Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Christmas Vigil Mass
December 24, 2014
Vigil: Is 62:1-5, Ps 89, Acts 13:16-17,22-25, Mt 1:18-25
To listen to an audio recording of tonight’s homily, please click below:
The following words guided tonight’s homily:
The Uniqueness of This Year’s Celebration of Christmas
This year’s celebration is a unique one in the history of the Church. On the first Sunday of Advent, Pope Francis and the whole Church began the first Year for Consecrated Life in Church history, and like all ecclesiastical holy years — such as the Year of our Redemption in 1983, the Marian year in 1987, the Year of Jesus Christ in 1997, God the Holy Spirit in 1998, God the Father in 1999, the Jubilee of Christ’s birth in 2000, the Year of the Rosary in 2002-3, the Year of the Eucharist in 2004-5, the Year of St. Paul in 2008-9, the Year of Priests in 2009-10, and the Year of Faith from 2012-3 — these years are supposed to have an influence on everything the Church does throughout the year and how Catholics approach the day-to-day reality. That’s why this year for the celebration this Christmas, it’s important for us to look at its meaning through the prism of consecrated life.
This Year for Consecrated Life is not just for cloistered nuns and monks, religious sisters and brothers, consecrated men and women in the middle of the world, consecrated virgins, widows and hermits, but, as Pope Francis said just under a month ago, it “concerns not only consecrated persons, but the entire Church.” Consecration, he said, “is at the heart of the Church, a decisive element of her mission, inasmuch as it expresses the deepest nature of the Christian vocation and the yearning of the Church as the Bride for union with her sole Spouse.” This year is supposed to be for all of us, to help us to focus on what’s essential in our faith, beginning from the consecration of every Christian through baptism. This year is a unique year in which we’re called to look at the Christian life, to look at the mystery of Christmas, from within the lens of consecrated life.
There would be lots of angles we could from which we could do this. We could look first at the reality of consecration, that Christ consecrated himself for us coming into the world so that we could be consecrated in the truth. We could look at the communal reality of the consecrated life, that Jesus came down from heaven to earth to found a family, to help each of us to become as united as the persons of the Blessed Trinity are united to live in a loving union with others. We could look at the prayer that characterizes the consecrated lifea nd how each of us is called to make the time to be with God who did so much to become God-with-us. We could look at how every Christian is meant to be a sign pointing toward eternity, toward the kingdom, toward God. But more than any other reality, what’s distinctive about consecrated life is that they live by the evangelical counsels, uniting themselves to God in his poverty, his chastity and his obedience. And these are three realities that scream from the page of the Christian narratives. This year it behooves us to ponder the Christmas reality from the perspective of what Jesus teaches us about evangelical poverty, chastity and obedience, how consecrated men and women keep living and active these lessons, and how each of us, according to our states of life, are called to unite ourselves to Jesus in each of these three ways.
What Jesus teaches us in Bethlehem about Poverty
The first thing distinctive about the consecrated life is evangelical poverty. Jesus was born in a stranger’s cave rather than in a royal palace, he was wrapped in swaddling clothes rather than in royal purple, he was placed in an ancient animal trough, a manger, rather than even an elementary crib, he was presented at 40 days of age in the temple not with the customary lamb to redeem the one who was the Lamb of God but with a poor couple’s pair of pigeons. Jesus, even though he was rich he became poor so that by his poverty we might become rich (2 Cor 8:9). When he finally began his public ministry he called us all to become rich in his kingdom through poverty in any and every earthly kingdom, telling us in the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” He showed us that life doesn’t consist in possessions but in a life in which one is rich in God.
This is a very valuable lesson for all of us especially at Christmas. Our culture advertises that we’ll never experience the joy of Christmas unless women get diamond rings and necklaces, unless kids get play stations, and clothes, unless teens get iPhones and other cool gadgets, and unless everyone gets a lot of money, and gift certificates and gift cards. Somehow Jesus went without all of these things and he was the happiest man who ever lived. Jesus’ poverty in Bethlehem teaches us another way.
