God Wants to be Conceived and Born in Your Heart
December 25, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Christmas Day
Reading I (Isaiah 52:7-10) Reading II (Hebrews 1:1-6)
Gospel (St. John 1:1-18)
In the Gospel reading that we just heard from the beginning of Saint John’s Gospel, we heard that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was God, and that Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This is a mystery that we will never be able to comprehend fully. Even in all eternity, as we look at Jesus face-to-face, we will never fully be able to comprehend the mystery of the Incarnation. The fact that God would become man is something that would be beyond our wildest imagination. If you just stop and think about what you would ask of God if the Lord were to look at you and say, “What do I need to do for you to prove to you how much I love you? What do you need in order to really believe? To believe in Who I Am? To believe in My love? To believe in My mercy? To believe that your sins are forgiven or whatever it might be that you’re struggling with?” What would you ask Him to do, if, like Ahaz, you could ask Him anything? Remember that God said through the prophet Isaiah, “Ask for anything you want; let it be as high as the sky or as deep as the netherworld,” and Ahaz was given the answer because he would not make a choice. The sign that was to be given was something that would never, ever be asked: that a virgin would be with child and would bear a son and name him Emmanuel – God-with-us. Who of us would ever ask, “In order to demonstrate the depths of Your love for us, what we would want more than anything is for You to humble Yourself so completely that You would become one of us, that You would take on our human nature, that You would live a human life, and that You would die a tragic human death.” Not one of us would ever ask that of God.
What we might ask, however, is that God would work some extraordinary kinds of things, fireworks of sorts. “Let me see Your power. I want to see extraordinary things happening, flashes of lightning, trumpet blasts, and all kinds of extraordinary things that will demonstrate that You are real.” But God, on the other hand, looks at each one of us and says, “I will do everything for you but there is one thing I’m going to ask of you, and that is faith.” Extraordinary signs, exploding things, lightning and all the other things, they do not require much faith nor do they last very long. Think of last July (if you watched the fireworks on the Fourth of July); you can “ooh” and “aah” for half an hour as they explode in the night sky and then they are over, and for all practical purposes so is their memory. When God originally came down to show Himself to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai, there were earthquakes, there were winds that were breaking the rocks. There were great signs and the people were terrified – and within forty days they were worshipping a golden calf. All the extraordinary signs did not work. God had proven that He was real, but the signs went away. Everything was quiet on the mountain and there was no faith in the people’s hearts.
God knew that all those extraordinary sorts of things would not work so He decided to do something that was even more extraordinary, and that was to give us a sign that, number one, would never pass away, a sign that would remain forever but a sign that we would never fully be able to comprehend and yet never be able to fully reject. God, in His wisdom, knows where human weakness lies and He also knows where human strength lies. He created us in His own image and likeness so we could love. And while He could have worked redemption in any way that He chose – He could have just simply come down as a thirty-three year old man; He could have just simply decreed it without doing anything else; He could have done it any way that He wanted –we would have had lots of objections and lots of justifications to be able to explain it away and to say why this is not the case. So instead He played on both our weakness and our strength at the same time and He came down in the form of a baby, which only the most hardened human heart can reject.
Anyone with a heart is attracted to a baby. How could you not be? They are the most extraordinary creatures, the most beautiful little beings that God has made. Everyone is attracted to a baby. And so He plays on that weakness and yet at the same time He turns it right around and plays it right into our strength and into the very purpose of our creation because not only are we attracted to babies but we love babies. Babies are innocent and they are vulnerable; you can open your heart to a baby without being afraid that the baby is going to hurt you. God knew that, and so that is the way He chose to come to us, one that would require extraordinary acts of faith on our part to be able to look at a little baby and say, “I believe because this little Baby born of a virgin is God.
The devil himself was shown this mystery long before time began and he rejected it. In his arrogance, he could not accept that the Almighty God would become a human baby. He could not understand; therefore, at the top of his lungs (as much as one can say that of an angel) he said, “Non serviam! I will not serve!” And so, in order to demonstrate where God stands, not only did He take our human nature to Himself but He came into this world and said, “I came to serve, not to be served.” He did not come for Himself; He came for us. And He came to ask that we would give Him our hearts, that we would make that act of faith which turns, then, into an act of love to say, “I believe.” As we heard at the beginning of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews a few moments ago, “In ancient times, in varied and fragmented ways, God spoke to our fathers the prophets; but now, in these last times, He has spoken to us through His Son.” He has revealed the fullness of the truth, and the truth is a Person. When we can look at that truth and we can say, “I accept; I believe,” then we need to go to the next step because the truth is not some sort of objective set of logical principles or propositions; the truth here is a Person, and a person is made to love and be loved. So if we can say, “I believe,” to the mystery of the Incarnation – we are not saying, “I understand,” but rather, “I believe” – then the next step is to love the Person who became incarnate.
