On the Gospel of Luke 2:1-14
Christmas Day (Midnight Mass)
Jesus is a ridiculous figure – so it seems to popular culture. Comedians in particular, posing as brave, anti-establishment satirists, treat Jesus as a figure of fun. For example, the incongruity of divine power and human limitation was used as a source of comic material by one comedian with a tour derisively entitled ‘Jesus is Magic’. On the one hand, Christians could decry this ridicule as disrespectful (which it is) and derivative (which it is), but there is more to be said about it than that. It seems to me that the entertainers have understood something that Christians have forgotten: the irreducible scandal of God becoming man. The Incarnation should never become something merely domestic and cute, but it should always retain its strangeness for us. We believe that the Creator of the entire universe, the ground of all being, became a weak and needy baby. This event is so strange, so incongruous, that it simply has to raise a smile. And as Fr Robert Barron points out, ‘to make the humour even more pointed, this incarnation of God was first made manifest not in Rome, Athens, or Babylon, not in a great political capital, but in Bethlehem of Judea, a tiny outpost in the corner of the Roman Empire’. The cynical comedians may laugh with spite, but we shouldn’t respond to them po-facedly: we should be smiling too, but with lighter hearts than theirs, when we approach the Infant in the crib and wonder at this great paradox, this divine joke.
In fact, it’s easy to smile when we stand at the crib. It’s something that comes naturally to Christians of all times and places. We all know the feeling of joy that wells up in us at Christmas. Yes, it is a time for being with family, for giving and receiving presents, for indulging in celebration, and all these things contribute to the joy of the season, but there is a different quality of joy in the heart of the believer standing before Bethlehem. Surely no divine message has ever been confirmed so emphatically as the words of the angels to the frightened shepherds: ‘I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people’ (Luke 2:10). At Midnight Mass we hear this joy prophesied in the first reading: ‘You have made their gladness greater, you have made their joy increase’ (Isaiah 9:3). This prophecy is fulfilled every time we kneel before the crib and know in joy that God is with us. Whether we are wide-eyed children or tired parents, wealthy or poor, devout or doubting, our Christmas smile fulfils the words of the angels and Isaiah.
But there is a difference between the Christmas joy that springs from Christian faith and its syrupy secular counterpart. The latter is usually a brief escape from the toil of daily life, the former is meant to transform us, to change our hearts so that our daily lives themselves become different. Real Christmas joy isn’t just a fuzzy feeling of affirmation, but always includes a challenge to change for the better, ‘for he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap’ (Malachi 3:2). This invitation to change is found in the Responsorial Psalm recited at Midnight Mass: ‘sing a new song to the Lord’ (Psalm 98:1). Our Bethlehem joy must make us sing ‘a new song’, the song of the angels, a song of thanksgiving and peace: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth’. Because the gentleness of God has been revealed, we must silence our songs of war, our battle cries. ‘For all the footgear of battle, every cloak rolled in blood, is burnt, and consumed by fire. For there is a child born for us, a son given to us and dominion is laid on his shoulders’ (Isaiah 9:5). Never again can we submit to hatred, jealousy, gossip and division. Because God has made peace with us, we are joyful, and our joy in turn makes us peacemakers.
For me this was demonstrated vividly a few weeks ago when some homeless men who are known to the community of Dominican friars here in St Saviour’s joined us for a cup of tea. One of them, Ali (who has since tragically died from exposure), played a medley of songs for us on the guitar, and we finished with Silent Night. There were five people in that room, from four different countries, and we each sang the words of that beloved song in our own languages: English, Irish, Slovak, Czech, and Polish. Despite our many differences and the various difficulties we were all facing, we were one in that brief moment. The ‘heavenly peace’ that we wished for the sleeping child was present among us too.
How then should we approach the crib this Christmas? First, let us open our hearts to the Lord. Let us cast aside our heavy cynicism and sarcasm, and permit him to raise our smile. And then let the joy of Bethlehem transform us into peacemakers in our divided world: ‘“In this place I will grant peace,” declares the Lord Almighty’ (Haggai 2:9).
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. ” And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.”
– Luke 2:1-14