Midnight Mass Homily, shorter version (“The Birth of Jesus: God’s Humility and Generosity”)
Charles Colson, the founder of Prison Fellowship, tells of a memorable experience he had while bringing Christmas gifts to the children of prison inmates. Colson and his wife met a small boy who told them his name was Immanuel. When Colson opened his Bible on Matthew 1:23 and showed Immanuel that his name means “God with us,” the boy jumped up excitedly and said to his mother, “Mommy, Mommy, God is with us! God is with us!”
This is the summary of Christmas – “God is with us.” Christmas is all about God’s coming among us in human flesh in the mystery of the Incarnation.
In the gospel passage tonight Luke shows the birth of Jesus as a historical event by categorically locating it in Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral city and the place prophesied for the coming of the Messiah and by situating it within the frame of world history when Emperor Augustus decreed a census for the whole world.
The Nativity account is very simple and brief: while the couple are in Bethlehem for the census, Mary’s time to give birth comes; she delivers her firstborn, warms him in swaddling cloths and lays him in a manger because there is no room in the inn.
The conditions surrounding the birth of Jesus have an aura of simplicity, poverty and danger. These tell us that Jesus, the Son of God, from the moment of birth, experienced precariousness and insecurity not unlike what many people even in our contemporary times experience.
The mention of the Emperor “Augustus” evokes imperial pomp, glory, might and power. And yet, it is to a helpless infant born in misery, simplicity and poverty that true glory belongs, the heavenly glory that the angels proclaim: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Deprived of all worldly comforts, the child in the manger is the only one to whom the titles “Savior,” and “Lord” truly belong. The only true Savior and Lord of heaven and earth has humbled himself by taking our lowly human nature. We find here a stupendous paradox.
Bethlehem used to be a renowned city of David. It was there that the young David was anointed by the prophet Samuel to be king over Israel (1 Samuel 16:1-13). By the time of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem had declined in significance to a small and humble village. Nonetheless, the meaning of the name Bethlehem is “house of bread.” The meaning is very significant because this Jesus Savior of the Lord is the Bread of Life and will become our Eucharistic Lord.
The first to receive the good news of the birth of the Messiah through an angel of the Lord are shepherds of Bethlehem, who are keeping the night watch over their flock. The shepherds are considered simple, dirty, marginal and irreligious because they cannot attend the services in the Temple and the synagogues because of the nature of their work. It is obvious that this announcement to the shepherds prefigures the ministry of Jesus particularly directed to the merest children, the poor and the little ones.
The shepherds also receive a sign that allows them to recognize the Savior. The sign is “an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Come to think of it – an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes is a very ordinary sign, something that we see everyday. Swaddling cloths are baby-wraps to keep the child warm and snug. Even “lying in a manger” is not surprising for the shepherds. Perhaps, they think that this baby is just one of theirs. The sign is given is very ordinary, nothing spectacular, nothing bombastic, nothing majestic. This is how God accomplishes our salvation. He comes in all meekness, humility and vulnerability. Thus, this ordinary sign of the coming of the Son of God in the form a little babe can only be perceived with faith-filled, simple and uncomplicated eyes and hearts. This little baby is God.
Immanuel – God is with us. This is how God has come to us in the form of a little baby. No wonder St. Francis of Assisi considered Christmas as the feasts of all feasts and the greatest of all solemnities.
The devotion to the crib as the primary symbol of the Nativity of Jesus can be traced back to St. Francis of Assisi. According to St. Bonaventure, three years before the death of the saint on October 3, 1226, he decided to celebrate at the Italian town of Greccio the memory of the birth of Jesus with the greatest possible solemnity. He had a manger prepared, hay carried in and an ox and an ass led to the spot. The brothers were summoned and the people arrived and the forest amplified their prayers and songs. The venerable night of Greccio became very brilliant and solemn by the multitude of bright lights and by the harmonious hymns of praise. Then St. Francis stood before the manger, filled with piety, bathed in tears and overcome with joy. A solemn Mass was celebrated over the manger and St. Francis lovingly preached on the birth of the poor King, the Babe from Bethlehem. By reenacting the birth of Jesus at Greccio, he wanted to make a showcase of God’s love, humility and generosity.
For St. Francis of Assisi, in Jesus God has manifested who God is and God’s love in an absolute manner. Jesus, the Word of the Father, is the language in which God has spoken to us of Himself and of His love.
In the mystery of the Incarnation God has expressed himself in and through our humanity and frailty, through poverty and suffering. Opposites are reconciled. God is weak and yet so strong. God is mortal and yet living and true. God is frail and yet so strong. This is the paradox that we must recognize and follow.
Indeed, for St. Francis, God has shown his limitless love and total self-emptying in the birth of his Son Jesus. In the Incarnation we find the intensity of God’s loving self-giving by becoming one of us.
St. Francis also saw the great humility of God in the Incarnation. He considered humility as the horizon in which God appeared. Jesus’ Incarnation, poverty, the cross and even the Eucharist are forms of God’s humility and contours of the horizon through which God has come and continues to come to us.
At Greccio St. Francis wished to see with his own eyes and feel with his own hands how human, tiny and fragile and lowly God is (1 Cel 84-87). He wanted to realize and help people realize exactly what God had done for his people, and “how poor he chose to be for our sakes.” Francis himself had chosen the bitter poverty of being on the margin of society, with no resources or security. He saw the Son of God placing himself, as it were, on the margin of divinity.
If God has taken the horizon of humility in which God has appeared and continues to appear, for St. Francis, unless we fix our gaze in this direction, we cannot experience God.
Finally, for St. Francis, the Birth of Jesus is about the generosity of God. God’s generosity in the Incarnation is shown in the divine self-giving, in God embracing our human condition and in being solidarity with us and becoming like one of us.
Because God has extended his marvelous generosity to us through the birth of his only begotten Son, St. Francis believed that Christmas must be enjoyed by all people, rich and poor, and even by all creations, not just humans. Side by side with human creatures, all other created beings and things must join in the celebration of Christmas. He wanted to tell the Emperor to ask all the citizens to scatter grain along the roads on Christmas day so that birds and animals would have plenty to eat. He wished that sufficient fodder be provided for brother Ox and brother Ass. But above all, he wanted the rich to take care of the poor and to share with them what they have.
One time, Christmas day fell on a Friday. One of the brothers, Brother Morico remarked that they would not be able to serve meat because it was Friday. St. Francis told Bro. Morico: “You sin, brother, when you call ‘Friday’ the day when unto us a Child is born. I want even the walls to eat on that day, and if they cannot, at least on the outside they be rubbed with grease!”
For St. Francis, the Christmas paradox has serious consequences for us. We who claim to be followers of the Incarnate Son of God must also follow God’s love, humility and generosity. We must show love, humility and generosity to everyone, starting with our families but not limited to them. In a special way, we must show these especially to the little ones and even to other creatures. Indeed, Christmas must not only be celebrated or commemorated. It must be lived.
COMING HOME TO CHRISTMAS (New Christmas Album)
LET LOVE BE THE GIFT
Jose Mari Chan and Liza Chan-Parpan
Each day of the year can be Christmas
If Love is the gift from you
When the Season comes to an end
And the New Year’s just round the bend
Though they’ll take down the Tree as always
And the bright trimming off the hallways
Christmas will linger for all days
(Christmas can linger the whole year through
It is you that can make this true)
Let Love be the gift from you.
Jose Mari Chan and children Liza, Jojo, Michael and Franco
I remember my Christmas when we went around
My Daddy drove us down to some orphans in town
We gave some goodies away
Happy faces made our day
We learned that giving and sharing
is the real Christmas way