Now our problem is that we try to analyze. We try to pick everything apart. We try to get it up into our heads and figure it all out, and we never will. This feast is a feast of irony. A virgin bears a son; God becomes man; the Almighty God, Who created His mother, becomes created in His mother; God, Who is all-powerful, becomes helpless; God, upon Whom all creation depends, becomes dependent on His mother. It becomes even more difficult for us to grasp when we look at what He has done for us. Not only does God become man in Jesus Christ, but man becomes God in Jesus Christ. God, in Christ, takes on our human nature, our body, our blood, or soul; then, in exchange for that, He gives to us His divine nature. It is a wonderful exchange that we cannot understand. Because of sin we could not get to heaven; because of our nature, which is finite and limited, we could not ultimately achieve our spiritual goal or the very purpose of our life which is to get to heaven. Heaven is something that is supernatural which means it is beyond our nature to be able to achieve all by itself. God knew that. And because we could not lift up to His level, He came down to ours and He gave us everything that we need to be able to go to Him: a share in His own life, a share in His own nature. This is not anything, therefore, when we look at all these ironies, that we are ever going to be able to even think we can understand.
And so God is not asking us at this point to try to figure it out; but rather, with our minds, He is saying simply, “Believe. Make an act of faith and then get into your heart and look at this beautiful little Baby Who is born in a manger rather than in a palace, Who is born in humility rather than in glory, Who shows Himself not to the royalty but to the little shepherds who were sleeping out in the fields. And He shows Himself to you. A little baby in swaddling clothes, that was the sign that was given to the shepherds because, once again, it does not make sense. Swaddling clothes are the clothes of the dead, the little strips of cloth that they would wrap around the limbs of dead people when they would bury them. Why is a baby dressed like a dead person? Because that is the reason He came into this world, the only baby ever born into this world for the purpose of dying. Each one of us will die. Every one of you who has children knows on the day that baby is born that that child one day will die. But you did not conceive a child for the purpose of that baby dying; that is just something that is going to happen. It was different for Jesus. The very reason why He came into this world was to die. And so a baby in a manger, a feeding trough, wrapped in the clothes of the dead was to demonstrate what He was really all about. The irony continues.
But God, in His love for us, did not merely come 2,000 years ago in the form of a baby and go away. He continues to give Himself to us every single day in the Eucharist. Jesus Christ is with us, God and man, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, which again was demonstrated for us at the moment of His birth because He was born in a place called Bethlehem, which means the “House of Bread”, foretelling for us once again that He was going to give Himself to us in the form of bread, something else which we will never be able to comprehend but something that we can receive and love because, once again, the Eucharist is not a piece of bread; the Eucharist is a Person, the same Person Who was born 2,000 years ago of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a manger. In this, God gives to each one of us an opportunity to share at least in a tiny, little way what Our Lady would have experienced as she carried the God-man in her womb for nine months. We, for thirty minutes at a time, get to carry Jesus in our bodies every time we receive Him in Holy Communion. We get to do like Our Lady did and go inside and be united with Jesus within our own selves. And for one who is in the state of grace, God dwells within your soul twenty-four hours a day. In this way, the Incarnation and the birth of Jesus Christ into this world continues, and it continues in each one of us.
God wants to be conceived and born in your heart so that when you go out into the world you will bring Jesus with you and show Him to the world. He came into the darkness as the light, and the darkness has not overcome it and never will. But our task is to walk out into the darkness of the world enlightened by Christ and bring Him into this world. As Our Lady did 2,000 years ago in a physical way, so now we are to do in a spiritual way. This is the real gift of Christmas, the gift of God Himself. God will never be outdone in generosity and He found a way that can never be outdone by anyone, ever. He did not just give us a material thing; He did not give us a toy; He did not give us a car; He did not give us whatever you can think about that you might want for Christmas. He gave us a Person, the Person of His own Son in human flesh. And what He is asking from you is that as you in your generosity give gifts to your family members and friends, that you would give the most important gift to Him, that is, the gift of yourself, the gift of your heart, to open your heart to receive the gift that He is offering to you and that you would keep your heart open and offer it back to Him.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.