Consecrated men and women seek to unite themselves to Jesus’ poverty so that they may be rich in him and show us all the path to true ewealth. Even though many religious brothers and sisters, priests and virgins, hermits and widows, members of secular institutes and societies of apostolic life could make a fortune in the world, they give it all up to depend on God’s providence, and they’re for that reason a sign for all of us that the path to happiness, holiness and heaven happens not through addition of stuff but through subtraction, through emptying ourselves so that God becomes more and more our treasure. On Christmas, each of us is called go to the Baby Jesus giving him today the best we have. If we’re rich, then we’re called to impoverish ourselves and give him our precious gold, frankincense and myrrh. But that’s not the gift he really wants. The gift he wishes most from us is to arrive before him with empty hands and give him all that we are. The gift he most desires is the gift of himself, our very lives, so that decreasing so that me might increase he might make us truly rich by his poverty. To become one with God-with-us, Emmanuel, is to become with him in his poverty.
What Jesus teaches us in Bethlehem about Chaste Love
The second thing distinctive about the consecrated life is chaste love. Jesus came into the world out of love. In one of the most famous passages in Sacred Scripture, that almost every football player and fan knows — John 3:16 — we proclaim, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” The whole meaning of Christmas is this love of God. Isaiah talks about it in the first reading of this vigil Mass, when he foretells that we will no longer be “forsaken” or “desolate” or alone. God out of love will come not just to meet and accompany us but marry us. “As a young man married a virgin, your Maker shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so shall your God rejoice in you.” The Lord has come to enter into a covenant of love with us. But just like when a man proposes to a woman, God waits for our response. He wants us to respond yes and enter into a life of love with him, a life of mutually committed love that will last not just as long as we both shall live but forever. It’s key for us to grasp that God is not asking if we want to go out for a date with him on December 24 or 25, or a few times a year, or even once a week. He’s asking us to enter into a life-long communion of life and love. Christmas is the day on which God gives himself to us totally as a gift and hopes that we will respond to that proposal by committing ourselves to him, by matching his total dedication.
The virtue of chastity that consecrated men and women take is an external witness of Christ’s total love for us and at the same time a personal commitment of total love back to God. As Christians, we’re called to love God first and above all. Real love is not selfish. It sacrifices oneself for the beloved rather than sacrifices the beloved for oneself. Jesus described real love when he said that no one has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13). St. Paul called all of us to this love when he said, “Husbands love your wives just like Christ loved the Church and laid down his life to make her holy” (Eph 5:25-26). Christmas is a day in which we ponder Christ’s love and then seek to reciprocate it, to respond to the total commitment he makes to us with a total commitment we make to him. The chastity of consecrated men and women is an incredible sign of this. Many people are fascinated by the celibate chastity of priests and religious. In a world obsessed about sexuality, they are blown away that someone could give up the great goods of marriage and familial life. But many times people see only the cost; they don’t see the gain, that Jesus is the pearl of great price worth selling everything to obtain (Mt 13:46). Every Christian by baptism is called to love Jesus with a preferential love; if he’s calling us to serve him as priests and religious, then he’ll help us to give up even the great goods of certain types of human love to live totally in his love. The reason why many people find the sacrifice of chastity heroic is because they give God very little. They only give him a little of their time in prayer. They give him only a little of their attention on Sunday. They give him only a little of their money, of their talents, of their life, in exchange for God’s giving them everything. To give God everything seems so foreign. But this year for Consecrated Life is a chance for each of us to ponder what gift we really make of ourselves to God and to recommit ourselves to his love. As one of the great Christian hymns says, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, ‘twas an offering far too small, for love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.” Jesus comes into the world to save us by this love, to teach us how to love like this, and to help us to love God preferentially, so that in that love we can love others with the same love with which he loves them. To unite ourselves with God-with-us is to unite ourselves to this type of transformative life.
What Jesus teaches us in Bethlehem about Obedience
The third distinctive thing that all of us can learn from Bethlehem and from the consecrated life is the beauty of obedience. Speaking about Jesus’ incarnation and birth, the letter to the Hebrews says, “When [Jesus] came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me. … Then I said, ‘As is written of me in the scroll, Behold, I come to do your will, O God.’” (Heb 10:5-7). Jesus took on our nature in order to do the will of the Father. He said once, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me” (Jn 4:34). His prayer in the Garden was “Not my will, but yours be done” (Mt 26:39). He taught us to pray, “Thy will be done” (Mt 6:10. Jesus came into the world to teach us obedience like this, so that we might, like him, become obedient even unto death.
