Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Parish, Acushnet, MA
Christmas Mass at Dawn
December 25, 2015
Is 62:11-12, Ps 97, Ti 3:4-7, Lk 2:15-20
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided today’s homily:
The Reason for the Season
Christmas is always special, but there’s something particularly momentous about Christmas this year. It’s taking place within the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy that Pope Francis and the Church began on December 8 and it gives us a chance to appreciate even more profoundly what Christmas is all about.
When people talk about the “reason for the season” of Christmas, they basically are emphasizing that Christmas is centered on Jesus Christ and not tinsel-decorated pine trees, colorful wrapping paper, reindeer, sleighs and elves, that it’s centered in Bethlehem and not the North Pole or the mall or the sports arena.
But as praiseworthy as those efforts to keep Christ in Christmas are, we also have to state that it’s not sufficient or theologically precise to declare merely that “Jesus” is the reason for this season. The real reason for the season of Christmas is what Jesus seeks to do in us. That’s the why behind the what of the Son of God’s becoming man. And that’s what the Year of Mercy helps us to ponder.
The eternal Son of God entered the world and was born of a virgin in Bethlehem not to establish an annual season of generosity and giving, or an opportunity for extended families to get together, or a gentle nudge to get many of us to return to Church, as positive as all of those things are. What he came for is laid out for us in all its clarity in today’s readings.
Isaiah prophesies in today’s passage from the Old Testament, “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘Your Savior comes!’ … They shall be called the holy people, the redeemed of the Lord.” Jesus comes as a Savior in order to make us a holy people.
In today’s epistle to Titus, St. Paul makes the point even more emphatically: “When the kindness and generous love of God our Savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, … so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.” Jesus Christ is our Savior who has come to save us in his mercy and make it possible for us to live in right relationship with God and receive the inheritance of all the saints.
Jesus’ Two Names
This is what we mark in this Year of Mercy: God’s merciful love and the receptivity and response to it that God wants that mercy to find in us. Four days ago, Pope Francis stressed, “Christmas is truly the feast of God’s infinite mercy.” We’re called to relate to Jesus according to his abiding mercy. When we call on him, this is how he wants us to address him.
This point is made clear for us in the two names he is given in St. Matthew’s account of his birth, which the Church ponders in the Gospel for the Christmas vigil Mass.
St. Matthew tells us, first, that “all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the Prophet [Isaiah]: ‘Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’” God became one of us not so that he could say “hi” to us with a human hand and then depart. He came to be with us, to enter into an enduring relationship with us. And the specific type of relationship he wanted to form is indicated by the Prophet Isaiah in the first reading of the Vigil Mass, the first Sacred Scripture proclaimed on Christmas: He came mystically to marry us. “As a young man marries a virgin,” God tells us through the Prophet Isaiah, “so your Builder shall marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so shall your God rejoice in you.” The particular type of relationship God wants to form with us is spousal, a relationship that as every married person here knows, radically impacts every aspect of life, for better or worse, in sickness and health, in poverty or prosperity all the days of one’s life. The first reason for the season of Christmas is for us to see that Jesus took on human flesh so that he could fall to his knees and say, “Will you marry me?” Christmas isn’t a fairy tale about events that happened in long, long ago in a middle-eastern cave. It’s a love story that is taking place, today, right here on South Main Street in Acushnet, and all the eyes of angels and saints are waiting to see how we’re going to respond to Jesus’ proposal to enter into a life-long, indeed an eternal, covenant of love.
The second, complementary reason is indicated by the other name we find in St. Matthew’s Gospel. God’s angel tells St. Joseph in a dream, “Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home, because 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.” Jesus is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Yeshua (Joshua), which means, “God saves.” Jesus has come on a rescue mission. In order to be able to espouse us to him forever, he first needs to free us from slavery to sin and the sure death to which that slavery leads. To call upon the name Jesus, to enter into relationship with him, is to regard and address him with unending gratitude and love as the Redeemer who has come to save us from our sins.
That’s why Pope Francis stresses that “Christmas is truly the feast of God’s infinite mercy.”
That’s what St. Paul means when he declares to us today, “Because of his mercy, he saved us!”
That’s what Isaiah indicates when he says, “Your Savior comes!”
That’s what St. John the Baptist has been trying to do throughout Advent as he’s called us to make straight the paths. “Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free, from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee,” we’ve sung throughout the last month. “Then cleansed be every heart from sin, make straight the way of God within, prepare we in our hearts a home, where such a mighty Guest may come,” we’ve chanted, announcing to ourselves, to God and to everyone else that we need God’s mercy and want him to come as Guest of our souls forever so that we in turn might find our rest in him. We proclaim that we want him with all his merciful love to abide in us and have us abide in him, not just for an hour, or a day, but all our days and into eternity.
