The Choice that Awaits Us in Bethlehem, Christmas 2003, December 25, 2003

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Christmas 2003
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) Today we celebrate the beginning of the greatest and most important event in history: the eternal God’s becoming Emmanuel, God-with-us, entering fully into our human condition and our world. Today we also mark the greatest and most important choice any of us will make in OUR history — what our RESPONSE will be to this action by God. Both of them together are what this great feast is about.

2) We begin with God’s becoming man. God had prepared the Jewish people for the coming of the Messiah, but no Jew had ever come close to imagining who that Messiah would be: God Himself, the Son of the Eternal Father. No Jew could ever have imagined that God would as 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.” God’s condescension knew no bounds. 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 a floor of dirt. Rather than having a throne or a princely crib, he was placed in a trough from which animals had just eaten. 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 animal refuse. So often we can sentimentalize and romanticize the scene in Bethlehem by gazing at the gorgeous figurines in our beautiful Christmas creches, 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. He, the king of kings, would be hunted down by assassins while he still nursed, be 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 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. He was born in a stranger’s cave and 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 didn’t he come down and show us all so very clearly who he was and put all others in their place? Why did he go through it all?

3) For two reasons. First, because WE NEEDED IT. Secondly, because HE LOVED US ENOUGH to do what we needed. The simple truth is without his loving action, we would have died in our sins; we would never have had the chance to live forever; heaven would have always remained out of grasp; and the real meaning of who we are, made in God’s image and called to love as Christ has loved us, would have forever remained a locked mystery. God loved us so much that he wanted to be God-with-us, to take our own very nature, to take on all that was low and humble about being a human and REDEEM IT ALL. This is why this is the beginning of the greatest and most important event in history. Even if the Cape Cod Mall is too embarrassed to have a manger scene, it doesn’t decrease at all the importance of this event. Even if students in certain public schools are disciplined for mentioning Jesus, even if their teachers are threatened by the ACLU for saying “Merry Christmas,” even if all we meet hundreds of people each day who, for whatever reason, substitute “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” for a real mention of this celebration, it doesn’t change or diminish AT ALL the incredible manifestation of God’s love enfleshed in a little baby in Bethlehem. This feast we celebrate today is first and foremost a celebration of God’s incredible love in going such great lengths to save you and to save me.

4) But focusing on the incredible love of God on this feast day, in-and-of-itself, is not sufficient. The other crucial element is the choice each of us needs to make in response to that gift of God. The Bible presents to us a sharp contrast between two types of responses. The first response we see in the inn-keepers. St. Luke tells us very starkly, “there was no place for them in the place where travelers lodged.” 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 necessarily evil. But they were all too busy for God. These people still exist today; we’ll return to them shortly.

5) The second type of response we see in 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,” that a Savior was born for them in the city of David and that they would find him wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger, 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,” worth selling everything else to obtain. And after they had found him, adored him, and 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. 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. 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.

6) Now we come to our response this Christmas. Jesus, the God-man, came into the world to die for YOU, for me; what type of response, on our part, is adequate? What is commensurate with that great love? Many Christians, Jesus’ own, take the path of the inn-keepers. St. John the Evangelist wrote about Jesus, “he came unto his own and his own did not accept him.” Today Jesus comes again to his own, those who have become part of his body through baptism, and many of them do not accept him. In one way or another, they say, “no vacancy.” They close the doors of their hearts to him. Some others let him in, but only a little — only into the “waiting rooms” of their lives, because they say their lives are too busy to allow anything more. We’re called to ask: why don’t people make room for Christ? I think the fundamental reason is because people are afraid that if they let this baby into their lives, then he will soon grow and start to take over their lives, changing their priorities and plans, giving them a new system of values, such that they no longer will be in “control” of their lives at all. This fear, of course, is JUSTIFIED, because if we admit Jesus, he will indeed change our lives and won’t accept merely being “important” to us, worth a few minutes of our time each day before bed, or a hour on Sundays. He’ll want us to live our whole lives for him and others, as he lived his life for us. But to people who are afraid of Christ to let Christ into their live, I’d like to remind them of something of which they should even be more afraid: to try to shut him out from our life. Unlike others who might go away when we try to shut the door on them, Jesus never will. He will continue to knock on our door, no matter how often we tell him, “No room.” He loves us too much, and he paid too precious a price to save us, to let us throw it all away. His persistence, like his patience and his love, will never die. Jesus doubtless knows that there are some people in this Church today who haven’t been here to visit Him in a while, who have been busy with other things like those ancient inn-keepers. With great love, Jesus says to them, like he said to the Laodiceans in the Book of Revelation, “I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” He points lovingly to this altar and says to them as he said to the apostles during the first Eucharist, “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you.” God loves you and with the gentle hands of a little baby, he’s knocking now. Please respond to the grace of Christmas and open the door. As he said fifteen times in the Gospel, he says again tonight, “Do not be afraid!” Pope John Paul has said the same words throughout his pontificate, the words he repeated thousands of times during the 2000th anniversary of Christ’s birth: “Do not be afraid to open the doors to Christ!”

