We have a full church this morning, a great joy to see!
Any time this many people gathers in Canada, it’s a fair bet that we have folks from many different parts of the world. Just looking at our own regular parishioners I recognize some who come from France, Mexico, Germany, Poland, and Korea, to name but a few.
I can only speak a few of the languages used in our parish, although I am famous for my fine pronunciation of ‘thank you’ in Korean! But I do know that Spanish speakers greeted each other this morning with Feliz Navidad, and the French with Joyeux Noel. The Italians will have exchanged Buon Natale, and others will offer a greeting in words I can’t pronounce! (I did attempt to express Christmas greeting in German, but after someone said I’d just wished him a frolicking vineyard, I quit trying.)
Anyway, my point is that only English speakers will use a word anything like ‘Christmas.’ All those other greetings are about the birth of the Saviour. The various words—even Noel—derive from the Latin word for birthday.
I never thought about the importance of this until my dear friend Sister Josephine Carney pointed it out in a talk she gave earlier in the month. The English name for our joyful celebration is formed by the words ‘Christ’ and ‘Mass’—and what a wealth of truth may we find there! Because the birth of Christ simply cannot be separated from the entire story of our redemption.
As St. Augustine wrote “the only Son of God was to come among men, to take the nature of men, and in this nature to be born as a man. He was to die, to rise again, to ascend into heaven, to sit at the right hand of the Father, and to fulfill his promises among the nations.”
In other words, Christmas without the Cross is a two-dimensional celebration deprived of its deepest meaning and purpose.
We might also say that Christmas without Christ’s Mass is a past event when God wants it be a present event.
We had a visitor the other day who isn't Catholic; at lunch she told the story of how she found herself unexpectedly at Mass--she'd tried to use the chapel at her university as a quiet place to think about a paper she was writing—on time travel! We all got laugh out of this, but our seminarian Larry turned to the young woman and said “actually, you were in just the right place to think about time travel, because the Mass does not repeat Christ’s death on the Cross, but makes it present, right here and now.”
What Larry said about the Cross could be said about Christmas: when we celebrate the Eucharist the Lord is again made flesh for us as he transforms the bread and wine into his Body and Blood. Christ is present, right here and now.
We say that every Sunday is a little Easter since each week we recall the saving mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection, but I don’t think it’s stretching a point too far to say that every Sunday is also a little Christmas.
The Church offers us a different set of readings for the Masses at midnight, dawn, and during the day. I was told early in my priesthood to stick with the midnight Gospel because everyone wants to hear the Christmas story, complete with angels and shepherds. Fair enough. But there's an important reason not to miss the prologue of St. John’s Gospel, which is the text given for Mass during the day. As Father Xavier said in his Christmas homily, the account of Christ's birth in Matthew and Luke gives us the what, while John's Gospel offers us the why of Christmas.
The Word became flesh to make God--and his love--known to all, to bring light into the darkness of our world and of our lives.
John writes that Christ gave those who believed in him “power to become children of God.” That’s quite a Christmas present! Power to become children of God!
How does this power come to us—how do accept this gift?
The obvious answer is through faith, since John says “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
But the next question is more specific—how do we “receive,” how do we “believe”? This, of course, calls for action. Which is why, in part, the parish offers everyone here a Christmas gift, a book on prayer. Prayer is the conversation that nourishes faith. I hope you’ll all take a book with you after Mass: it is short, but it offers eternal wisdom and lasting joys.
To answer the question we must also go back to what I said a few moments about the Mass. It, too, is prayer, but of a unique sort; the Eucharist is where we encounter God’s power at work in our lives; it is where we can travel to Bethlehem, to Nazareth, and ultimately to Jerusalem and Calvary.
Christ’s Mass is where we experience his first coming and await his second; it is where we meet him, no longer as a helpless infant, but as the Risen Lord. It’s wonderful that we’re together this morning looking at Jesus in the manger, but it is far more wonderful that we gather each week to celebrate the difference he makes in our lives—peace in place of anxiety, certainty in place of confusion, and hope instead of fear.