Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Midnight Mass: The Stable our Shelter

For many years generous parishioners have put up the manger scene that stands outside our church tonight. But last year someone either stole the wood used for the stable, or else it was carted off during our spring cleaning. I hope that was what happened, otherwise I’d have to tell you the story of how the Grinch stole the Christmas Crib.

Our carpenter was not defeated by the loss of his lumber. He used much more substantial boards to build this year’s stable—I almost wondered whether he had been reading about the Church’s recent commitment to seismic upgrades!

I’m not sure you’d want to take shelter in that stable during an earthquake, but the sight of its sturdy roof did get me thinking: the humble stable at Bethlehem is a safe place and a sure refuge for all of us. Mary and Joseph were turned away from the inn but they make space for us beside the manger.

We are welcome there—because we are family. Jesus is our brother, truly God but truly human. He is no less our brother because he is our Saviour; he could not be our Saviour if he were not our brother.

God in human form may seem impossible to grasp, or it may seem a truth without consequences. Yet Pope Benedict XVI told young people at World Youth Day “the happiness you are seeking, the happiness you have a right to enjoy, has a name and a face: it is Jesus of Nazareth.”

What happiness are you seeking? That is a good question at Christmas. We long for happiness because that’s how God made us. And surely by revealing himself in the flesh God intended to fulfill our deepest longing.

Of course the happiness that Christmas brings to the Christian is not the “holly jolly” feelings we hear in seasonal songs. It is the deep kind of happiness that can survive external challenges, whether bereavement, unemployment, family problems, or illness.

How does that work? It works by assuring us that there is One who understands how we feel, knows what we fear, and walks where we walk. In the plain words of the gifted Protestant preacher Rick Warren, “Jesus knew what it was like to feel pain and be under pressure. Jesus became what we are, so we can become what he is.”

There’s the reality of Christmas: God humbled himself to share in our humanity that we might come to share in his divinity. There’s a purpose to all of this. By becoming man Jesus allows us to become part of His great work of salvation.

As partners in his mission, we can unite our sufferings with Christ’s; we can find meaning in failure; we can be free of the fear of death itself; even as we work out our own salvation we can help to save others.

Gazing at the Christ child, we must allow our hearts and minds to take flight in joy. What has happened is beyond the power of the most beautiful Christmas carol, but perhaps the words of St. Augustine do some justice to this holy night.

St. Augustine says that we have reached the time of the fulfillment of all God’s promises. And what were they? Augustine says “eternal salvation, everlasting happiness with the Angels, an immortal inheritance, endless glory, the joyful vision of his face, his holy dwelling in heaven, and after resurrection from the dead, no further fear of dying.”

The great fourth-century preacher added “it was not enough for God to make his Son our guide to the way; he made him the way itself that we might travel with him as leader, and by him as the way.

“Therefore, the only Son of God was to come among men, to take the nature of men, and in this nature to born as a man.”

Statues of the infant Jesus often show him with arms outstretched. To his parents these were the arms of a helpless child, but to us they are arms that encircle and console us, bringing healing and strength. The divine embrace holds us up in every situation, drawing us toward the light in any darkness.

The prophet Isaiah is more eloquent than the angels tonight. They speak of good news and of great joy, and of peace among all those who find favour with God. But Isaiah seems to know us better than the heavenly host: we have walked in darkness, we have lived in a land of deep darkness, and on us light has shone.

We were burdened and oppressed, and are now free. The child born for us today has authority over all the powers and dominions before whom we once quaked. He has authority over violence, addiction, sickness, depression, fear, and anxiety. He brings peace to the anxious, and hope to the despairing.

Tonight the child of Bethlehem opens his arms to us, and invites us to take shelter beside him, beneath the sturdy roof of his Church.

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