The Nativity of the Lord: Mass During the Night

Today’s readings

Often when we get to Christmas time, we think about our Christmases past: who we were with, where we were, how we celebrated.  Sometimes we might remember the gifts we receive, sometimes not.  For me, what I remember most is the joy of being with my family and the love that we shared certainly marked my memory of those Christmases.  Over time, some Christmases have been wonderful, and some marked by sadness, especially after Dad died.  That is how Christmas comes and goes throughout our lives, of course.  You could probably tell similar stories.

But the real revelation that I had while reflecting on those past Christmases is that we definitely sell Christmas short.  Sure, we settle sometimes for the commercial, retail version of Christmas.  If you love the people in your life, then you’ll gift them lavishly.  Then we’ll all sit around the Christmas lights, eat a big feast, and sing some Christmas carols.  And there’s nothing wrong with any of those things, of course, but that’s not the totality of Christmas, not even close.  

The totality of Christmas is, quite frankly, overwhelming.  Christmas is the beginning of the Incarnation, in which our God – God who is higher than the heavens and more glorious than anything we can think of – this God takes on our flesh, broken and flawed as it can sometimes be, and becomes one of us.  In fact, he so perfectly assumed our humanity that although he never sinned, he willingly laid down his life for us, paying the price for our sins, the price of a tortuous, ignominious death on a cross.  And far from letting death have the last word, God raised him up, gloriously throwing open the gates of the Kingdom for all to enter in.

That’s pretty awesome, but even that is not the totality of what Christmas is.  Because here’s the kicker: are you ready?  He did all that for you.  Saint Augustine points this out in one of his sermons. He writes: “I tell you again: for your sake, God became man.

“You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.”

And if you think about it, we need this kind of mercy right now, maybe more than ever.  We need it as a people, and we need it individually. The constant threat of terror overseas, and even here in our country.  The nightly shootings on the streets of Chicago and many other cities. The degradation of real authority sparked by misconduct of politicians, police officers, teachers, and even priests. Add to all that our own sinful tendencies, addictions, and personal failures.

Amid all of this mess, there is mercy: personal, intentional, glorious mercy.  What we have to see on this most holy night is that our God knew the flaws of human flesh, but he loved it so much that he came into it anyway so that it might be redeemed.  He was well aware of our brokenness, but he entered into it anyway that he might bind it up and make it whole.  Becoming one of us, he was in a powerful position to pour out his great mercy, taking his creation one step further by making it fit for heaven. And, as Saint Augustine points out, he did that for you.  Not just you as a group, but you, and you, and you, and you, and so on.  What you need to hear me saying is that if you were the only person in history who ever needed mercy, he would have done that for you.

That is Christmas.  It’s the best and really only reason for us to celebrate so joyfully every December the 25th.  God’s mercy is what makes us who we are, what defines us as a Church and as a people.  The story of Christ’s Incarnation is what makes us a living sign of God’s mercy in the world.  That is who we really are, despite the world’s attempts to define us as something so very much less.  The great gift of God’s mercy shines glorious light into every dark corner of our world and of our lives and calls us broken ones to redemption and healing and joy.

It’s crucial for us to live that mercy and not accept what others want to make us.  If you’re joining us for the first time tonight, or if you’re visiting family, or if you came here looking for something more for Christmas, then we welcome you and we hope that you experience Christ’s presence among us.  We hope that you find in your time with us and with the Lord tonight a desire to go deeper in life and find the meaning of it all.  Please know that we would be glad to help you in that journey, and come to one of us on the parish staff, to point you in the right direction.  If you’re an active member of our parish family, then I hope the message that you receive tonight, and your encounter with Christ in this moment, leads you to a desire to share Christ’s presence with others.

The Incarnation – the birth and personhood of Jesus Christ – along with his Passion, death and Resurrection, changes everything.  When we all rediscover God’s mercy, the Incarnation can change us too, so that we may then go out and change the world around us.  When that happens in us, when Christ becomes incarnate in us, the angels will sing just as joyfully now as they did on that most holy night.  

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will!

