A Christmas reflection by Fr. Jack Lynch, S.F.M., on Isaiah 9.2-7; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-14
The other day a memory of a previous Christmas flashed through my mind with the almost childish hope that it could be repeated. I was a new missionary in Lima, Peru, and had worked hard planning and preparing my very first Christmas homily. But I never did give it. During the reading of the gospel, I heard singing outside the chapel. The singers didn’t go by the chapel but came right on in and took over. It was beautiful. Children were dressed as pastorcitos, young shepherds, and they sang and danced with bells on their arms and legs and made a joyful sound, but the centuries-old lyrics told us the story of Christmas and the birth of Jesus. They were the perfect homily.
Now many years later, the memory of that event came at a moment when I was wondering what I might say this Christmas that might be a new insight or at least different from what we have already shared at so many other Christmas celebrations. It was at that moment of panic and feeling a void that I wished I might be rescued again by singing shepherds passing by who could conveniently drop in immediately after the gospel. I realized that was not going to happen.
Additional words cannot add much to the magnificent accounts that we read in the gospels about the Christmas event, the Word of God who entered human history in the person of Jesus. We know that in the Gospel of Luke, the birth of Jesus is registered at a particular time in history and in a particular place on the map. The account tells us that Jesus did not arrive in history as someone who had to choose a name, a family, a past, or a whole identity for himself. He was a member of a specific tribe and entered an unfolding history between a yesterday and a tomorrow. During his lifetime, he will discover himself as a unique link in a long line of faith and faith-filled people.
Jesus is a Palestinian Jew born in the reign of Cesar Augustus and King Herod. His birth is located in space and time, the natural boundaries of every human life. To be human is always to be somewhere. “Once upon a time” is a fairytale; the “reign of Augustus” is real time. Luke registers the birth of Jesus as a sign of the historical reality of the visit of God and a witness to the fulfillment of God’s plan.
The birth of Jesus is not the birth of just another child. Luke is anxious to tell us the child’s true identity. The angels announce to the shepherds, and to all of us, what is happening. The angels proclaim at the beginning of the gospel what Jesus’ followers came to believe only after the resurrection—that Jesus is the saviour. In the person of Jesus, God has visited his people.
At Christmas we celebrate the great truth that our God is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. In a condition of humility and marginality, Jesus was born and our God entered human history—the word of God became flesh. At the heart of Christianity is the belief that the most precious word God spoke became a person, Jesus. For Christians, Christmas manifests God’s irruption into human history; it is a Christmas of lowliness and service. In turn, we must discover and encounter God in the situations of marginality today and look to find God in what are so often considered to be the vulnerable and wounded points of humanity.
The poor are the first to hear the gospel
Pope Francis has reminded us that the first to have the right to the proclamation of the Gospel are in fact the poor, in need not only of bread but also of words of life. In this year of Mercy, Francis reminds us that mercy is the heart of God. It must also be the heart of the members of the one great family of God’s children.
The bishops at the synod on The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church (2008) reminded us that the poor not only hear the Word of God, but they are also agents of evangelization in as much as they are open to God and generous in sharing with others. We are called to listen to them, to learn from them, to be evangelized by them.
At Christmas we celebrate the wonderful truth that God did not fall in love with us from far away, from a long distance, but rather God came among us. The great truth is that no matter what happens to us, God’s love for us is not negotiable. It has never been nor ever will be in doubt. In Jesus, God is here and it is through Jesus that we can pray to God not only “Hosanna in the highest heavens,” but also “Hosanna among us.” Christmas tells us that God has a new address. In biblical terms, God has pitched his tent among us; Emmanuel, God with us.
Ancient religions, as well as modern, have always used the themes of light and darkness as a way of speaking about religious experience. Light has always been associated with goodness, knowledge, and hope. Darkness has symbolized evil, ignorance, and despair. In the first reading the prophet Isaiah (9.2) voices his hope to the people of Judah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.”
In our time, the darkness is found in the enormous poverty afflicting so much of humankind. There is a growing gap between people and nations who use most of the planet’s resources and the people and nations excluded by the international economic order. The real darkness lies in disregarding human dignity, especially the dignity of the poor. The darkness lies in forgetting that we are all sons and daughters of God.
In our Christian tradition, we interpret that light to be Jesus the Christ, “the true light that enlightens all peoples.” That light comes to us not as a bolt from the sky but as a child from Mary’s womb. We rejoice this evening in the one who reveals the face of God to us, who is the word of God for us. We rejoice in Jesus and in God’s grace through which we receive two very important gifts: enlightenment and empowerment. God’s truth enlightens us and God’s grace empowers us. God’s truth enlightens us to see ourselves and our world in a new light. It is a word that brings reassurance, affirmation, and hope. Christmas invites us to accept God’s gifts to us in the person of Jesus and to welcome him into our hearts. Christmas invites us to see ourselves as gifts, to the other and for the other.
We gather this evening to celebrate light in the midst of darkness. We celebrate the new hope that Jesus has generated in people down through the centuries. Jesus is our light. Jesus is our hope. The gift of Jesus enlightens us and empowers us not just to have a new way of understanding life but a new way to live it.
Yes, the Christmas story is very familiar. We read it over and over again each year at Christmas, but we are different and our world is different. Our memories have grown and some of them have faded. Our hopes have been tested. Our love has been called on in new ways. But no matter what changes we have undergone or the losses that we have mourned, the Christmas story speaks to us again of new birth and the possibility of our own rebirth. It tells us that things can be different; it gives substance to our hope that new life is possible because of the birth of Jesus.