[Christ is born! Though I’m preaching at the Russian Catholic parish on Christmas, fragments of my homily are still floating around in the murky waters of my brain and likely won’t coalesce until the Gospel is read on the feast, so I present here a Christmas homily I gave in 2003.]
A reading from the book of Wisdom, which has been taken by many to be a prophecy: “For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all powerful word leapt from heaven from the royal throne into the midst of the land that was doomed…and touched heaven while standing on the earth.”
This speaks eloquently of the mystery that we are celebrating now—of the all powerful, divine, eternal Word of God, leaping, as it were, from Heaven, from his royal throne down to Earth.
The Word of God comes from Heaven into the midst of the land that was doomed. The whole earth was doomed because of the sin of our first parents. So the Lord had to come if we were going to be saved. He took flesh and dwelled among us as one of us. He touched Heaven while standing on Earth. He touched Heaven as God, stood on Earth as man, and He came to be with us—not only to be with us and to share our poverty and misery, but to lift us out of it and to restore us to that divine image that was disfigured and obscured by centuries of sin and rejection of God.
We should reflect on this mystery of God with us and God within us, because at this point in the history of the Church we’re not just looking at God’s advance, so to speak, toward man, to come in the flesh where He could be seen and touched. Now that He has come and suffered and died and risen and ascended into heaven and sent his Spirit, He is within us and not just with us. Because of God’s presence in us, we too can touch Heaven while standing on Earth at this very moment.
When we receive his precious Body and Blood—that little bit of earth that He has transformed into Himself—we touch Heaven while standing on Earth. Any time that we connect with God and experience his mercy, his love, his providence in our lives, we touch Heaven while standing on Earth. He is with us to make all things new, as He promised in the Book of Revelation.
We should look at God coming not just to the world as such, but to each one of us personally. God comes into our hearts. He leaps from his royal throne not just to a cave in Bethlehem, but to the cave in our own hearts. And that cave is sometimes a pretty dark place. But we know, as St. John says in the prologue to his Gospel, that the light—he calls Christ the light—shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
We see in the icons of the Nativity that the cave is black. Now that is a symbol. It’s not just because caves are generally dark that it’s painted black; it’s because black in the icons is a symbol of the world unredeemed. The world as waiting for the Savior. Christ has come into that darkness, that blackness of the cave, and his light has shone forth. He comes into that cave of our hearts, into the darkness of our own hearts, to give his life-giving presence to us so that we can be in union with Him and walk with Him. Walk while we have the light, and follow Him, because He promises that whoever follows Him will not be in the darkness but will have the light of life.
Now there were a few other people that were in the dark on that cold and clear night of the first Christmas. They were the shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flock by night. Into their darkness, the darkness of that night, the angel of the Lord appeared and the glory of the Lord shone around them. That sure lit up their night! They were filled with fear, it says, when they saw this. But the angel says, “Be not afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy.”
Now we may ourselves, at the approach of God into the darkness of the cave of our own little heart, respond first of all with fear. Perhaps fear because of our sins, or fear simply because of the unknown, for God is mysterious and incomprehensible. Or perhaps fear that once we learn the truth we’re going to have to change our lives. That’s the fear I’ve seen in some people—they don’t want to go to church or they don’t want to even investigate the revelations, the claims of Christianity, because what if it’s true? If it’s true, then you have to do something about it. If it’s true, you have to change your life to conform it to the truth and to reality. So there’s a lot of fear there that all of this just might be true after all.
Well, it is true, and that’s the good news! That’s what we’re here to proclaim today and that’s what the angels were proclaiming to the shepherds. They’re saying: it’s all true! All the promises, they’re being fulfilled right now before your eyes and you guys are the first ones to see it. So they said: we’ll show you a sign, a way that you can see this mystery being fulfilled. The shepherds decided to go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened that the Lord has made known to them.
We should follow their example in seeking the Lord. See what this thing is that’s being revealed to us. See what it is that has been written about in the Scriptures and has been preached about, and what millions have lived and died for over the centuries. See what it is. This is the word of God. See why all the martyrs have given their lives for this, because this is the ultimate truth and reality, without which our lives are meaningless. We’re going to end in destruction if we don’t embrace this truth, this life, this love which God wishes to spread over the whole earth. But it starts in our hearts.
This whole mystery was so low-key that nobody knew about it, and this thing was happening in a little cave that no one was aware of, but the angels are just about bursting at the seams, ready to break out and praise God because it’s like, come on, somebody’s got to start praising God here! Everything is just so quiet and nobody even knows that He’s there. Before the shepherds even got a chance to go over to the cave, the whole multitude of angels started praising and singing to God. It was kind of a relief for them, I think, just to release it into the universe. There had to be somebody out there praising God for this great mystery.
Little by little, as people caught on, more people would come to praise God. But on that first night when nothing was yet happening in the world, when the Son of God was there in the manger, well, you just can’t keep the angels quiet at a moment like that. When the shepherds went there to see this thing that had happened, they found Mary and Joseph and the Babe lying in a manger and they knew that it was all true, because they received that word from the angel: Here is a sign for you. You will find a babe lying in a manger in swaddling clothes.
Evidently, it wasn’t the usual thing for babies to be born in caves and put in feeding troughs for animals. If everyone always did that, then it wouldn’t be a sign because, well, everybody does that. How would it be a sign that this is the Son of God and the Savior and the Messiah? So when the angel said here’s the sign, you’re going to see something that you’ve never seen before, that no one ever does, when you see that you’ll know that this is the Messiah, the Lord and Savior of the world.
Now meanwhile, Mary is keeping all of these things, pondering them in her heart. This is another dimension, a precious dimension, something really characteristic of the celebration of Christmas. You see the angels singing and the shepherds kind of scratching their heads but finally getting it, and then Mary, pondering, treasuring in her heart, keeping quiet herself about this. Christmas is a feast like that. It’s a kind of contemplative feast. There’s a certain quiet joy about it, a peace. Something that just brings you to a place of inner silence, meditation and contemplation. And the whole time of Advent is like that too, where we enter into a spirit of expectation, of longing, of hope, of just looking for Him who is to come.
It’s quite unlike Lent, where we spend most of the time accusing and scourging ourselves all through the liturgy of those days. Then we get to be slaughtered with Christ and finally even raised up at the end. It’s kind of a harrowing experience. But the Advent and Christmas thing is a little more mellow and quiet and contemplative, and I prefer that, frankly. Mary gives us the example, as the one who ponders things in her heart, who treasures the mystery quietly, prayerfully, seeing all these manifestations of God unfold before her very eyes and treasuring it as the precious gift that it is.
There are two dimensions of this mystery: right now in the Liturgy we’re singing with the angels who cannot restrain themselves from giving glory to God when they see that his mystery is being manifested. So that is our liturgical celebration. But there are going to be other times during these holy days, when we’re going to go into the silence. Then it will be time to really treasure these things in our hearts and reflect on them and be there in the silence of the cave of our own heart, where Christ has chosen to come from Heaven, to enter into that cave and to bring light into the darkness and peace into the turmoil, and to banish all fear and anxiety and anything that can create an obstacle between us and God, who loves us and who has become man to save us.
So let us all also now, as we come to the altar of God, the God of our joy, as we come to receive that gift of the heavenly fruit of his Incarnation, the precious Body and Blood in the divine Eucharist, let us come to receive Him and worship Him like the shepherds, the angels, the magi, his Mother and St Joseph. As we receive this divine gift from Heaven, let us realize even now that Christ is in our midst, God is with us, God is within us, and we too, while standing on Earth, can touch Heaven.
Christ is born!