Tuesday December 25, 2001 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Solemnity of Christmas
Reading I (Isaiah 9:1-6) Reading II (Titus 2:11-14 )
Gospel (St. Luke 2:1-14)
Today we celebrate a most wonderful feast. Indeed, as we hear in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah, God has given to us great rejoicing because we rejoice at the Birth of Our Lord. All of us would understand the great rejoicing when a baby is born into the world. For those who are parents yourselves, you understand this more than anyone. For those who are grandparents, you know how you rejoice with your own children when their babies are born. For those who are brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles, we all understand that exact same kind of rejoicing. No one is untouched by the birth of a baby - no one. It is the most glorious and the most miraculous thing on the natural level that can ever happen, that a baby is born. They are the most glorious and wonderful little creatures that God has made. They are the closest things that we can understand to the Incarnation of Love because that is all that a baby is. A baby is about love. But a baby is also about helplessness, about dependency. A baby is completely dependent on others to do everything for him.
And so this feast, as glorious and wonderful as it is, is also one that is of the greatest mystery. It seems the least mysterious to us because it is a mystery that we celebrate so often when we celebrate birth. For all the billions and billions of babies that have been born over the centuries, you would think that after time the wonder would wear off. But instead, with each baby it only grows even more. But today we celebrate the birth of the most wondrous Baby. And it is not just a natural mystery of a baby being born (as this one, of course, is different from any other anyway); today is a feast of contradictions. It is, as I said, the most tangible of all the mysteries of our faith for us to be able to grasp. It is something that, on one level, we can all understand. None of us can walk away unmoved by the thought of a little baby being born and laid in a manger.
Yet at the same time, it is the least understandable and the least able to be grasped of all the mysteries of our faith because this little Baby is God. This little Baby, who is dependent entirely upon His mother, is the same Person who created His mother, and upon whom His mother is entirely dependent for every single thing that she would ever do in her life. The One who became incarnate in the womb of a virgin is the One who created that virgin so that He would be able to become incarnate within her womb. The One who shivers in the cold is the One who created the whole world. The One who lies helpless and dependent is the One who is the Almighty God. The One that is a great sign that the angels talk about to the shepherds - the sign that you would find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger - makes no sense because swaddling clothes are the clothes of the dead and now you have an infant, a newborn life at its beginning, and it is wrapped in the clothes of the dead. Yet this is a baby who was born for the sole purpose of dying.
That is exactly what we hear in the second reading. We hear about the mystery we cannot grasp: that the grace of God has appeared to us. The grace of God has appeared to us. The grace of God is within each one of us if we are in the state of grace. If we have cleansed our souls and we have confessed our sins and we are free of any mortal sin, God’s grace dwells within us. We can see its effects within our lives. But the grace of God is the life of God. And how can our life be seen? Your life cannot be seen. The person who has life can be seen. But with God it is different because God is life; and God, of course, is invisible. God has no body; we cannot grasp God with our senses. Yet now the invisible God has been made visible. A Word has become flesh and dwelt among us. A light has shone in the darkness so that the people who dwelt in a land of gloom and darkness could see a great light, and they would be filled with abundant joy and rejoicing. And all of this, Isaiah says, because "a Child is born to us, a Son is given us".
All of these things, as we ponder them, make no sense because we hear that this Child on the day of His birth has broken the rod of the taskmaster, has smashed the yoke and broken the bonds. It is the bonds of sin; it is the yoke of Satan that has been broken. And it is broken, not by one who rode gloriously into battle - as we hear about the fact that every cloak that was rolled in blood is going to be used to be burned and all of those who have been trampled in battle are going to be freed. This is a different kind of battle; it is one which has been won by humility. Once again, it does not make sense on a natural level. It is like a parent staring in absolute awe at a newborn baby: on one level able to grasp the reality before them and on another level not able to understand a thing; trying to grasp with the mind the miracle which lies before them, the miracle which from their own flesh and blood has issued forth new life which cannot be grasped at all and yet is the most easily grasped on another level. That is the mystery that we are celebrating today: the eternal God being born of a woman, the incomprehensible God able to be grasped in human form, the invisible God made visible, the Almighty made dependent, the Creator as a creature, God as man.
