Fr. Roger J. Landry
Sacred Heart Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Mass of December 23
December 23, 2016
Mal 3:1-4.23-24, Ps 25, Lk 1:57-66
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click here:
The following points were attempted in this homily:
- Today’s Mass can be framed by what we pray in the Responsorial Psalm: “Lift up your heads and see: your Redemption is near at hand.” Today is a time to lift our heads, to lift up our hearts, to lift up our hands and raise our voices not just because the celebration of the birth of our Redeemer is less than two days away but because our Redeemer is coming. Today’s O Antiphon helps us to get ready to embrace him. It’s the same Antiphon* we pondered yesterday, O Rex gentium et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti. “O King and Desired One of the Nations, O Cornerstone who makes one from both (who unites the house of Israel with all the nations): come and save the human person whom you formed from the clay.” We lift up our heads and see Christ as the cornerstone who makes both one. That can describe how Jesus unites both Jews and Gentiles, but it is also meant to point to how Jesus came to help make us all one just as he and the Father are one in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
- One of the most important sources of unity that needs to occur is intergenerational. In the first reading, the Prophet Malachi announces the mission of John the Baptist, the new Elijah, and the Messiah to whom he would point. About John, God says, “Lo, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me … to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” The mission of the precursor was to prepare the way and the day of the Lord, who, as the O Antiphon says, would seek to reunite us as one family. Malachi talks about intergenerational reunion that begins not just with dry duties of familial piety and an extrinsic obedience to the fourth commandment, but something altogether full of love, that the hearts of parents and the hearts of kids would be turned lovingly toward each other. That’s one of the things that the Lord wants to have happen at every Christmas, that children, parents, grandparents, great grandparents, extended families all come together to be reunited in worshipping the “Desired of the nations,” in building their lives on him the cornerstone. We know that the disunity that happens in families occurs because of sin, when people choose to act as gods or want to be treated as gods, determining the law. That’s why Jesus said he had come to bring not peace but the sword and that families would be divided three against two, parents against children, children against parents. This was not because Jesus came to divide — quite the opposite, he came to bring peace and unity — but when some members of the family place him first and other members of the family don’t, desiring themselves to be first, division ensues. The work of John the Baptist in calling us to conversion is summoning us to this intergenerational reconciliation. How important this is for forming a culture of life and a civilization of love, because the culture of death begins with discarding rather than loving family members. Parents make the choice ultimately not to embrace their children before birth or children make the choice not to care for their parents at the end of life. The message of Christmas, the living out of the Incarnation, begins with this intergenerational love announced by God through his prophets and perfected by Christ.
- The mission of Christ to whom John points is found in the heart of this passage from the Prophet Malachi. The Messiah — “the Lord whom you seek” who would “suddenly … come to the temple” — would be “like a refiner’s fire, … refining and purifying silver. … He will purify the sons of Levi, refining them like gold or silver that they may offer due sacrifices to the Lord.” Jesus’ essential work in us whom he “formed from the clay” (O Antiphon) is purify the treasure we hold in clay vessels (2 Cor 4:7). We’re gold, in other words. We’re precious. That’s the way we were made, and even more powerfully that’s the way we’ve been remade to hold God himself within as our treasure. Over the course of time, however, we’ve become full of impurities. We were made “very good” but we’ve become morally bad, and some very morally bad. But Christ doesn’t leave us there. He comes to purify us, to burn off the dross, to “reform us … even more wondrously” than the wondrous way he created us — as we’ll pray at Mass on Christmas morning — so that in fact we may build our entire life on him the secure cornerstone.
- That process of purification is implicitly alluded to in today’s Gospel scene. At a superficial level, the reason why we have the birth and naming of St. John the Baptist two days before Christmas is that, historically, it preceded the birth of Christ, and since December 17, we have been traversing all of the proximate historical events of that first Advent. But the birth and naming of the precursor both point to the birth and naming of the one John came to announce, Jesus. If at John’s birth, people wondered, “What, then, will this child become?,” how much more at Jesus’ wondrous birth in the stable in Bethlehem will people ask that question. That wonder has forever been immortalized in one of our familiar Christmas hymns, “What child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping? Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping?”
- Likewise everyone was amazed at the naming of John. Everybody presumed he would be named Zach junior and was shocked when St. Elizabeth told them he would be named John, since no one in his extended family had that name and it was the custom to name children after admired relatives. Since the husband and father had all the cultural rights at the time, they asked the muted Zechariah to indicate if he accepted the name and he famously wrote, “John is his name.” All were amazed not just at the surprising switch of names but at what the name John means: “God is gracious,” or even more precisely, “God does grace,” God gives us grace. Grace is not a thing, but a relationship, our participation as creatures in God’s own life. John’s name itself was a prophecy of what would come from the Messiah he would foretell: The Messiah would “do grace” and give us a participation in his life. As this Christmas Day prayer announced above that is retained in the present offertory prayer indicates to us, by his taking on our humanity, God has made it possible for us to share in his divinity. He has refined and purified us in his mercy so that we might be made the fitting abode of his holiness.
- And so as we look from the naming of John to the naming of Jesus, we see precisely how this happens. The prophet Isaiah and the angel had announced that the child of Mary would be called “Emmanuel” and “Jesus,” respectively “God-with-us” and “God-saves.” Jesus was coming to “do grace,” to make us sharers in the divine nature, and the way he would do that is by saving us from our sins, by refining our gold in the fire of his merciful love. Especially during this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy that the Church began on December 8, we’re called to enter into that fire, submerge ourselves into that refining mercy, and allow God to burn away from us everything that is unfit for communion with him, everything unworthy of his dignity. There’s a famous Christmas scene in the life of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the 17th century Visitation nun to whom Jesus revealed his Sacred Heart. On the third day of Christmas in 1673, she felt Jesus mystically remove her heart from her breast for a moment, submerge it within his sacred heart all aflame, purify it completely, and then return it to her breast, so that her heart would thereafter burn in loving synchrony with his own. That’s what he wishes to do in some way in every believer at Christmas.