The Fulfillment of our Desire for Salvation and Need for Mercy
And today we celebrate how Christ has come in fulfillment of that desire for salvation and mercy that he has placed within our hearts. “‘Hark!’ The Herald Angels sing glory to the newborn King!,” we sang to begin our Mass today, “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” The sweet little boy wrapped in swaddling clothes, being held by Mary and Joseph, is “Mercy mild,” the incarnate reconciliation of God and sinners. “O Holy Child of Bethlehem,” we’ll melodically pray to Jesus before crèches, actualizing the Christmas mystery, “descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” Jesus indeed comes to cleanse us from the inside out and make us his dwelling place, his Bethlehem, his temple. He comes not merely to be born in the world but in each of us, lifting us through embracing him in his birth and what it signifies to true spiritual rebirth.
With the Shepherds, Magi, and Mary and Joseph, we behold our Rescuer. When we adore Christ in the presepio and on the altar, we’re worshipping the one who took on our nature so that he might take our place on death row, who loved us so much that he came to die so that we might live forever, who took on our humanity so that we might take on his divinity. For our soul to feel its worth, as we sing in the great hymn “O Holy Night,” we have to grasp that God loved us so much that he appeared personally to deliver us — he didn’t send a legion of archangels — to show us that we were worth saving. There’s no greater manifestation of who God is and what our dignity is in his eyes.
Having been liberated we are called now to follow him to freedom. In the passage that priests, deacons and religious all across the world ponder today in the Office of Readings from St. Leo the Great, one of the most famous Christian homilies of all time, this fifth century pope and doctor of the Church tells us what our response need’s to be to God’s “mercy mild.” “Beloved,” he tells us, “let us give thanks to God the Father … because in his great love for us he took pity on us, and when we were dead in our sins he brought us to life with Christ, so that in him we might be a new creation. Let us throw off our old nature and all its ways and, as we have come to birth in Christ, let us renounce the works of the flesh. Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God’s kingdom.”
Today is the day we come to remember our dignity and to celebrate his mercy that restores us to that dignity.
And as if that were not enough, at the same time he is rescuing us and restoring us, he’s proposing to marry us. This is a love story greater than anything Hollywood has ever produced. And it’s not a fable. It’s the truth!
Why Jesus came as a baby
It was to help us to receive and respond to his gift of mercy that Jesus came as a little baby. It’s important for us to grasp that by his power as God, Jessu could have come as a grown man rather than take on our flesh as a precious one-cell embryo in the womb of the Blessed Virgin and go through all of the stages of growth and birth that each of us experiences. If he had come as an adult he could have more quickly accomplished what he had set out to do: save and espouse us. But he may not have the same results.
The truth is that whether Jesus succeeds or not in his great mission doesn’t depend solely on his action but on our reaction, whether we allow him to save us from our sins, whether we respond to his marriage proposal, enter into a covenant with him and remain as faithful to it as he does. We know that when he came in time, many didn’t have room to embrace him as God-with-us and Savior. The inn-keepers were too occupied with other business. The scribes in the royal court were too corrupt even to investigate the wise men’s story. Herod was too threatened and sought to kill the one who had come to die for him. Much later in life, many continued to reject Jesus, claiming he worked his miracles by the power of the devil, saying that his words were blasphemous, and proclaiming even that his teaching about his real presence in the Eucharist was too hard to endure. Many, like the Rich Young Man, made excuses not to follow him. And on Good Friday many even cried out for him to be crucified. He came unto his own, as the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel will say later today, and his own did not receive him. He came as the light of the world, but many preferred darkness to light and refused his mercy and rejected his marriage proposal. They didn’t want God to be with them full time. They didn’t think they needed to be saved and chose to remain in their cells when Christ by his incarnation, birth, death and resurrection blew open the doors of the prison.
Knowing the possibility of rejection, Jesus came as a little baby out of mercy to make it as easy as possible to learn how to relate to him in his “mercy mild.” The patron saint of priests, St. John Vianney, preached in 19th century France, “ Without a doubt the Son of God might have appeared upon earth as a grown man. But he didn’t. He abased Himself and lay in the crib as a helpless infant.” The reason he did this, the Curé of Ars asserted, was to make it as easy as possible for us to approach him. We all, he said, “approach a child without fear, the high and the low, the learned and the unlearned, the rich and the poor.” God’s becoming a little baby allows us “to go to the throne of His mercy with confidence. At the crib all fear vanishes, even the greatest criminal draws near to the child with assurance and confidence. What opens more easily than the hands of a little child?”
