Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Christmas Vigil Mass
December 24, 2013
Vigil: Is 62:1-5, Acts 13:16-17.22-25, Mt 1:18-25
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
This was the text that guided the preaching of the homily:
The Encounter and Proposal of Jesus at Christmas
Ten days ago, our new Holy Father Pope Francis gave a lengthy interview with Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli. Tornielli began the interview by asking him several questions about the meaning of Christmas. Pope Francis said it is first and foremost about the “encounter with Jesus.” God, he said, “has always sought out his people, led them, looked after them, promised to be always close to them. … This is a beautiful thing. Christmas is God’s meeting with his people.”
We see this loving encounter prophesied in all its richness in the first reading of this Vigil Mass, when Isaiah foretells that we will no longer be “forsaken” or “desolate” or alone, but that 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.
Whenever I prepare couples for marriage I ask them how the proposal happened since it always tells me a great deal about the groom and often quite a bit about the couple. I’ve been really pleasantly surprised over the course of these last 14 years that of the couple of hundred marriages I’ve witnessed, about ten percent of the proposals happened on Christmas Eve or Day. Grooms have recognized what a special day it was not just to give a ring to the woman they love but to pledge the total gift of themselves to her, hoping to receive in response the gift of their beloved’s loving commitment.
In a much more profound way, Christmas is the day on which God himself asks us to marry him, hoping that we will say “yes!” in response and enter into a life of mutually committed love that will last not just as long as we both shall live but forever. God’s not asking if we want to go out for a date with him on December 24, 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 with him. Christmas is the day on which God gives himself to us totally as a gift and hopes that we will respond by giving of ourselves entirely to him.
Responding with Courage and Maturity
Sometimes, however, just like young people afraid of making definitive commitments, we can hesitate to give our response to God. We might think we’re unworthy of his love and attention. We might fear, even like Mary at the Annunciation or St. Joseph in tonight’s Gospel, that what God is asking of us might be more than we can handle.
But Pope Francis in the interview tries to assure us not to be afraid. “God never gives someone a gift that the person is not capable of receiving,” he said. “If he gives us the gift of Christmas, it is because we all have the ability to understand and receive it — all of us, from the holiest of saints to the greatest of sinners, from the purest to the most corrupt among us. Even a corrupt person has this ability: the ability is a little impoverished, it’s probably a bit rusty, but he still has it.”
At the same time, however, Pope Francis calls us to spiritual maturity. Just like a young woman who has just received a marriage proposal, we must use our freedom to say yes or no to that gift, or, if we must, ask for more time, but not to ignore it. “Christmas,” Pope Francis said, “is a call from God who gives us this gift.” Christmas is a gift and a vocation calling us to examine whether we really appreciate the gift of God. “Do we want,” the Pope says, “to receive Him or do we prefer other gifts?”
If we need more time to give the Lord our answer, Pope Francis says, God is “patient” and like a man truly in love with a woman, “never tires of waiting for us.” At the same time, however, he wants us to recognize what gift he’s giving and what gift he has created us to be able to make in return. The Christian life is a vocation to marital union with the Lord. We’ll never find a more loving Bridegroom then Jesus, a greater provider, a better protector, a more joyful companion. But he is hoping and wanting that we respond with the same fidelity, commitment, self-giving and passion.
The Wondrous Exchange of Gifts at Christmas
If we say yes and entrust ourselves in love to God, then we have a chance in this covenant of love to experience the full meaning and joy of Christmas. The Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer we will chant in a few minutes points to what the early saints of the Church called the admirabile commercium, a miraculous exchange of gifts that the Christmas covenant makes possible.
“Though [Christ],“ we will pray to the Father, “the holy exchange that restores our life has shone forth today in splendor: when our frailty is assumed by your Word not only does human mortality receive unending honor but by this wondrous union, we, too, are made eternal.” As Christ assumes our humanity, he makes it possible in this covenant of love for us to become sharers in his divinity! He makes us capable of becoming other Christ’s. This is not a fairy tale. This is the unbelievable gift, the Gospel, that we celebrate on Christmas.
