light. While instilling great hope within us, may it also reminds us of the journey that lies ahead, leading us to the fullness of what this night assures us is already ours: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Merry Christmas, and may the peace of the Babe of Bethlehem, the Crucified Christ, be yours now and always!