The power to become children of God.
The following is the text, more or less, of a homily that I gave this morning at the Mass of Christmas Day at St. Rose of Lima Church in Rochester, Massachusetts. The Gospel reading appointed for this Mass comes from the Prologue of John's Gospel (Jn 1:1-18), which forms the core of my reflection.
Christmas is a time for stories. If your experience is anything like mine, your memories of Christmas involve the sharing of stories. For many of us, this means retelling stories of how we have spent Christmas with family and friends, reminiscing about where we were and who we were with when we celebrated Christmas in years past. The best stories are the ones we never tire of retelling, the ones we look forward to hearing again. Sharing these stories over and over again can be a way of reminding ourselves of the many gifts that we celebrate at Christmas: the gifts of family and fellowship, the gifts of kindness and of caring for one another, and the gift of coming together to break bread and to give thanks for the blessings we have received.
Many of us look forward to Christmas not simply for the opportunity to come together and to celebrate, but also to hear some of our favorite stories over again. I don't just mean the stories we tell at Christmas dinner, but the stories that we read and the stories that we see on stage or on television. Some may look forward to reading again the opening lines of The Night Before Christmas – lines that many of us probably know by heart: "'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse." Perhaps you look forward to once again seeing Dickens's A Christmas Carol, or to watching A Charlie Brown Christmas or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or – dare I say it – A Christmas Story.
As great as all these stories can be, the greatest story of Christmas is the one that we gather here in this church to remember, the story at the heart of our faith. It's a better story than all the others, because it happens to be true. It's a story that changed the world forever, a story that gave us a new way of understanding our relationship with God and with one another. It's the story of how, out of love for humankind, the God that we worship chose to become a human being, to share in our humanity and to share with us the gift of his divinity. In the collect, the opening prayer of today's Mass, we find a reminder of what Christmas is all about. The collect tells us that God "who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature . . . still more wonderfully restored it" in the person of Jesus Christ. In the same prayer, we ask "that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity."
In one of the other prayers of this Mass, the preface at the start of the Eucharistic Prayer, we are reminded again of God's extraordinary decision to enter into our world. As the preface puts it, "though [God was] invisible in his own nature, he has appeared visibly in ours," and though he was "begotten before all ages, he has begun to exist in time." We may be tempted to think of this poetic language as something abstract, something totally removed from our day-to-day lives, but I want to invite you to think about what this means for you, for your family and friends, and for all the people you know. What difference does it make that God chose to become like us, in all ways but sin? What difference does it make for us that our God knows what it is like to be hungry and thirsty, to have to work to support himself and to find a place to live? What difference does it make for us that our God knows what it is like to experience human sorrow, to be disappointed, to suffer pain, and to die?
The Gospel reading provided for the Mass of Christmas Day speaks about the difference that all of this makes. It may seem a bit strange that today's Gospel doesn't give us the familiar account of how Mary and Joseph sought a place to stay in Bethlehem, or how the shepherds heard about the Savior's birth from the angel. As you may know, the readings and the prayers that the Church provides for Christmas are different depending on which Mass you attend, and different parts of the story of the birth of Jesus are told at each of the Christmas Masses. If you attend the Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve, the Gospel reading recounts the genealogy of Jesus, followed by the dream that convinced Joseph to accept Mary as his wife (Mt 1:1-25). The Gospel at Midnight Mass describes the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem and the words announced by the angel to the shepherds: "Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord" (Lk 2:1-14). The Roman Missal also provides for a Mass at Dawn, celebrated as the sun rises on Christmas morning. The Gospel for that Mass continues the story heard midnight, recounting how the shepherds heeded the message of the angel and visited Mary, Joseph, and the newborn Jesus in the manger (Lk 2:15-20). Finally, at this Mass, the one provided for Christmas Day, we hear the Prologue of the Gospel of John, which puts the story of the birth of Jesus into a broader perspective.
The Evangelist John reminds us that Jesus is the Incarnate Word, who existed from the beginning of time with God the Father. As John writes, "All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be" (Jn 1:3). The Evangelist recalls the testimony of another John – John the Baptist – who spoke not only about the coming of Jesus but also of the opposition he would face. John preached that Jesus was "the true light, which enlightens everyone," and yet when he came, "the world did not know him," and "his own people did not accept him" (Jn 1:9-11). Even so, John promises, "to those who did accept him, he gave power to become children of God . . . [for] the Word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us . . ." (Jn 1:12-14).
For the Word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us. To return again to a question that I posed a few moments ago, what difference does it make for us that God became a human being and dwelt among us? If we take an honest look at the state of the world, we find that there are still many who do not know the true light, or have not accepted him. I suspect that we have all seen images of churches in Iraq and Syria that have been destroyed by ISIS, and more recently we may have seen images of the funeral of twenty-five Coptic Christians killed two weeks ago in an attack on a cathedral in Egypt. There are still many places in the world where openly professing faith in Christ can lead to persecution and even to martyrdom. Closer to home, we are perhaps most threatened not by persecution but by indifference – by the fact that many simply are not interested in the message of Christ. Over two thousand years after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, it remains the case that "the world did not know him," and that "his own people did not accept him."
Considering the challenges that we face, it's important to remember once again the promise made to us in today's Gospel: "But to those who did accept him, he gave power to become children of God." So great was God's desire to make us his children that he chose to take on our human condition, becoming more like us so that we could become more like him. We may consider ourselves unworthy of this gift; we may hold back on account of our own awareness of our own sinfulness, or out of a feeling that we'll never really be holy enough. But if the Church were a place only for the perfect, none of us would be here. Whenever we wonder whether or not we're really worthy to become children of God, we ought to consider how God came into the world and who welcomed him when he appeared. Joseph and Mary were people of modest means, a mere carpenter and his wife, who welcomed the birth of their son far from home and soon had to flee to another country. After his parents, the first people to see Jesus after he was born were not people of wealth or influence, but shepherds tending their flock by night. When the newborn king received a visit from someone we might think of as important, it wasn’t the Jewish religious authorities or Roman political leaders who came to see him – it was the Magi, foreigners in the land of Israel who had come from far away, guided by a star. These were the unlikely people whom the Son of God called to himself, just as he calls each of us today.
In being received by the Son, we are also received by the Father – the Evangelist John reminds us that it is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who reveals the Father to us (Jn 1:18). The second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews makes a similar promise, telling us that, though "God spoke in partial and various ways . . . through the prophets," he has spoken in the present age through his Son (Heb 1:1-2). Jesus Christ shows us the way to the Father, and in so doing he gives us the power to become God's children. By coming to Mass and participating in the life of the Church, by seeking to imitate the example of Christ and by following his teaching, we have been given the means to reach the goal of eternal life. God has offered us the invitation, but how we respond is up to us.
What difference, then, does faith in Christ make? For us, it makes all the difference in the world. Today, as we celebrate Christmas with family and friends, we celebrate the many gifts that God has given us. Above all, we celebrate the gift that we all received long ago in a manger in Bethlehem – the gift of a child who invites us all to become God’s children.
Peace and good wishes to all who read these lines. AMDG.