And in learning to relate to Jesus as a child, we see how it’s not a real option for us to leave him on our own as we go our separate way. Like happened in the life of Mary and Joseph, when the Angel appeared to them and announced that God would take on our flesh, their whole lives changed, and from that point forward, their entire existence would be centered on the God who had become part of their lives, part of their family. Jesus’ birth is meant to have a similar impact on each of us and our own families. He comes as a baby so that we won’t abandon and expose him as if he can take care of himself. He comes so that we relate to him like we do to every baby and allow him to change our priorities like he profoundly changed not only the priorities, goals and life of Mary and Joseph but the shepherds, magi, and eventually the apostles, Mary Magdalene, Martha, Mary, Lazarus and so many others.
The Ever-Present Reality of the Mystery We Celebrate on Christmas
Today is not about recalling with nostalgia a silent, holy night two millennia ago, but about a very present reality. We need God’s mercy just as much as those 2000 years ago did. We come to greet Jesus not as God-was-with-us, but God-is-with us, not as God saved but God saves. We come to renew our marital promises with him. Jesus’ merciful salvation is not a one-time event, but an ongoing journey in which Jesus, God-with-us, accompanies us through life to eternity. It’s a relationship in which the baby in swaddling clothes adored by shepherds grows to become the Good Shepherd who calls each of us by name to follow him not just to Bethlehem but to the heavenly Jerusalem. Though he was born when Caesar Augustus ruled the world and Quirinius was Governor of Syria, his abiding, saving presence is just as real today when Barack Obama is President of the United States and Charlie Baker is governor of Massachusetts.
In the Gospel of Midnight Mass, the angels proclaim to the Shepherds, “Today —not 2000 years ago — a savior is born for you who is Christ and Lord.” Isaiah says, “For a child is — not was — born to us, a son is — again, not was — given to us.” In the Responsorial Psalm at the Midnight Mass, we will sing, “Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord.” And the second reading for Christmas Mass during the Day later this morning, God the Father says to Jesus, “You are my Son; this day I have begotten you.” God is communicating to us repeatedly the same point: that Christmas is not a mere anniversary of Jesus’ birth, but the celebration of a living mystery that is at the heart of our life. God has come to dwell with us and within us. He has come to save us in the present. He has come to be born in us and lead us to live truly resurrected lives. He comes today, right now, at this minute. And he gives each of us the chance to embrace him like Mary and Joseph, like the shepherds, like the Magi. Each of us has the opportunity to let him bathe us in his mercy and forgive the sins he came into this world to take away. Each of us has the awesome privilege to enter into a relationship with him as he comes down on this altar for us, the very same Jesus who was placed in the manger. Each of us has the chance here to renew our marriage promises with him and enter more profoundly into the Covenant he came to establish.
The fundamental gift of Christmas is not a certificate to a nice restaurant, but an invitation to the banquet in which Jesus gives himself to us as our food. It’s not a one-day pass to a spa or gym, but a lifetime membership to a spiritual health club in which Jesus constantly wants to make us firmer and fitter in faith. It’s not an all-expenses paid vacation cruise, but a much more rewarding vocational adventure with all expenses paid by Jesus on the Cross. Each of us is capable of receiving those gifts because Jesus, our Saving God with us, will give us all the help we need to do so. He has taken on our humanity so that we, through the forgiveness of our sins and living in a holy, spousal covenant with him, may take on his divinity. This is the reason for this day and this season. “Christmas is truly,” as Pope Francis says, “the feast of God’s infinite mercy.” Today Emmanuel (God with us), Jesus (God saves), is born for us. Today a Savior is born for us, a son is given for us, who is our Messiah and Lord. Come, let us adore him! And united with him, let us go out with him like the shepherds at the end of today’s Gospel glorifying God, sharing his mercy, and proclaiming his joy to the world!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 IS 62:11-12
to the ends of the earth:
say to daughter Zion,
your savior comes!
Here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.
They shall be called the holy people,
the redeemed of the LORD,
and you shall be called “Frequented,”
a city that is not forsaken.
Responsorial Psalm PS 97:1, 6, 11-12
The LORD is king; let the earth rejoice;
let the many isles be glad.
The heavens proclaim his justice,
and all peoples see his glory.
R. A light will shine on us this day: the Lord is born for us.
Light dawns for the just;
and gladness, for the upright of heart.
Be glad in the LORD, you just,
and give thanks to his holy name.
R. A light will shine on us this day: the Lord is born for us.
Reading 2 TI 3:4-7
When the kindness and generous love
of God our savior appeared,
not because of any righteous deeds we had done
but because of his mercy,
He saved us through the bath of rebirth
and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
whom he richly poured out on us
through Jesus Christ our savior,
so that we might be justified by his grace
and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
Alleluia LK 2:14
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to those
on whom his favor rests.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel LK 2:15-20
When the angels went away from them to heaven,
the shepherds said to one another,
“Let us go, then, to Bethlehem
to see this thing that has taken place,
which the Lord has made known to us.”
So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph,
and the infant lying in the manger.
When they saw this,
they made known the message
that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed
by what had been told them by the shepherds.
And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned,
glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen,
just as it had been told to them.