Saturday December 25, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Christmas Day
Reading I (Isaiah 9:1-6) Reading II (Titus 2:11-14)
Gospel (St. Luke 2:1-14)
Like so many things in God’s Providence, today is a feast of irony. Today, however, is a day upon which the most extraordinary things are celebrated. Not merely the most obvious, for instance, the fact that the Creator became a creature, that God Who sustains all things became dependent on a human woman to sustain Him, that God Who has no beginning in time suddenly in His human nature has a beginning in time, and all of these sorts of things that we can see, but there is even more.
Saint Paul, in the second reading today that we heard from his Letter to Titus, says something that is really extraordinary. He says, The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways. The grace of God has appeared… When you just ponder that for a moment, you begin to see the extraordinary nature of what he is saying. The grace of God is His life. The grace of God is what is given to each one of us when we are not in the state of mortal sin. It is given initially at Baptism, and if all of our mortal sins have been forgiven then the grace of God dwells within our souls. And along with that grace, because it is the very life of God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit dwell within our souls. They are able to do that because they have no body. Therefore, because they can be in all places at all times it is not anything that is difficult for them.
But now the grace of God has appeared. So as Saint Paul says in his Letter to the Philippians, Jesus is the image of the invisible God. God, by His very nature, has no body. There is nothing visible that we can look at; there is no appearance for us to be able to grasp. Yet, this day two thousand years ago, our Blessed Lord was born as a human baby. He did this for us because He created us as sensible people. “Sensible” meaning that what we receive is received through the senses: we see, we taste, we smell, we touch, we hear. When sinful humanity refused to believe in the love of God and to trust in His mercy and His promises, God did something that was truly extraordinary by its nature and purely love in its essence: He became one of us so we could see Him, so we could touch Him, so we could hear Him.
If we even just think about our own selves and how we would deal with something, if somebody whom we loved were in trouble, if there was an emergency of some sort that occurred, we would say to the person, “I will be right there.” You do not merely call the person on the phone at that point and talk to them. When someone is truly in need, we still recognize the necessity of being there in person, of being able to be present to the person so they can see us, they can touch us, they can hear us. On the telephone, certainly, they can hear, but there is something much more to actually being present in person. God, of course, is always present to us but our senses cannot perceive Him. And because we cannot perceive Him, all too often humanity chose not to believe. So God in His mercy recognized, in essence, the “emergency situation” and He came to us. He did not just stay up in heaven and say, “Look, I am real. Believe. I have told you all about Myself; just read the Scriptures and trust and believe.” He could have done that, but instead He said to us, “I will be right there. I will come to you. I will show you.”
We do the exact same thing (again, in our humanness) when somebody tells us that they love us. While we do not say this in words, in the depths of our beings we say to ourselves, “Prove it. How do I know that they are not just words? How do I know that you’re not just saying that to manipulate me, to try to get something for yourself? How do I know that you really, truly love me?” Well, Saint Paul, in this same Letter to Titus, goes on to say, The kindness and the generous love of God our Savior have appeared. Again, think about that. The love of God has appeared. Jesus is the grace of God, and God is love (as Saint John tells us); therefore, when Jesus came to us in human form, the love of God appeared to us in human form because Jesus is a divine Person from all eternity. When Jesus Christ took on human flesh, He did not cease to be the very Person that He had been from all eternity because God cannot change. Remember always that Jesus did not become a human person. Jesus became a human being but His person remains divine. It always was and it always will be; He cannot be anything different. And since God is love, the very Person of Jesus Christ, Who is the Second Person of the Trinity, is love by His very nature. So when He came down to us as a divine Person Who took on human nature, the love of God appeared in human form.
And how can anyone deny the love of a baby? Any parent knows fully well the love of a child. All that you do with a baby is love them. They are the most vulnerable of creatures and they are the most lovable of creatures. Only the most hardened of heart cannot love a baby. So if the love of God is going to appear, how is He going to do it? Love by its very nature is something which is vulnerable. In order to love, it requires a risk. And so He made Himself to be as vulnerable as a human being can be, completely dependent upon His mother and presented to each and every one of us as Love in a way that we will not be afraid. No one is afraid of a baby. There are people who are afraid to hold a baby because they think the baby is going to break or that they are going to drop the child. But no one is afraid of the baby because they know the baby is not going to hurt them. How many people in this world who have suffered abuse, who have been rejected and down-trodden by so many people, take those experiences and place them on God and think He is going to do the exact same thing that others have done to them? And so the Lord comes to us in a form that we can recognize we will not be rejected, we will not be hurt, and we will not be violated. We do not have to be afraid. We do not have to fear to come to Him because He Himself is vulnerable. We only have to fear when we are afraid of what the other person is going to do to us. The only thing He is going to ask of us is that we too would be vulnerable with Him. But you notice that He does not ask anything of us that He was not willing to do Himself.
Once again, it is what Saint Paul told us in his Letter to Titus, that we await the glorious appearance of our great God. He will return in His glory, but for now what we are celebrating is the glory of God in human form. When you look at the very reason why Jesus came into this world, it was to save us. And so if you look thirty-three years later to a Man upon a Cross, once again you see complete and total vulnerability. The word vulnerable comes from the Latin word that means “wound”. Look at the Cross and look at the wounds of Our Lord. There is nothing there on the Cross to push us away. His arms are wide open. His heart is wide open as it is pierced. There is nothing there that says, “I do not want you; I do not welcome you,” or even, “I do not love you,” but just the opposite. It is the invitation to us to come to Him.
Thirty-three years after His birth, Our Lord was laid in a stone tomb and He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. On the day of His birth, He was laid in a stone manger. The manger is not the barn; the manger is the feeding trough. In ancient Israel, the feeding trough was always made out of stone, not out of wood. It would stand about four feet high and it would look sort of like a rectangular basin. They carved out of the stone the basin where they would put the food for the animals, or the water. And so here is a Baby who is wrapped in swaddling clothes, the clothes of the dead, and He is placed in a stone manger which would be very similar to the tomb He would be placed in thirty-three years later. He came into this world for one purpose, and that was to die for us.
In so doing, Saint Paul tells us that He came to save us and train us to reject godless ways. We live in a godless society, but God is with us. Emmanuel, He is with us. He has come to us in a way that we can understand and accept, and He remains in us; not only dwelling within us when we are in the state of grace, but present among us in the Blessed Sacrament, where still He makes Himself completely vulnerable. There are no defenses that are up in the Blessed Sacrament. We either can receive Him with the greatest tenderness and care as we would a little baby, or we can reject Him and try to destroy Him, as evil people did on Calvary, and He will not put up a defense. You see the vulnerability of our God made flesh for us, the Eternal Word spoken by God Who took on our human nature so that we could have life, divine life, eternal life. That is what we celebrate today.
If there is any fear in your heart, if there is any doubt in your mind, stop over at the crèche after Mass and look at the Baby. Look at His vulnerability, look at His humility, look at the love of God in human form and believe. Let your guard down, put the defenses down, and open your heart to receive on this beautiful feast the love of God made visible so that we could receive Him and so that we would doubt no longer but believe.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.