Tuesday 25 December 2018: Christmas Morning
So, why Christmas?
Isaiah 62:11-12; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:15-20
By Francis L Agnoli
Roman Catholic Deacon
Context: a larger parish (~1200 families) in a small city in the rural Midwest of the United States – economically middle-class and racially homogenous (white European)
Aim: to encourage the assembly to move beyond the crèche (the familial, social, and pietistic notions of Christmas) to the cross (the call to an evangelical life of faith and justice)
I am guessing that for most of us Advent was more a frantic month of card writing and present wrapping, of baking and decorating, than a quiet time pregnant with expectation. And today promises to have its own challenges. For some, the visiting and being visited; the mad rush under the Christmas tree, the chaos around the dinner table. For others, it will be too quiet: families divided by miles, by words, or by death. So, why are we here? Are we looking for a little peace and quiet, a bit of a rest, between the rock and the hard place of our Advent and Christmas?
We call this the Mass at Dawn. Dawn. An in-between time. Not the deep dark of night, but not the full light of day, either. It has its own beauty. Deep purples giving way to blues and then reds, mists coming off the waters, a quiet stillness that holds the promise of another day. And its own dangers and challenges. Who knows what the shadows hide, between a rock and a hard place?
The scriptures, and our feast, break that stillness. Like a stone thrown into the water, the ripples disturbing our peace. Like the cry of a newborn, urging us to pay attention. The readings and the prayers we hear today make a claim: Because this baby was born in Bethlehem—the name means, House of Bread—everything is different. As the Eucharistic prayer puts it, ‘raising up in himself what was cast down he might restore unity to all creation and call straying humanity back to the heavenly Kingdom.’
Uh huh. When I look around, I am not seeing a lot of this promised unity. Some voices call for isolation, for self-interest over the common good, exalting individual opinion and ‘alternative facts’ over the truth. Others stoke the flames of hatred, of white supremacy, of an idolatrous nationalism; dehumanizing people of colour, immigrants and refugees, members of the LGBTQ community, our Muslim brothers and sisters. And still others clamour for a world rid of religion, seen as the enemy of rational thought and human freedom.
So, I guess I must ask: Does Christmas still matter? What difference does it really make?
Perhaps, but not quite…
I guess I am assuming it does, since we’re here, in church, when we could be at home, snug in our beds, with visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads.
I am guessing – I am hoping – that there’s something more to Christmas than the rush of present-buying and gift-giving; though I suppose that it does make a big difference to those in retail, to shopkeepers and seasonal workers who can only make ends meet because of the holiday rush. Before we get too judgmental, we should probably remember that the holiday shopping season can make or break a store, or a family. That candy and those cards, the wrapping paper and poinsettias, they’re a roof over someone’s head or food on someone’s table. And that’s not a bad thing at all.
I am guessing that for a lot of us Christmas has become a time to reconnect with family and friends. We send cards, maybe feeling a little guilty that we haven’t spoken since last Christmas. We plan visits, maybe feeling a little worried about the messiness that is family life. We try to look past the drama, the hurts, maybe hoping that there will be some mending. And that’s not bad, either.
Or maybe it’s the nostalgia that binds us. Recalling the decorations, passed from generation to generation. The cookies that great-grandma, and grandma, and mom used to make. The old nativity set (missing the cow) and the familiar carols, sung from memory. The red kettles and bell-ringing Santas. The sense of belonging, of being a part of something bigger, of resting in what is warm, peaceful, familiar. That’s not so bad either.
An economic boost, an opportunity to reconnect, a sense of our roots. I suppose these can all be good things. But they are not enough.
Something new has dawned
Because something new has happened. A new day has dawned; the light is just beginning to peek over the horizon. We are still in shadow, but we can begin to see more clearly. A new day is promised but isn’t in full bloom yet. Dawn is an in-between time; a time of hope. And that is where we find ourselves. I think that’s why we’re here.
The Good News
Not because of anything we’ve done or earned, as Paul reminds Titus, but because God has acted first. Moved by kindness, generous love, mercy, our saviour comes! You see, the wood of the manger will become the wood of the cross; the cross that will make us into a holy people; a redeemed people, freed from a darkness that held us prisoner; a graced people, heirs in hope of eternal life.
OK. That all sounds well and good. But where might we catch a glimpse among the shadows that this is really the case?