But Saint Paul tells us that beyond this very humble appearance we await the appearance in glory of Our Savior. He will come once again. This is merely the foreshadowing, but it is for each one of us a way to be able to understand the love of God. When we ponder these mysteries, each one of us needs to be able to recognize that God has done this for us. In order to demonstrate His love for us, He has shown us in a way that we cannot reject. He has shown us love in a way that each one of us can understand and that none of us can walk away unmoved because He has shown us love in a baby. Any human heart that would be so hardened as to be unmoved by a baby is a heart that has completely rejected God and has completely rejected love. And so, God, wanting to demonstrate to us that there would be absolutely nothing that He would not do for us, in order to show us His love, and in order to help us to understand how much He loves us, has given Himself to us in the way that each and every human being would be able to understand love and would be able to grasp vulnerability in its most complete manner: as a little baby.
But if that was not enough, He continues to give Himself in ways that we will not be able to reject, that on one level we cannot comprehend but on another level we cannot push away because the Baby laid in swaddling clothes is the One who died for us. The One who is born for us is the One who died for us. The newborn Infant is the One who is born so that He could die, so that we could be reborn into eternal life. He is indeed a sign. What is a baby doing being laid in a feeding trough for animals? What is a newborn Infant doing being wrapped in the clothing of the dead if not to demonstrate to each one of us that He has come, not for a natural reason, but for the most extraordinary supernatural reason: to become food for each one of us – and to die for each one of us; that His death would become life for us and that this Food would become the life of our soul and that unless we eat of His Flesh and Blood that we would have no life within us?
He is born in a place called Bethlehem, a word which means a "house of bread" because He is going to come to us, not in the form of a baby, but in the form of bread to be the food for our souls. And so we see how God has arranged for everything. Saint Joseph and Our Blessed Lady have to leave the area called Galilee and go to the country of Judah to the city where David was born to be able to show that this little Baby is the fulfillment of the prophecy that we see in Isaiah 49: that from Judah, the fourth-born son of Israel, is going to come forth one who will be the king and the savior; and to be able to demonstrate that the promise made to David that one of his sons would reign forever upon his throne [is fulfilled]. He is born in the place of Judah and in the city of David so that we would understand that He is the fulfillment of all the prophecies: that a virgin would be with child and bear a son; that God, for whom we looked, has come to save us - but not in the way that anyone would have expected.
So for us today, living in a land of gloom, dwelling in darkness, indeed a light has been shone upon us; the Word of God has been made flesh for us. As we look back over this year of our own lives, as we celebrate today the anniversary of 2,001 years, the beginning of a new age, the beginning of the first Christian millennium, the beginning of new life, as we celebrate now in our own country the end of this first year of the new millennium, it has indeed been a year of great darkness and gloom and fear for the people of this country. As we celebrate the birth of a baby, we ask ourselves how many babies have been destroyed. As we think about the glory of God shining in the darkness, we think about the tragic events that took place just a few months ago before the eyes of everyone in this country. And in that darkness a light has shone.
The angel of the Lord appears to each one of us: the little ones – not the great ones. God came in humility and He announced the tidings of Good News to the most humble, to the shepherds. And He comes to each one of us now today and He announces the exact same news as the angel of the Lord says to each one of us: "Fear not." Do not be afraid. It does not matter how dark things are, it does not matter how evil things become because in the midst of the darkness the light has shone. And the darkness will not be able to overcome it. A Child is born to us, a Son is given us, and upon His shoulder dominion rests. We have absolutely nothing to fear because God is with us. He is Emmanuel. There is nothing for us to fear as long as we are with Him and He is with us.
The grace of God has indeed appeared to each one of us. And each one of us is transformed by this mystery into the grace of God as we receive Him in Holy Communion. We think about all these apparent contradictions and all that we can do is join with the angels and join with the shepherds and join with Our Blessed Lady and Saint Joseph and glorify God because for us today a sign is given: an Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. The One who is food for us and the One who died for us is the One who is born for us so that we would live, so that we would be reborn into everlasting life. Today we praise God for the most incredible of all His mysteries, for the most incredible of all His gifts, for a baby, for Love Incarnate, for Jesus Christ – born for us so that our sins would be forgiven and so that we can live forever.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.