7) To open the door is to take the path of the Shepherds, the Magi and the Holy Family. The Shepherds humbly left everything to go to Bethlehem to adore Christ. This Church in the modern-day Bethlehem where we find Christ. After they encountered Him, they left, “glorifying and praising God,” spreading the incredibly good news of God’s presence to others. To open the door to Christ means to do the same, to come to Christ and to go, taking him with them, spreading his good news. The Magi searched for God in everything, even in the stars. So we’re called to search for Christ, to make sacrifices to grow in our knowledge of him, to make the effort to go to those places where we will find him. As Jesus would say later, “those who seek, find,” but to seek, we must first have desire like those whom tradition has always called “wise.” But the wise men teach us more than the search for Christ. They teach us what to do when we find him. When the wise men found Jesus, the opened up their coffers and gave the Lord the best, the most valuable things, they had. To open the door to Christ means to do the same. To give him the best of our time, to put the talents he has given us at his service, to use the material and physical blessings he has bestowed upon us for the building of his kingdom. Ultimately the gift he wants is for us to take him seriously, and trust in him and what he said, and to love as he has loved us.

8 ) In Mary and Joseph, we see the fullness of what it means to open the doors to Christ. They accepted Jesus completely, even though it meant great sacrifices. They centered their lives on him, giving up their own ideas about their marriage, leaving their land, families and jobs behind to take Jesus to Egypt, even allowing their own hearts to be pierced with suffering because of him. But it was all worth it. The reason why their family is called Holy is because it was wholly centered around Christ. For your family to be holy — as it is called to be — you must do the same. Jesus is like a little baby left on the door step of your life; when you open the door to see this adorable little child, you’re left with one of two choices: to take him in and let him grow within your home, or to shut the door and leave him out in the cold. Mary and Joseph took him in, and let him grow to full stature. They gave their whole lives — their time, their talents, their dreams — over to him, and now they are with him in heaven. Their example of a total response to God’s love incarnate stands before us as proof that such a response is possible. Their example is a clear witness that such a response is what God wants from you and from me.

9) At this Christmas Mass, God gives us the chance to do make that response. The same Jesus that was placed in the manger will soon be placed on your tongue or in your hands. The same Lord whom Mary carried in her womb you will soon have in your souls. Either we receive the Lord physically in Holy Communion while rejecting him spiritually, or we receive him fully and allow him to grow, to take on over, to form us ever more into his image, the image in which we were created, the image of what we’re called to be. God loved us so much that not only did humble himself to be born in a stable, but humbled himself so much more to become our food. The Mass is our response to this love. When we come forward to Holy Communion, Jesus will be knocking. The very word “Amen!” that we say is meant to express our complete response, “So be it!,” “Yes!!” to all that God has done and continues to do for us, and to all that he wants us to do for him in response to that love.

10) Today I “announce to you good news of great joy for all the people. To you this day is given a savior, who is Christ the Lord.” That Christ who came to Bethlehem to be God-with-us now come to Hyannis to be God-with-us again. May each of us follow the example of the Angels, the Shepherds and the Magi, the countless male and female saints throughout the centuries, to this new Bethlehem. O come, let us love Him! O come, let us follow him! O come, let us adore him: Christ, the Lord!