Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Vigil: Is 62:1-5; Acts 13:16-17,22-25; Mt 1:18-25
Midnight: Is 9:1-6; Tit2:11-14; Lk 2:1-14
Dawn: Is 62:11-12; Tit3:4-7; Lk 2:15-20
Day: Is 52:7-10; Heb1:1-6; Jn1:1-18
1) It is one of the great joys of my life to be able to celebrate Christmas here with you in this our extremely beautiful Church dedicated to God through the intercession of St. Anthony of Padua. In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah tells us: “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.” We, in this Church, will be able to see and enjoy that great light — a symbol of Christ, the Light of the World — here as we illuminate the 5500 lights of this Church. Throughout the world, Christians will be singing “Angels we have Heard on High!” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Here we are able to see those angels — 26 of them over eight feet tall, six of them over 10 feet tall, and more than one hundred others — announcing to us the “good news of great joy for all the people” that they proclaimed for the first time to the Shepherds in Bethlehem. They are visible reminders to us that all that we hear in the Gospels about Jesus’ birth in the city of David is true. God really did love us so much that he became one of us, Emmanuel (God-with-us). He entered fully into the world he created and into our human condition so that he could both redeem us and the world. There was nothing he was unwilling to do to save us. We see this in the mystery we celebrate tonight.
2) God had prepared the Jewish people for the coming of the Messiah, but no Jew had ever come close to imagining that the Messiah would be their God, the Son of the Eternal Father. No Jew could ever have imagined that the Lord would go so far, as St. Paul wrote in his beautiful hymn to the Philippians, to “empty himself taking on the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of man” (Phil 2:6-7). God’s condescension knew no limits. Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Son of David, the one who will reign forever, is not born in a palace, but in rock-hewn animal stable. Rather than having a floor of marble, he had dirt. Instead of a throne or a princely crib, he was placed in a trough from which animals were accustomed to eat. Rather than being clothed in fine royal linens, he was wrapped in poor swaddling clothes. Rather than the perfumes and incense common to middle-eastern homes, he was surrounded by the smells of animals and what they leave behind. So often we can sentimentalize and romanticize the scene in Bethlehem by gazing at the gorgeous figurines in our beautiful Christmas crèches, but then we would miss the incredible humility of God, who divested himself of all majesty to be born in such poverty that by his poverty we might indeed become rich (cf. 2 Cor 8:9). Moreover, as we know, his birth was just the beginning of this shockingly humble life. He, through whom all things were made, would be hunted down by assassins while he still nursed, be an illegal immigrant in Egypt before he could walk, and a quiet boy, teenager and young simple carpenter in Nazareth until his hour had come. When his hour did come, he would take off his humble robes, cover himself with a towel and wash our feet. Then he would be betrayed by one of his closest followers, framed by the leaders of the people he had formed for centuries, be less wanted than the murderer Barabbas, and hammered to a Cross between two thieves by soldiers he had formed in their mothers’ wombs. As Archbishop Sheen used to say, he was born in a stranger’s cave and buried in a stranger’s grave.
3) His whole life was one of tremendous abasement. Why did he go so low? After all, he could have come down as an adult on the clouds of heaven, surrounded by heavenly majesty, such that no one would ever have been able not to realize who he was, but he chose to come down as a little baby being born in the meanest of circumstances. Why? First, because he wanted to undergo everything we do, being conceived in a womb and grow — which shows the inalienable dignity of every child in a mother’s womb — and being born as a helpless little child, just as you and I were, to save all of human life. But there was another reason. He went so low so that none of us would ever be able to say that we were intimidated by him or afraid. If we’re poor, he was just as poor. If we’re homeless, so was he. If we think we’re helpless, he, the God-man, was a helpless little baby. And the only worthy response to a helpless baby is love. As Pope Benedict preached just a few hours ago in the Vatican: “God is so great that he can become small. God is so powerful that he can make himself vulnerable and come to us as a defenseless child, so that we can love him. God is so good that he can give up his divine splendor and come down to a stable, so that we might find him, so that his goodness might touch us, give itself to us and continue to work through us. This is Christmas…. God has become one of us, so that we can be with him and become like him. As a sign, he chose the Child lying in the manger: this is how God is. This is how we come to know him.”
4) The centerpiece of this Church, right above Jesus’ presence in the tabernacle, is our famous Vision of St. Anthony. It details the time when, after preaching an exhausting mission, St. Anthony returned to pray in a tree house built for him by a rich friend. He climbed up to his elevated hermitage and, as he did each time he ascended the tree, united himself to Christ on the Tree of Life which is the Cross. During his wearied meditation that evening, he knelt down and began to pray over the word of God in Sacred Scripture. All of a sudden, the Word became flesh. Jesus took on the form of a baby and came down to St. Anthony much like a child would gently and playfully tossed for one to catch. St. Anthony caught his infant Savior and embraced Him with great love, and the Christ child embraced him back. Of course, Jesus could have come to St. Anthony as a 33 year old blood-soaked crucified man, but I think we’d all agree that it’s easier to hug a little baby! His rich host, Count Tiso, saw an incredible radiance emanating from the Tree House and at first thought that the house was on fire. But it was only St. Anthony who was on fire, fire of love for God. Since that time, St. Anthony has always been depicted not with the book of Sacred Scripture, of which he was his generation’s supreme expert. He’s not depicted with the thousands of lost items that he has found for each of us when we’ve sought his help. He’s shown with the baby Jesus. And, as we see in the beautiful statue in the sanctuary, after he’s embraced Jesus, he turns to present him to us, so that we, like Him, may cuddle the child with joy and be clasped by that child in love.
