The Nativity of the Lord (Christmas) Vigil Mass
Isaiah 62:1-5; Acts 13:16-17, 22-25; Matthew 1:1-25
“‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’” [Matthew 1:23 NABRE]. There, in that brief verse that we from Matthew, is the most important thing that makes Christianity different from other faiths. God not only comes to us, but he lived like us, shared our joys and pains with us, and died like us. In so doing, when on Easter he rises and transcends the bonds that the world puts upon us, he frees us from those bonds that hold back us as well. Thus Christmas becomes a most blessed celebration, and we look on the Lord our God afresh at the time it all started, and rejoice in it.
Christmas is a time of gratitude and of hope. Of course we should be thankful and hopeful at all times of the year, but I think it is good to have this time of year to reflect on our many gifts, past, present, and future. It has been my experience that gratitude and hope are most often clouded in a person when it is replaced by fear. Now fear can take many forms, but in America, where there is so much affluence, it is usually not that we won't get our basic needs met – that is a real fear in many poorer countries, but not ours. No, it is a fear of what others will think about us, might say about us to others, how they rank our successes.
Christmas is the antidote to this. God not only came to be a part of his creation, but the way he did so, to a poor family in a poor region of Israel, in a lowly way, was not an accident, but a statement. Jesus will throughout his ministry constantly reinforce this message of hope to all people who are in want. He did not rail against the government – he told everyone to give to Caesar, the Roman rulers at the time – what belongs to Caesar. He did not urge a social revolution – he warned against the dangers of wealth, those pitfalls of affluence that I mentioned before – but welcomed the rich to his ministry, such as the tax collector Matthew. He did not advocate change in religious practices – he demonstrated against the perversion of them, such as the money changers in the temple – but prayed in the synagogue and temple like all other Jews at the time. Jesus of Nazareth was not a political or social revolutionary, as many thought the Messiah would be.
Christ came not to change humanity in their collective institutions but to change the individual – me and you. The period we just ended, Advent, was a time of preparation of our hearts and minds to be ready to receive Christ. We are now, hopefully, ready to receive him and be changed by him. The whole of the Old and New Testaments comes down to this: God created us to love him, and wants to be with us. He wants to join us in our journey through life. He wants to share our joy, both in good times and in bad. But he gave us free will, so he will not force this upon us: we need to want it and welcome him in. The Father sent the Son to not only tell us this, but to demonstrate it in action, up to the point of death. But that is Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Today we celebrate how it began.
I can't claim to have done a scientific study, but it seems to me that the happiest people that I meet are those that have found something special in their relationship to God. The saints all had a joy that was evident, and their vocation in life sustained them through the ups and downs this world presents us. Those people who are unhappiest are continually trying to find happiness in things they can acquire on their own: typically money or power. And they never find what they truly want: a joyful life, at least for any length of time, since the happiness that money or power afford are fleeting.
Father Joly in our recent parish mission had an interesting way of phrasing this phenomenon. He said that the way to unhappiness is to try to be productive, using our own will to try to make our own way to happiness. The way to happiness, the way of Mary and Joseph, was to be fruitful, being conduits of God's will to use the gifts we are given to show the love we have of others. Stories abound of people that seem joyful based on their productivity in acquiring many possessions – social media encourages this – only to find out they are in reality miserable, depressed, or suicidal. No, the truly joyful people are the ones that are thankful for the gifts they have and have a love for those around them. This is what God made us for: to be fruitful.
This Christmas, let us resolve to truly invite God into our lives. He left us the sacraments so that we can continually encounter his grace on a regular basis, and be drawn back from our sinful tendencies into a God-centered faith that brings true joy. Let our hymn, “O come, O come Emmanuel” be a heartfelt invitation to God to transform our lives and give them true meaning. Let our New Year's resolutions acknowledge our past failures to try to go it alone and be productive, and instead ask God to guide us and be with us as we make our fruitful journey to eternal joy in his presence.
I wish everyone here true joy of this Christmas season. I wish you the joy of Christ's presence in the Eucharist we are about to receive. I wish you joy in finding your true calling in the love of God and one another. On behalf of the staff of Saint James, I would like to wish everyone a blessed Christmas.