Consecrated men and women enter into Christ’s own obedience. The word obedience, as I often mention, comes from the Latin expression ob-audire, which basically means to eavesdrop, to listen so attentively that one can hear every syllable. In Hebrew, the word “to hear” is indistinguishable from the verb “to obey,” because for a faithful Jew to hear God’s voice was to act on what he said. We’re all called to imitate Jesus’ listening, to imitate his putting the Father’s word, the Father’s will, into practice. Jesus entered our world precisely so that he could say to us not simply “Do what I say,” but rather, “Come, follow me!.” We Christians are meant to be distinguished by our obedience to God. But we have to admit that this virtue runs counter to our age and to every age. We like to be in charge. We like to call the shots. We essentially want to be God rather than to obey God. Jesus comes to teach us that the real way to happiness is through obeying God, that the exercise of authentic freedom is shown in loving God and loving others, not in doing whatever we want, however we want, whenever, to and with whomever we want.
There’s a lot of talk today in surveys about those who are “spiritual” and those who are “religious,” and this really highlights the importance of obedience if we’re every going to be on right terms with God. Those who are spiritual are good people who for the most part genuinely believe in God, who try to pray, who try to do good to their neighbors and avoid evil. But, basically, what defines those who are “spiritual” is that basically they worship the Lord the way they think is best, the way they want to, the way that accords with their preferences and their judgments and prejudices. The difference with a religious person is that a religious person seeks to worship the Lord not according to his or her human whims, but according to what they believe God has revealed as his preferences. If God says, “Love one another as I have loved you,” that’s what they seek to do. If God says, referring to the Mass, “Do this in memory of me,” they come. If he sets up a means by which to forgive our sins, that’s the means they employ. Jesus came into our world to show us the way to love God with all our mind, heart, soul and strength, and to love our neighbor as he has loved them and that’s what the truly religious, helped by God, try to do, in the way that the divine Beloved indicates he wishes us to love. At Christmas Mass every year, there are always many who come who are searchers, who are good people, who are “spiritual,” but who are not yet “religious.” If you find yourself in this category, we’re so glad you’re here! We hope that at this Mass, during this Year for Consecrated Life, Jesus will touch you, and help you to leave this Mass not just “spiritual” but “religious,” desirous of pleasing in all things the One who came from heaven to earth to fill you with every spiritual blessing, desirous of obeying him who always commands out of love so that you may experience all the joy he came into this world to bring you.
Many times we’re afraid of obedience. We’re afraid that if we really follow God all the way, we’ll miss out on so many good things that others receive. St. John Paul II picked this up in his first homily as Pope and it was repeated almost exactly 27 years later by Pope Benedict in his inaugural homily. The latter said, “Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again [Pope John Paul II] said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.” In overcoming our fears in order to say yes to what God is asking, we can learn so much from St. Joseph. He was at first afraid of this great mystery. He didn’t feel worthy of it. He only half believed that what Mary was saying could be true. But God sent his angel to appear to him in a dream and say to him, “Don’t be afraid, Joseph, to take Mary your wife into your home.” When he awoke, St. Matthew tells us, “he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him.” St. Joseph’s holy obedience is a great thing for all of us to ponder on this Christmas. It’s the obedience of consecrated men and women. It’s the obedience of Christ. To be united with God-with-us means that we are one with his holy listening to God the Father and his putting the Father’s word into practice. This obedience takes nothing way, but leads us to receive everything God wants to give us, a hundred fold in this life and eternal life in the next. This is one of the essential lessons of Christmas.