- But the difficulty is that many of us are afraid of God’s fire. We’re afraid of being “burned.” We prefer to stay as we are than risk having to give up something to which we’re attached. We think following Christ fully might burn away part of our ourselves, of our freedom, of certain good experiences. Yet at the same time, we’re drawn to warmth and light of the fire of Christ’s heart. We yearn to be made new. We want to be purified. So while we’re afraid, we’re also know in order to gain everything, we must lose something, we must make a leap of faith, and allow God to purify tarnished gold we bear. God knows this, loves us and wants to help us. He doesn’t want to destroy us, but to refine us. He does this first by his becoming one of us, but then perfects that work by bringing us to the fire of Calvary, to the bonfire of his love on the Cross, leading us through his suffering and death to the joy of his new, risen life. That is the way he “even more marvelously restores” us. But we have to be courageous to follow him through flames of Golgotha, which is what we call the process of conversion and the pursuit of holiness. Just like an athlete allows his or her muscles to burn in training, so each of us is called to do similar spiritual exercises, knowing that it is through that pain we will gain all.
- And Jesus does that work most of all here at Mass. As we come forward today to receive within us the Desideratus gentium, the long desired of all peoples, we ask him to “do grace” in us, to help us to build our life on him the cornerstone, and to wondrously remake us, our families, our communities, the Church, and the world, to be the gold he intended us always to be and bringing us through this holy Communion into one body, one Spirit in him! With the help of John the Baptist, each other, and all our Catholic spiritual siblings, we prepare to welcome Jesus as he wants to be received, as a Refining Fire. The famous Syrian deacon of the early Church, St. Ephrem, used to say that when whoever consumes Jesus in Holy Communion with faith, consumes “fire and Spirit.” Let us open ourselves up to the fire Jesus is, the fire that he brings at Christmas and at every Mass, the fire that even more wondrously recreates us, so that, ignited by him in a loving communion, we may go out to set the world ablaze with the fire of divine love.
**Why do we have the same one two days in a row? The answer to that question is good for us to know so that we can intensify our Advent each year. The ancient O Antiphons are used principally to frame the Magnificat in Vespers each night in the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours. Vespers preserves the original order of the seven O Antiphons: O Sapientia (Wisdom, Dec 17), O Adonai (Lord and leader of the house of Israel, Dec 18), O Radix Iesse (Root of Jesse, Dec 19), O Clavis David (O Key of David, Dec 20), O Oriens (O Rising Sun, Dec 21), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations, Dec 22), O Emmanuel (O God-with-us, Dec 23). There is no O Antiphon for Vespers on December 24, because it is first Vespers of the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord. When the O Antiphon started to get used for the Gospel verses, however, there was a problem, because there is Mass on Christmas Eve morning, meaning that there is a need for eight of them. So what was eventually done was a reorganization of the O Antiphons so that they would best correspond to the readings being given to us each day at Mass. While the first four days are the same (Dec 17-20), the Mass liturgies change the order of the others: O Rex Gentium is not only said on December 22 but repeated on December 23, O Emmanuel is moved from December 23 to December 21, and O Oriens is moved from December 21 to December 24, so that the words “illumine those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death” will correspond to the words of Zechariah’s canticle in the Gospel. (I explain all of this to you because if you search on the internet for an explanation of the divergence between O Antiphons at Vespers and at Mass, you really won’t find one, and inquiring minds want to know!) But because the O Antiphons have been reorganized to accord more closely with the readings of the last four days before Christmas, they do provide a very useful interpretative key. We can see that again today.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 mal 3:1-4, 23-24
Lo, I am sending my messenger
to prepare the way before me;
And suddenly there will come to the temple
the LORD whom you seek,
And the messenger of the covenant whom you desire.
Yes, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.
But who will endure the day of his coming?
And who can stand when he appears?
For he is like the refiner’s fire,
or like the fuller’s lye.
He will sit refining and purifying silver,
and he will purify the sons of Levi,
Refining them like gold or like silver
that they may offer due sacrifice to the LORD.
Then the sacrifice of Judah and Jerusalem
will please the LORD,
as in the days of old, as in years gone by.
Elijah, the prophet,
Before the day of the LORD comes,
the great and terrible day,
To turn the hearts of the fathers to their children,
and the hearts of the children to their fathers,
Lest I come and strike
the land with doom.
Responsorial Psalm ps 25:4-5ab, 8-9, 10 and 14
Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;
teach me your paths,
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my savior.
R. Lift up your heads and see; your redemption is near at hand.
Good and upright is the LORD;
thus he shows sinners the way.
He guides the humble to justice,
he teaches the humble his way.
R. Lift up your heads and see; your redemption is near at hand.
All the paths of the LORD are kindness and constancy
toward those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
The friendship of the LORD is with those who fear him,
and his covenant, for their instruction.
R. Lift up your heads and see; your redemption is near at hand.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
O King of all nations and keystone of the Church;
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel lk 1:57-66
she gave birth to a son.
Her neighbors and relatives heard
that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her,
and they rejoiced with her.
When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child,
they were going to call him Zechariah after his father,
but his mother said in reply,
“No. He will be called John.”
But they answered her,
“There is no one among your relatives who has this name.”
So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called.
He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,”
and all were amazed.
Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed,
and he spoke blessing God.
Then fear came upon all their neighbors,
and all these matters were discussed
throughout the hill country of Judea.
All who heard these things took them to heart, saying,
“What, then, will this child be?
For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.”