Bishop of Lake Charles
Homily for Christmas 2008
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled.” Luke 2:1
The Gospel of Midnight Mass opens with a statement of history. Caesar Augustus was emperor, Quirinius was governor of Syria, and Joseph goes to the city of his “house and family” (Luke 2:4) to be registered. The birth of Christ is to take place in a designated time and place. St. Luke is saying that his account is based on fact. The birth of Christ is not “make-believe” or myth. Here at Bethlehem, every prophecy or expectation meets history. The words of Isaiah are fulfilled: “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests” (Isaiah 9:5). Mention of Caesar Augustus is St. Luke’s way of commenting that the real Prince of Peace upstages the emperor. The emperor thought he had brought lasting peace to the world, but the child born in the manger will be called “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:5). The marvelous Gospel of St. Luke opens the door of Christmas for us and reveals its profound mystery.
St. Luke is telling us first that we are dealing with objective truth. It is the certainty of truth that makes the proclamation of the angels to the shepherds so compelling: “For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord” (Luke 2:11). The truth of this good news prompts the shepherds to go “in haste” to Bethlehem “to see this thing”, which the Lord had made known to them (Luke 2:15). What the Lord had revealed was a truth that St. Paul proclaimed, when he wrote, “The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires” (Titus 2:11-12).
St. Luke is also reminding us that God is a personal God. God, who has always involved himself in His creation, now reaches into full expression by entering time and place and becoming Man. He enters the womb of a Virgin and allows His birth in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, rather than a palace with fine silks, to endorse His coming into the world. “In times past,” the Letter to the Hebrews will say, “God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe” (Hebrews 1:1-2). And He does this to show us His love. “Do not be afraid,” the angels proclaim, “for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Only a personal God can act in such a way.
Finally, St. Luke emphasizes authority. The birth of Christ takes place in conformity to prophecy. Bethlehem is the place, the city of David. Bethlehem means “house of bread” in Hebrew, which portends everything from the “manna in the desert” to Jesus as “the bread of life.” The “glory of the Lord” shines round about the angels. Definitively, as though it were a royal proclamation, the angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). God is summoning “a people as his own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14). There can be no proclamation of truth without authority.
A truth revealed by a personal God with authority is the good news that St. Luke proclaims to us on this Christmas night. Authority speaks with conviction a truth spoken in love. This is Christmas. The Word of God reveals itself in Love to His creation in the flesh of those to be redeemed. In the airtight logic of St. Thomas Aquinas, if goodness implies self-communication, then “it is appropriate for the highest good to communicate itself to the creature in the highest way possible”, that is by becoming the creature himself (Summa 3a, 1). Like a parent communicates his love by dropping to the floor to play with the infant, God empties himself out of love for His creature.
How is truth communicated to a world that reduces truth to opinion? How can the world accept the truth when it has rejected the authority that proclaims it? How can the world respond to a personal God, who speaks the truth in love, when the world thinks that God is unknowable? In the answer to each of these questions lies the challenge to us as Christians.
The challenge of the believer is to challenge the unbelieving. If God has become Man in Jesus Christ, then we must become Christ to others. In this spirit, Christ tells His disciples, “Whoever listens to you listens to me” (Luke 10:16). If this is true, and I firmly believe it is, then we must identify with Christ intimately. It is for the Church to do so first and foremost, but it is for us who are the Body of Christ to accept our responsibility. We must speak the “truth in love” and we must do so with conviction and authority.
When as I child I visited the crèche in my parish church which was the Cathedral, I would look at the images of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the kneeling shepherds, the bowing Magi, and the Gospel would come alive. I would ask myself the question, “What is this all about?” Oh, certainly, I knew the Gospel story, but what did it mean for me that God would enter history in a little baby of Bethlehem? What was I meant to do with such a truth? Was I to keep it to myself? Was I to share it with others, and if so, how? My entire life God has tried to give me the answer to those questions. In this way, for all who ask those questions, we are all Christmas. With the authority of a personal God, a child has spoken the truth in love.
I conclude with the beautiful words of G. K. Chesterton in his Christmas poem, “A Child of the Snows”:
And at night we win to the ancient inn
Where the child in the frost is furled.
We follow the feet where all souls meet
At the inn at the end of the world.
The gods lie dead where the leaves lie red,
For the flame of the sun has flown,
The gods lie cold where the leaves lie gold,
And a child comes forth alone.