Christmas Mass During the Night: 2016
Readings: Isaiah 9:1-6; Psalm 96: 1-3, 11-13; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
Homily by Rt. Rev. Lawrence Stasyszen, O.S.B.
St. Gregory’s Abbey, Shawnee, Oklahoma
My dear confreres and brothers and sisters in Christ, may the grace and peace of this Christmas day be with you!
If you were out at all on the morning of this Christmas Eve in our city of Shawnee, you know that there was a very thick fog over our campus and city. The light of the sun was obscured and it was hard to make out even large objects if they were more than a few feet away. Such foggy conditions make travel dangerous and can cast an atmosphere of gloom and doom over the landscape. A foggy landscape has been used by many a novelist, playwright and movie director to set the tone for suspense, danger and even horror. Perhaps in creating a foggy Christmas Eve God meant to give us the perfect atmospheric conditions this year to prepare us for the celebration of Christmas this night. After all, God gave us all of our senses that we might recognize His actions in our lives and in our world. And so it is that the words of the Prophet Isaiah this night touch not only the ears of our heart, but the eyes of our heart as well: “The people who walked in darkness / have seen a great light; / upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom / a light has shone.”
Yes, my brothers and sisters, this night we celebrate with joy the coming of a “great light” that breaks forth through the shadows of the night to shine upon those who all too long have dwelt in darkness and foggy gloom: a darkness and gloom much more profound, much more treacherous, and much more terrifying than the darkness and gloom of a foggy morning or a “dark and stormy night.” Tonight we celebrate the coming of the light that dispels the dark terror and the ponderous gloom of sin and death that so long held our humanity in fear and terror. Tonight we celebrate the radiant glory of the Lord that breaks through the darkest of nights.
Certainly this evening we take special delight in the story of the birth of Jesus, hearing once again the inspired account of St. Luke that brings before us the details of the census ordered by Caesar Augustus, the long journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, City of David, of the birth of Jesus in a place where animals were kept and how St. Joseph lovingly wrapped him in saddling clothes and laid in a manger. We heard of the “first Noel” when the angel choirs revealed to shepherds the “good news of great joy that will be for all the people,” the good news that the savior had been born, the savior who is Messiah and Lord. This story always sparks the imagination and wonder of children, and continues to kindle in those of us who are childlike a sense of joy and gratitude. How blessed we are to have such a beautifully arranged depiction of the nativity of our Lord here in the Abbey Church to help us celebrate the birth of Jesus. It certainly merits contemplation!
But as we contemplate the scene of the birth of Jesus, we also are called to understand the profound realities that it represents. The eternal Word of God brings light and salvation into the darkness of the world not by coming in overwhelming power, but by emptying himself of his divinity in order to take on our humanity. The glory of the Lord shines forth not in the splendor of palaces and temples, but in the most humiliating circumstances of persons displaced by the politically powerful and who are seeking to find shelter in any setting they might find. The infant Jesus is placed in a manger, immediately revealing to the world that he comes as the food of salvation. The swaddling clothes lovingly wrapped around him by St. Joseph foreshadow the burial cloths lovingly wrapped around him by Joseph of Arimathea. As for the shepherds watching over flocks “on a cold winter’s night that was so deep,” they might very well have been watching over the ewes about to give birth to the lambs to be sacrificed on the high holy day of Passover in nearby Jerusalem. If that were the case, then how fitting it was that they should be the first invited to come see the true Paschal Lamb whose sacrifice and blood would take away the sins of the world! Yes, our Christmas celebration cannot be separated from the full story of redemption accomplished through the life, teaching, passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ who is born to us this day.
And so it is that tonight we remember the dignity that God the Father grants to us through the birth of Jesus, his only begotten Son. That is why this night the words of a sermon by Pope St. Leo the Great are read in Divine Office. Although we heard them just a few moments ago, I repeat some of them now: “Acknowledge, O Christian, the dignity that is yours! … Remember, that wrested from the powers of darkness, you are now translated into the Light and the Kingdom of God. By the sacrament of baptism you have become the temple of the Holy Spirit. Do not, by evil deeds, drive out from you such a One dwelling with thee, and submit yourself again to the bondage of the devil.” St. Paul also reminds us of this dignity in our second reading: “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.” We will pray these words yet again this night after the Lord’s Prayer, as we ask the Lord to continue to deliver us from the evil and anxious cares that would darken the light of faith and hope that is ours at the coming of the Lord.
My brothers and sisters, tonight we remember that Christmas is not simply about the historic birth of Jesus in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. Tonight we remember that the glory of God has shone forth not to illuminate the dark and gloom of a single night, but rather to dispel the gloom of sin and darkness of death for all time. And if far too many in our world today still live in the shadowy darkness of sin and death, it is now up to us to radiate the light of Christmas ever so brightly today. The light of Christ that shines forth from the manger has been entrusted to us. Sustained by grace, may we share freely this most precious of Christmas gifts: the good news of great joy that will be for all the peoples – today is born for us the savior, Christ the Lord!