The Nativity of the Lord – Vigil Masses

Today’s readings

Once, a very long time ago, there was a man named Joseph. He was a well-respected and hard-working man, from the family of the great king David.  But since Israel hadn’t been a great nation in a long time, he wasn’t respected for being a great king himself.  Instead, people respected him for his carpentry work and for the fact that he was faithful and just.

He was to be married to a young woman named Mary – their marriage was probably arranged by their families.  They would come together to be man and wife when the time was right.  One day, she came to him with an unbelievable story about being pregnant, with a child given to her by the Holy Spirit.  Joseph didn’t know what to think.  He clearly knew he was not the father of the baby, and so he decided not to marry the young woman, but instead to let her go quietly, so she would not be embarrassed.

The night he decided to do this, Joseph had a dream.  In the dream, an angel appeared to him and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, and that God wanted him to do just that. The angel told him that the baby was very special, that he would come to save all God’s people from their sins and would be called Emmanuel– a name that means that God is here among us.

So Joseph did what the angel told him.  He took Mary as his wife.  And about that time, a proclamation came from the government that said that everyone had to go and be registered as a citizen.  They had to go to the city where they were from to do that.  So Joseph made plans to travel with Mary from Nazareth in Galilee where they were living, to Bethlehem, the city of David, which was where Joseph was from.  The way was long and dangerous, and they traveled by foot and on a beast of burden. They were hoping to get to Bethlehem before it was time for Mary to have the baby, but that didn’t work out. While they were travelling on the way, the time came for Mary to have her baby.

They looked desperately for some inn or any house to take them in, but every place was full because so many people were traveling for the census. Eventually, they at least found a shelter: a rickety little shack for farm animals, and they went in there. That’s when Mary had her baby. She was scared, and Joseph had never delivered a baby before.  But the child was beautiful, and Joseph held him while Mary slept, exhausted from travelling and giving birth.  They placed the baby in the manger, a feed-trough for the animals, and they named him Jesus.

Later, they had visits from shepherds and from astrologers from the east, who came to worship the child, because they had seen visions too, and followed a star that foretold the baby’s birth.  Mary and Joseph were amazed at all that was happening, and the wonderful visits they were receiving, and they treasured all of this in their hearts.

One night, Joseph had another visit from an angel in his dreams.  The angel told him that people were planning to harm the new baby.  So, at the angel’s instruction, Joseph got up from bed, took Mary and Jesus, and fled to the land of Egypt so that they would be out of harm’s way.  They stayed there until the angel told Joseph that those who wanted to harm Jesus were dead, and it was okay to go back to their own town now.

Joseph watched the child grow up, and was so proud to be his foster-father.  He taught Jesus how to live and how to respect others, and all about the religious law, just like any father would do for his children.  In his private moments, Joseph always wondered what would become of Jesus, wondered what God had in store for him.  All he knew was that something wonderful was happening, and as hard as it was sometimes, he had been called to help it happen.

And God wants to continue to do wonderful things for us.  Jesus wasn’t just born two thousand years ago; Jesus is born right here, right now for us, if we would just make a little space, a little manger for him in our hearts.  Just as Joseph didn’t know exactly what God had in store for Jesus, we don’t know what God has in store for any of us in the year ahead.  But we do know this: God sent Jesus so that God could be here among us, and he is here among us now, leading us back to him, telling us that we are his special children, and loving us all with love beyond anything we can imagine.

If there is anything we can learn from this story, it should be this: God loves us with love beyond all telling.  Our sins can’t keep us from that if we look to God for mercy.  Just like the birth of Jesus couldn’t be stopped by a long journey, or the plotting of the government, so nothing can get in the way of God’s love for us.

Just like things were hard for Mary and Joseph as they travelled along, trying to find a place to stay, sometimes things for us will be hard too.  But all along the way, there are angels, guiding us to where God wants us, watching over us, and helping us to find the Good News. All along the way, Jesus walks with us and comes to us, as often as we prepare that manger in our hearts for him. Today, God brings us here to worship, so that like those shepherds and astrologers, we can find Jesus again, and we can see Jesus in those who love us, and in our own hearts.

For God so loved the world, that he gave us his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him would not perish, but have eternal life.  That’s the best gift we will ever get.  God’s love for us, beyond all telling.

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