Our faith makes an incredible claim: this God who came to us in flesh and blood is the God who comes to us in water and oil, saving us through the bath of rebirth, renewing us by the Holy Spirit. Is the God who comes to us under the forms of bread and wine; born in the House of Bread, Jesus will become for us the Bread of Life. Is the God who comes to us still: through hands held, tears wiped, and gaze met; through words of encouragement, and of challenge; through a silence that speaks louder than words.
So, what now?
We live in the dawn; the promised Light hasn’t fully filled the sky, but it is promised. We live in the dawn; an in-between time of both light and shadow. We live in the dawn; no longer alone in the dark, frightened; no longer forsaken; but frequented by God’s presence. That’s God’s gift, God’s ‘Christmas present’ to us. But how do we receive, how do we open—as it were—this gift?
There is no magic here; but a radical—and graced—freedom to say yes, or no. And what might our ‘yes’ look like? Our gospel this morning gives us a hint. Mary and the shepherds together show us the way. We can learn from them. But, be warned: the lessons are neither quick nor easy.
With Mary, we are called to keep these things in our hearts. To stand in awe of the mystery of God taking on our humanity. To take to heart this Word that God has spoken, not as theory, but as Person. To love the hidden depths of this mystery more and more.
I am guessing that ‘awe’ is not our usual state of mind. We have no time or patience for mystery. We live overly busy lives. We are encouraged to be skeptical. To be in awe sounds too emotional, too subjective, too irrational. Or we’re convinced that God comes only in the dramatic. And certainly not in our boring lives. So please allow me to offer an invitation; well, two of them.
Here’s the first: To build our capacity for awe takes time. Time to quiet our hearts. Time to become aware of what is around us. Time in nature, where we might begin to catch a hint of the hand of the Creator in creation: In coral reef and distant quasar and the strange world of quarks; in mountain and molecule; in garden and galaxy; in flowering field and forces we can’t even imagine. God is hiding there. Time with the arts: with music, theatre, the visual arts. It’s no surprise that song and sculpture, painting and poetry, soaring domes and stained-glass windows, have found their place in our worship. Time with God in the scriptures and in prayer; and here, at Mass. Resting in the one who made us restless in the first place.
As our eyes get used to the dawn’s light—not the glaring noonday sun but the subtle, shadowy light of a hazy sunrise—we’ll begin to catch a glimpse of the divine in the day-to-day. Not always easily seen, not usually in full view, but there, caught out of the corner of our eyes.
And, with the shepherds, we are called to go in haste to where God calls us. Yes, to the House of Bread, to see the child in the manger, the Lamb on the altar. But not to stay there; not to stay here. So, here’s my second invitation: To let Christmas be a beginning, not an end.
Our call is to go from here, back—like the shepherds—to our regular lives. To work, to school, to family and friends, to society. Like the shepherds, we’ve met the Christ. And—hopefully—we’ve been changed. Changed, like the shepherds, we’re sent back. Sent to glorify and praise God. Sent to share the Good News of this God who comes to us, by what we say and in what we do.
How might our lives reveal God’s glory, God’s justice, God’s love and mercy, to those who really get under our skin? Like the co-worker who can’t seem to do anything right, or our classmate who seems to get away with anything. Or the family member who knows how to push all our buttons, especially when it comes to politics or religion.
To those persons society has – we have – thrown aside? A woman, scared, anxious, alone; and her unborn child. A black man, waiting in a store or walking down the street; hateful stares burning into his back, and soul. A toddler, dying of an incurable illness. A Honduran mother bruised and battered by her husband, and her children, threatened by gangs, huddled at our border. A teen who thinks the gun, or the needle, is the only answer.
To the rest of creation, our common home, being sacrificed on the altar of short-term gain for the rich and powerful?
If we might follow Mary and the Shepherds a little more closely in this in-between time, this time between the Cross and Christ’s final coming, then, it seems to me, the light would dawn a little more brightly. And it would, indeed, be a merrier Christmas.
. Days of the Lord: The Liturgical Year. Volume 1: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany. (1991). Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.
Bergant, Dianne and Richard Fragomeni. Preaching the New Lectionary: Year C. (2000.) Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.
Boyle, Elizabeth Michael. Preaching the Poetry of the Gospels: A Lyric Companion to the Lectionary. (2003). Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.
Brown, Raymond E. An Adult Christ at Christmas: Essays on the Three Biblical Christmas Stories Matthew 2 and Luke 2. (1978.) Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.
Nocent, Adrien. The Liturgical Year. Volume 1: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany. Introduced, emended, and annotated by Paul Turner. (2013). Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.
Norris, Kathleen. ‘Incarnation.’ In Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. (1998). New York: Riverhead Books.
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