The Change for the Better Christ wants to Work in Us
For us to celebrate Christmas aright, we have to grasp that Jesus wants to change us. Christmas is about recognizing that the same Jesus who came into Mary’s and Joseph’s life has come into ours. Just like their lives were changed, so are our lives supposed to be changed, so that they will be totally centered on him. We need to be centered on his poverty instead of worldly materialism. We need to be centered on his chastity instead of modern hedonism. We need to emulate and enter into his obedience rather than obsesses about modern radical autonomy. God-with-us wants to remain with us, but wants us to choose to remain with him. If we do, like Mary and Joseph, we very well may experience a life of poverty by worldly standards, but it’s worth it, because we’ll experience a richness that the world can’t give, tax or rob, a treasure that will last forever. If we do, like Mary and Joseph, we may not experience the counterfeit happiness of those who give in to a life of indulgence, but we’ll experience the fire of a love that Hugh Hefner will never be able to fathom. If we do, like Mary and Joseph, we will give up our pretended sense of calling the shots, and experience a freedom far greater than any the world can bestow and a peace that comes from knowing we’re right with God. In this Year for Consecrated Life, as we ponder the mystery of Christmas, this is what God wants to offer to us and help us to accept.
The Recapitulation and Intensification of the Lessons of Bethlehem on the Altar
And the way he does so is by bringing this mystery of Christmas alive so that we can unite ourselves to him in his consecration. He does this not by making the statue of the baby Jesus in the manger of our beautiful praesepio start to breathe or the angels and images of Mary and Joseph start to walk. Even if that would be an incredible sight, God exceeds it tonight. He who entered this world and remained poor, chaste and obedient, comes down on this altar so that we truly can adore him in the present. His poverty that was enormous in Bethlehem is even greater here, as he hides under the appearances of bread and wine. His chaste love that was famous throughout his life is shown here to the extreme, caring for us so much that he wants to become our food so that we may enter into a holy communion with him that will know no end. His obedience that was so perfect in his public ministry is even more stunning here as he listens to the words of his ministers, commanding him with the words of consecration to come from heaven to earth. Here at Mass we encounter the enduring reality of Christmas. This really is Emmanuel, God with us, poor, chaste and obedience This really is Jesus, who has come to save us from our sins through helping us to unite ourselves to his holy consecration. As we come here to adore him in imitation of the Shepherds, the Magi, the Angels, the beasts and the Holy Family, we beg him to give us the graces to follow him down this holy path, so that living in accordance with the consecration made of us in our baptism, we might come to the eternal Bethlehem, where we will experience forever the true wealth, true love and true freedom he came into the world to give us. O Come, Let us Adore Him! O Come, Let us Adore Him! O Come, Let us Adore Him! Christ the Lord!
The readings for the Christmas Vigil Mass were the following:
Reading 1 IS 62:1-5
for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet,
until her vindication shines forth like the dawn
and her victory like a burning torch.Nations shall behold your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
you shall be called by a new name
pronounced by the mouth of the LORD.
You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the LORD,
a royal diadem held by your God.
No more shall people call you “Forsaken,”
or your land “Desolate,”
but you shall be called “My Delight,”
and your land “Espoused.”
For the LORD delights in you
and makes your land his spouse.
As a young man marries a virgin,
your Builder shall marry you;
and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride
so shall your God rejoice in you.
Responsorial Psalm PS 89:4-5, 16-17, 27, 29
I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant:
Forever will I confirm your posterity
and establish your throne for all generations.
R/ For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
Blessed the people who know the joyful shout;
in the light of your countenance, O LORD, they walk.
At your name they rejoice all the day,
and through your justice they are exalted.
R/ For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
He shall say of me, “You are my father,
my God, the rock, my savior.”
Forever I will maintain my kindness toward him,
and my covenant with him stands firm.
R/ For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
Reading 2 ACTS 13:16-17, 22-25
When Paul reached Antioch in Pisidia and entered the synagogue,
he stood up, motioned with his hand, and said,
“Fellow Israelites and you others who are God-fearing, listen.
The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors
and exalted the people during their sojourn in the
land of Egypt.
With uplifted arm he led them out of it.
Then he removed Saul and raised up David as king;
of him he testified,
‘I have found David, son of Jesse, a man after my own heart;
he will carry out my every wish.’
From this man’s descendants God, according to his promise,
has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus.
John heralded his coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance
to all the people of Israel;
and as John was completing his course, he would say,
‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he.
Behold, one is coming after me;
I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet.’”
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Tomorrow the wickedness of the earth will be destroyed:
the Savior of the world will reign over us.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel MT 1:18-25
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph,
but before they lived together,
she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame,
decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill
what the Lord had said through the prophet:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,
which means “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home.
He had no relations with her until she bore a son,
and he named him Jesus.