Let Us Go To Bethlehem, Christmas, December 25, 2002

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
Christmas Day
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) Early in the morning on Christmas day, the angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in a field about a quarter of a mile from the cave where Jesus was born. Little did they know what was store for them that evening. The messenger of the Lord appeared to them as the glorious light of the Lord shone around them and they were afraid. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. You have nothing to fear! For I come to proclaim to you good news of great joy to be shared by all the people. This day in David’s city, a savior has been born to you, the long-awaited Messiah and Lord. Let this be a sign to you: in a manger you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes.” Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests.”

2) Tonight (today), the angels, the angels and messengers of the Lord proclaim to us the same message. If God took away the veils from our eyes and we had eyes to see, we would be blinded by the immense multitude of angels proclaiming the same joyous message: Do not be afraid! I proclaim to you good news of great joy for all the people. This day in Bethlehem a savior has been born for us, the Messiah and Lord, who will be found in an infant found in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. And we’re called to make the same response as the shepherds. After the angels had departed from them, they said to one another, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this event which the Lord has made known to us.” Let us go to Bethlehem! They went with haste and when they arrived, they found Mary and Joseph and Jesus lying in the manger. When they saw, they understood what had been told them concerning this child. After adoring the Lord, they returned, glorying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.

3) Today we’re called to imitate the response of those shepherds, first by going to Bethlehem, adoring the Lord Jesus surrounded by Mary and Joseph, and then bringing this “good news of great joy” out to others, “glorifying and praising God for all that we’ve heard and seen.” So the first step on this great journey we’re called to make tonight (today) is to go to Bethlehem. Let’s go together. What do we see?

4) The first thing to note is how strange the place is. Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Son of David, the one who will reign forever, is seated not born in a palace, but in a cave. There was no room for him in an inn. 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 most of the people in Bethlehem, King David’s birth place, not even his relatives took him in. Everybody else was 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. So rather than being born in a palace, Jesus was born in an rock-hewn animal stable. Rather than having a floor of marble, he had a floor of dirt. Rather than having a throne or a crib fit for a prince, he was to become our spiritual food was place in a trough from which animals had just eaten. Rather than wrapped 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 animal refuse. So often we can sentimentalize and romanticize the scene in Bethlehem, but it would be as if the angels came tonight and announced to you this news and told you that you to go search for the King of Kings in an abandoned homeless shelter under a bridge on the train tracks in North Fall River, surrounded by wild cats and dogs, covered in newspaper and lying in a dog dish.

5) What do we learn from this going to Bethlehem and discovering there the way Jesus chose to be born? We learn two very important things. The first is the humility of the Son of God. God the Son emptied himself of EVERYTHING out of love for us. It wasn’t just enough for him who is God to take on human nature — that would be a greater condescension for him than for us to divest ourselves of human nature and take on the nature of a dog or cockroach or worm — but he was born as a baby, not as an adult king; in a stable not a home; lying in a food trough rather than a bed; and surrounded by beasts and rejected by men. But his birth was to be a prophecy, but Jesus would continue to live in this humble way the rest of his days. He, the king of kings, would be hunted down by assassins while he still nursed, an illegal immigrant in Egypt before he could walk, a quiet boy, teenager and young simple carpenter in Nazareth until his hour had come, and then when his hour came, he would take off his humble robes, cover himself with a towel and wash our feet; finally, he who was born among animals would willingly be treated worse than animals are beaten and executed between criminals and he who was born in a stranger’s cave would be buried in a stranger’s grave. His whole life was one of tremendous humility. Why was he so humble? Why wasn’t he born with fireworks the whole world could see? Why was he killed on the Cross? Why didn’t he come down and show us all so very clearly who he was and put all others in their place?

6) The answer to all of these questions is the second thing we learn from going to Bethlehem. The first is the Son of God’s humility. The second is that WE must be humble in order to learn how to live as God wants, to appreciate him, to love him as he deserves, to welcome him inside, to see him, and to live with him in this life in the next. The second lesson is that we’re called to be humble. Unless we’re humble, we can never learn how to love God, which is the whole point of life. Sure, God could have come down in great majesty and power, annihilated all his enemies, shown us all that he really is the boss. It was clearly in his power. After all, he created everything, the heavens, the seas, the mountains, you and me, and holds us in existence this very moment. He could have, if he wanted to — or if were prouder, like we are sometimes — put us all in our place and forced us to serve him. But we would never have loved him. Saddam Hussein terrorizes his own people, uses chemical weapons against them, kills them without any pretext other than they’re not supporting him as much as thinks they ought to. He has power now. But no one loves him. No one loved Hitler. No one loved Stalin. No one loves the leader of North Korea. The Lord of Power and Might is, as St. John tells us, LOVE, and real love is shown in humble service, not power. God’s greatest power and love was shown in his not using his power, in his becoming humble and obedient all the way to death, death on a Cross. For us to appreciate this mystery, we too have to be humble.

