Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Mass of December 23
December 23, 2013
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 O Antiphon* (see the note at the end of the homily) again helps us to ponder how the Church hopes that we’re preparing ourselves for the coming of the Lord and provides a very rich prism by which to understand today’s readings: 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.” In this O Antiphon we make explicit what was implicit before when we referred to Christ not only as the “leader of the house of Israel” who gave the Israelites the law, but also the “Adonai” or Lord who spoke as Yahweh (I am who am, the God of every being) to Moses in the burning bush. Jesus is king of all nations, not just Israel, and he’s not only king, but the one who all nations long for, even if unconsciously. He is the one who comes to unite Israel with all of the nations in the worship of the one true God as one family. We ask him to come and to save us whom he created from the clay by breathing into us the breath of life, our soul (Gen 2). He is the Creator of every one of us and he seeks to remake us and reunite us as one family.
- The Mass for Christmas Day has a beautiful prayer that in the Tridentine rite the priest would pray at every Mass when he poured the drop of water (symbolizing our humanity) into the chalice filled with wine (symbolizing Christ’s divinity). “Deus, qui humanae substantiae dignitatem mirabiliter condidisti, et mirabilius reformasti, da, quaesumus, nobis eius divinitatis esse consortes, qui humanitatis nostrae fieri dignatus est particeps.” The second half of the prayer has been retained at the offertory, but the fuller prayer that we’ll pray on Christmas morning expresses what we’re asking Jesus to do, and what he has in fact done, by his incarnation, birth, life, death and resurrection: “O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” We’re praying that he reform us so that we may become sharers in his divinity.
- That’s the prism to help us understand the Word of God given to us in today’s liturgy. 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. This, incidentally, is something that Pope Francis likewise has been stressing, that society needs very much to give special care to the very young and the very old, those who don’t have economic productivity and therefore are often left at the margins, while everybody obsesses about the productive and consumerist 29-54 age group. Pope Francis says that the real wealth of a society is found in its young (who fill everyone with hope for the future) and its seniors (who embody the wisdom of experience). He’s seeking to bring about this intergenerational love in the Church, spending even a lot of his time at World Youth Day in Brazil focusing on how the young and the old should have a preferential care for each other. That’s the mission of John the Baptist.
- The mission of Christ to whom John points is found in the heart of this passage from the Prophet Malachi. The Messiah 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, but over the course of time, we’ve become full of impurities. We were made “very good” but over the course of time, 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, 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 Zechariah 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.
- 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, as we contemplated yesterday, is by saving us from our sins, by refining our gold in the fire of his merciful love.
- So 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 parish, the Church, and the world, to be the gold he intended us always to be!
* (There is a lack of alignment among the O Antiphons between what is used as the Gospel verse and what is used for Magnificat antiphon during Vespers. 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. In the Gospel verses, however, 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 Dec 22 but repeated on Dec 23, O Emmanuel is moved from Dec 23 to Dec 21, and O Oriens is moved from Dec 21 to Dec 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. In the homilies that I’m giving throughout this proximate preparation for Christmas, I’m retaining the original order with one exception. Since on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, there is no O Antiphon at Mass, I am focusing on O Rex Gentium at Mass on Dec 23 and O Emmanuel at Mass on Dec 24, since it is the culmination of all of the O Antiphons. The O Antiphons, in a sense, allow this, because all seven are saying basically the same thing under different and progressively deeper angles! I write this explanation because, as far as I have been able to find through internet searches, there is no other explanation of the disparity between the O Antiphons at Mass and at Vespers.)
The readings for today’s Mass were:
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.Lo, I will send you
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.
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.
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.”