“Beloved: The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good.”
My brothers and sisters, in case you missed it, that single sentence taken from the Letter to Titus constituted the second reading for this night when we celebrate the marvelous wonder of God’s love, a love given freely and completely in the coming of our salvation, Jesus Christ. That single sentence summarizes for us not only the wonder and joy of this feast of Christmas, but also the entire mystery of salvation and of our own calling in this life. Without wanting to ignore or overlook the dramatic and treasured story of the birth of Jesus in the lowly stable at Bethlehem, or of the angel choir that appeared to the shepherds who kept their flocks by night, we would do well to reflect upon the message of this single and singular sentence placed before us on this holy night.
“Beloved: The grace of God has appeared.” Let’s stop there, for this is what we celebrate in a special way this night – the Grace of God has appeared. Certainly we can say that grace is made manifest each time God’s divine love is expressed outside God’s self – in the unfolding of creation, in the call of a nation to seek God in faith, and in the yearning of every human person for fulfillment and love. Yes, we are surrounded each day, each moment, by manifestations of grace.
In the darkness and chill of this winter night, however, we celebrate the particular the unique manifestation of the divine life of grace in the infant child of Bethlehem. Born of Mary, herself being “full of grace,” Jesus is the perfect expression of God’s love, of God’s grace, for Jesus is Emmanuel: God-with-Us. The incarnation of God’s love in Jesus is the cause of the great joy that stirs our hearts and draws us together as a congregation tonight. It is also this grace that forms us as a monastic community in our communal search for God. The appearance of God’s grace in the flesh: this is the “good news of great joy for all the people” proclaimed by the heavenly messengers to the humble shepherds who kept watch in darkness of the night. It is the “good news of great joy” that we receive as we keep watch in the darkness of this night.
And it certainly is “good news of great joy for all the people,” for – as we read in the next phrase of the Letter to Titus – this grace has appeared “saving all.” The message of the angels, the message of the Letter to Titus, and the message of all revelation point to this one truth: Jesus Christ is God’s salvation offered for all people of all times. Although God formed the Hebrew people to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, the life, teaching and ministry of Jesus reveal that the great gift of salvation is not only for the Jewish people, but for the Gentiles as well. In Jesus we all are called to be God’s children.
This is an important message for us to remember. How often it is that we try to limit the breadth of God’s love and the reach of God’s grace! Whenever we dismiss, reject or condemn persons of other nations, cultures, races, religions – or anyone who is different from us – we try to place limits on the gift of God’s grace that comes to us in Jesus. And whenever we ignore or resent our neighbor who is in need, the family member who disappoints us, or the confrere who tries our patience, we do the same. And when we give up on our own ability to improve, to overcome complacency, or to grow in holiness, we also try to place limits on the reach of God’s grace. On this Christmas day, let us remember that God’s grace has appeared for all: our enemies, our neighbors and even for you and me.
In bringing the gift of salvation, however, Jesus did not end the history of our world, nor did he remove us from an age that knows too well the forces of oppression, of injustice, of excess and of poverty. Rather, he came “training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age…” And so, even as we at times must continue to walk in darkness, even when we find ourselves dwelling in a land of gloom, and even when we journey through the uncertain path of economic difficulty or illness or political conflict or violence, we nonetheless possess the “great light” about which the Prophet Isaiah spoke so long ago. This light is that of God’s Word Made Flesh, guiding us, training us, and strengthening us so that we might live in temperance, justice and devotion, even as we “await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.”
This grace and hope fill us with us joy this night as we keep vigil for the dawn of the day when the grace of God appears in the infant of Bethlehem, Jesus. It is this same Jesus “who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness.” It is this same Jesus who came “… to cleanse for himself a people as his own.” And it is this same Jesus who call us now to be “…eager to do what is good.”
My brothers and sisters, we are a people redeemed, delivered and cleansed by the gift of God’s grace that has appeared in the person of our savior, Jesus Christ. As we are renewed in this grace in this Eucharist and in this Christmas Day, let us share this “good news of great joy” to all peoples not only through the words we speak, but also through lives of joyful faith!