5) Jesus came into our world as a little baby so that we might respond to him as we do to a baby. About a year and a half ago on Martha’s Vineyard, Fr. Michael Nagle awoke at about 5:30 am to discover a baby boy, less than one day old, on the steps of the parish Church of St. Augustine. The child had been left there by his mother, presumably because the scared woman knew that there her baby stood the best chance of being taken in. Whatever Fr. Nagle’s plans were that day, they all changed. His morning coffee, his preparation for his daily homily, his perusal of the newspaper — all were put on the back burner. Newborn babies have a way of doing that to others. He immediately had to change his priorities to care for the needs of the child. The child was taken to Mass General to be cared for and then, because of the publicity, had scores of couples seeking to adopt him. One of the reasons Jesus came as a baby was to change our priorities. It’s so easy, sometimes, to ignore adults; we can tell ourselves that they can, and should, help themselves. But we can’t do that with a little baby. As every parent in this Church knows, a baby begins to take over an adult’s life. The child forces a change in one’s sleeping patterns, spending patterns, even talking patterns. Jesus, at Christmas, wants to have the same impact on us. He wants to change our sleeping patterns and get us to get up maybe fifteen minutes earlier so that we can pray every morning. He wants to change our spending patterns, so that we give more of our money to caring for others and helping Him grow in others. He wants to change our talking patterns, so that we talk to him more, talk about him more, and talk in a way that brings him glory.
6) On that first Christmas, the reactions to Jesus were so varied. We start with the dark side, the people who continued to walk in darkness. In the saddest line in human history, St. Luke says, “there was no room for him in the inn.” The inn-keepers had no room for their Creator! Even though Jews, like all Middle-Eastern people, are called by culture, religion and tradition to welcome strangers, no one welcomed Joseph, Mary and the king whom Mary was carrying in her womb. Even though Joseph was a relative of many of the people in Bethlehem, King David’s birth place, not even his relatives took him in. They were all so busy with everything else they were doing — which doubtless they thought far more important, far more pressing, far more life-changing — that they had no room for the Lord in the inn, no room for him in their lives. It’s not that these people were malevolent like King Herod, who would seek to the kill the child. They, rather, just wanted to ignore Him. They were all too busy for God. Those inn-keepers are not an extinct species. There still are many people who are so caught up in so many other activities that they have no room in their lives for Jesus. If there’s anyone here tonight who has not been regularly practicing the faith, the child Jesus is standing at the door of your heart and knocking with tiny hands. May you, as Pope John Paul II never tired to exhort you, “Open wide the doors of your heart to Christ!”
7) The second reaction was that of the Shepherds, the Magi, and Mary and Joseph. As soon as the Angels announced to the Shepherds in the middle of the night the “good news of great joy,” off they went. “Let us go NOW to Bethlehem,” they said to each other, leaving their sheep to go find the neonatal Good Shepherd. They left immediately, because they knew it was the most important thing of all, the “pearl of great price” (Mt 13:46), worth selling everything else to obtain. When they had found him, they adored him. Then, after having spoken with Mary and Joseph, they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” They came back, in other words, spreading the good news. All of us are called to do the same. The Magi did even more. They came from a far-away land. They were searchers, searching the heavens for God with such zeal and care that they were able to detect his coming presence in the light of a bright star. Their journey doubtless took a long time — probably over a year’s journey — yet they came, fell down, and worshipped the newborn king of the Jews, giving him as gifts the best they had. We, too, are called to give God, not our surplus affection, time and talent, but the best we have. The response of Mary and Joseph went even beyond this. They centered their whole lives around the Lord, the baby of whom God the Father had given them custody. If we wish to share their joy, we need to follow their lead.
8 ) There’s an ancient legend, very popular in the Holy Land still to this day, that the Shepherds had done such a great job of spreading the “good news of great joy” and the Magi had made such a commotion by their coming with all their fancy and expensive gifts that soon many of the poor people in the surrounding countryside were coming to pay Jesus homage and bring him gifts. So many were trying to hand Mary gifts that she didn’t know what to do with her infant and Savior whom she was holding in her hands. She turned and saw a little shepherd boy whose hands were empty, so she took the child Jesus and placed Him in his arms. Tonight, Mary takes that same Child and wants to place Him in our arms. She wants us to receive the joy that she had that Christmas night, when not only she gave birth to a Son, but when she held in her arms God-himself, the Savior of the World.
9) Tonight, this beautiful Church is a modern Bethlehem. With all its beauty, it was constructed to call our attention to something that is even greater than Christmas, because it continues and intensifies the mystery of God-with-us: The mystery of Christ in the Eucharist. The same Jesus who adored by the animals, the shepherds, the Magi and the angels comes down on this altar in Holy Communion. The same Jesus who was placed in the manger will be placed in our hands and in our mouths. The Angels are here to announce this great joy with trumpet blasts. St. Anthony is here encouraging us to embrace with love the Word made flesh. The Blessed Mother is here, placing Jesus into our arms, into our lives, hoping that we’ll allow Jesus to change our lives just like she allowed Him to change hers. This is indeed “good news of great joy for all the people.” God is with us! God loves us! Come let us adore him!