God, as Pope Francis reminds us, “never gives someone a gift that the person is not capable of receiving.” Each of us is capable of receiving this gift. Each of us is capable of the response and commitment required, but we need to receive the gift and not prefer other ones instead. The fundamental gift of Christmas is not a one-time gift certificate to a nice restaurant, but an invitation to a weekly or even daily banquet in which Jesus gives himself to us as our food. It’s not a one-day pass to a spa, 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!
Christ’s three-fold benediction
But to do so we need God’s help. At the very end of Mass today, we are going to ask God to bless us in three ways to help us to respond to the great gift of Jesus this Christmas and come thereby to experience in this life and forever the fullness of the wondrous covenantal exchange. In the new Christmas banners hanging in the sanctuary, we see the baby Jesus sitting on Mary’s lap with his hand raised in an act blessing. The three-fold benediction with which he seeks to strengthen us is meant to help make possible our full response to our vocation to enter into the marital covenant with the Lord.
In the first part of this tri-partite blessing, the priest prays: “May the God of infinite goodness, who by the Incarnation of his Son has driven darkness from the world and by that glorious Birth has illumined this most holy night, drive from you the darkness of vice and illumine your hearts with the light of virtue.” In order to receive the Lord’s gift, we have to be free of selfishness, egoism and placing our treasure in other goods and things than in God. At Christmas, as Isaiah tells us in the first reading, God’s people’s triumph “shines forth like the dawn and victory like a burning torch.” God wants to give us that victory of virtue so that we may respond to him fully. That’s why John the Baptist throughout Advent helped us to make straight the way of the Lord, to free us from self-absorption, to give us self-mastery so that we can give ourselves totally in response to the Lord’s incredible proposal. That’s the first part of Christ’s three-fold Christmas blessing.
In the second part, the priest prays, “May God, who willed that the great joy of his Son’s saving Birth be announced to shepherds by the Angel, fill your minds with the gladness he gives and make you heralds of the Gospel.” God wants to fill us with the “good news of great joy” that filled the shepherds on Christmas night and make us new angels announcing to others that same joy. The responsorial psalm tonight was “Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord!” The Lord wants to bless us with his help so that we may sing of his love and help our family members and friends fall in love with him too. That’s the second present he wishes to bestow upon us.
In the final part of the blessing, we pray, “And may God, who by the Incarnation brought together the earthly and heavenly realm, fill you with the gift of his peace and favor and make you sharers with the Church in heaven.” We ask God to strengthen us never forget the wondrous exchange between our humanity and God’s divinity in Jesus that extends to all of us who truly respond to Jesus’ invitation to unite ourselves to him. That is the path to true peace announced by the angels because true peace comes from union with God no matter what other external circumstances we confront. It’s also the path to make us sharers forever in the Church of heaven. That’s the third part of the blessing.
So on Christmas, God wants to bless us with virtue, with overflowing joy, with peace and with a foretaste of heaven! As Pope Francis says, God never gives us a gift that we are incapable of receiving. Today he gives us the gift of himself together with his help to receive it fully and enter into the covenant of faithful, fruitful, indissoluble spousal love that is the Christian life.
Saying “Yes!” Now
The greatest way we enter into and renew that covenant is here at Mass. This is where we encounter the same Jesus that the shepherds and Magi encountered in Bethlehem. This is where he seeks to bring about that miraculous exchange of divinity and humanity. Here Jesus is not placed in a manger fit for animals but makes us his manger placing himself within us. This is where he’s wrapped not in swaddling clothes but in our flesh, in our life. This is where the wedding he came from heaven to earth to inaugurate is consummated. O Come all ye Faithful. O Come let us adore him. O come let us love him. O Come let us receive this Gift and Giver and enter into that miraculous exchange by which he seeks to bring us to that place where Mary, Joseph and the Angels and Saints forever sing Glory to God in the Highest!
The readings for the Vigil Mass were:
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.
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.
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.’”
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.