7) If you go to Bethlehem today, over the cave where Jesus was born, there was a basilica built by St. Helen and Constantine’s imperial builders in the first half of the 300s. In many ways, it’s a beautiful Church. But to get to Jesus’s actual birthplace isn’t easy. The first thing you need to do is you have to go through the front door. And the front door is about 3 feet high. In order even to enter the basilica, even young children need to bend down. The very young children are often humble enough to enter without having to bend, because they’ve never lost the wonder and admiration that we as we get older and seemingly wiser seem to lose. We have to bend down. Then, when we walk through the basilica, we have to go down. First, we need to bend our heads as descend an ancient staircase. Then, we have to get down on our knees to see Christ’s birthday, underneath a low altar. It is there, on our knees, that we can see a silver star in the ancient cave, saying, “Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est!” (Here, of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was born).

8 ) There were only two types of people who made it to adore Jesus that first Christmas. The first were the simple shepherds, who knew very little. Upon hearing the angels’ message, they went with haste there and adored and glorified the Lord. They believed that what sounded way too fanciful, way too good to be true, was actually in fact true. The second group of people were the wise men from the East. A truly wise man, as Socrates told us 600 years before Christ, is someone who knows that he doesn’t know everything. These wise men from the East came in search of Christ. They were looking for him and found him by following the extremely obscure sign of a star in the heavens. If we’re going to find the Lord, if we’re going to experience the peace and the joy that he came from heaven to give us, we need to be humble, to realize how little we know, or at least that we don’t know everything, and go to find God where he is and learn from him in everything he teaches us.

9) The most important lesson of all this Christmas is why Jesus came, why he went through all the trouble. It was ultimately because he loved us and wanted to teach us how to be fully human, to be fully the image of God who is love. He came to show us how truly to love and this involved not just his example, but his action in becoming man and dying for us. Jesus the king of kings was born with a tremendous inheritance. That inheritance was our sins. He came to die in our place, to right our relationship with God, to make real peace with God through the forgiveness of our sins possible. Jesus didn’t come to us because he needed to. He didn’t come to us because we’re so lovable that he just wanted to say a divine, sweet “I love you!” He came because essentially WE NEEDED HIM to come and he loved us enough to be born to die so that we would be able to live. He took on flesh and blood to take our place on death row. To appreciate this fact, we have to be humble enough to recognize we’re sinners and our sins killed this young, beautiful baby, but that he willingly wanted to do it. And we have to live in accordance with this reality. If we want to experience the joy of Christmas, the joy God wants to give us, and if we’ve been making compromises with sins, we have to look at this baby and say, I’m going to stop. I remember once discovering that my parents used to smoke. I was about 8 at the time. I couldn’t believe that my parents used to smoke. Each told me smoked more than a pack a day. I asked them why they quit. My mother said, “Well, when I realized I was pregant with Scottie and you, I quit so that you wouldn’t suffer the consequences.” My dad joined her out of love for us and they both quit cold turkey, out of love for their babies growing in my mother’s womb. Tonight, you’re called to look at this divine child, and if your sins, if your bad habits will lead to his death — and they did — to try to quit cold turkey from your sins. This is the first step in a joyful Christmas. If we’re at real peace with God, we can be at peace with ourselves, and no matter how hectic things are around us, we’ll be able to be joyful. But if we’re not at peace with God, we won’t be at peace with ourselves, and no matter how great things are around us, we won’t be joyful. Jesus was born to free us from our sins. Tonight is the time to make a commitment to allow him to do so, to say yes to his plan.

10) After the shepherds had adored the Lord, they returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. That’s the last step in our journey tonight (today). Our Christmas doesn’t stop here. We’re called to go out to the world, to go out to our families, to go out to our friends’ homes, and share THIS joy, the joy that Christ has truly come. More and more today people are living Christmas without Christ, or with Christ on the periphery of their lives. The best gift we could possibly give them this Christmas is the Lord, is to announce his coming, is to share his peace and love. This is the gift you could give Jesus on the anniversary of his birthday. He died for them and so many of them have not yet made room for them in their hearts. Jesus, this young infant with the tiniest of hands, wants you to knock on the door of their hearts for him. I have always had an image in my mind that the shepherds when they went about glorifying and praising God for what they had heard and seen, eventually went to the inn where Jesus had been rejected and told those inn-keepers the news and they came to adore the child only to recognize his parents whom they had rejected, which led them to a deep conversion and a great hospitality to everyone else later. My prayer is that you may be like those shepherds tonight, tomorrow, and throughout this season. Let us go to Bethlehem and then let us go from Bethlehem to share this greatest news ever, this good news of great joy for all the people.

11) As we prepare to receive the Lord now, the very same body and blood that was carrying by the Blessed Mother and laid in swaddling clothes in a manger, may we treasure him within our hearts and every day adore him. O Come Let us Adore Him. O Come Let us adore him. O Come, Let us adore him. Christ the Lord!