The Christmas gift that changes everything

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Christmas: Mass during the Day: Dec. 25, 2009
Isa 52:7-10; Ps 98:1-6; Heb 1:1-6; John 1:1-5, 9-14

One of the clearest statements I ever heard about the importance of what we celebrate at Christmas came from a Muslim professor at Georgetown University. It was about 10 years ago, before I went to seminary, and at that time I was living in DC, and I was part of the Young Adults group at St. Matthew’s Cathedral downtown. And at one of our meetings, the leaders had arranged for there to be a panel discussion between a Jesuit priest, a Jewish rabbi, and this Muslim professor. And the priest was being very conciliatory and saying things like, “Well, you know, we’re all very similar”; and the rabbi was also saying, “Oh, we’re very similar.” And the Muslim professor said, “Judaism and Islam are very similar. But Christianity teaches the Incarnation. And if God became man, then that would change everything.”

“If God became man, then that would change everything.”

The age-old human search for God can be compared to trying to climb a very tall mountain. Once we have discovered that, when we speak of God, we’re not dealing with a bunch of gods like in Greek mythology—who are just sort of bigger than us, and engaged in the same struggles over money and lust and power … once we discover that God is transcendent, holy, different; that is, as it were, up at the top of that very tall mountain… well then it becomes a question of how to reach him; how to meet him; how to ever get to know him. And so every religion and every spirituality has always tried to begin this climb by cutting its own path from the base of the mountain, trying to figure out how to get up it, hoping to eventually reach the top.

But “if God became man, then that would change everything.” What a difference if God, rather than simply being at the top of a mountain, began speaking, revealing to us who he was, and where he was. But what an even greater difference if, rather than waiting for us to climb to the top of the mountain, if God would come down that mountain to where we are!

Our second reading today tells us: In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son, … who is the refulgence—that is, the brightness—of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word.

Years ago, the late radio broadcaster Paul Harvey told the story of a man who decided one Christmas Eve that this year he wasn’t going to go to church with his wife and children—because he felt that he no longer believed in the Incarnation, and he felt like he would be a hypocrite if he went. So off his family went, and he settled down for the evening in his living room, as it began to snow outside. And it snowed more and more heavily. And then he heard the thump against the window; then more, more thumps against the window. And he wondered: Is somebody throwing snowballs at the house? He got up to look and discovered, no, it was some birds that were caught out there in the storm. As more and more snow was falling, it was getting colder and colder, and they were trying to get inside to where he was, to where it was light and warm.

Well, what could he do? He thought: I could let them into the barn behind the house. So he went out and waded through the snow, and opened the doors to the barn and turned on the lights. But the birds didn’t go inside. So he got some bread crumbs and made a trail up to the barn. But the birds didn’t go inside. So he waved his arms and ran at the birds, trying to scare them into the barn; and they got scared, all right, and went everywhere, except into the barn.

The man was thinking, “What can I do? To these birds, I’m really big and scary. They don’t understand that I’m trying to help them. They don’t see that I am trying to take them to where they can be saved from this storm. If only I could communicate with them. If only I could become a bird, and walk among them, and speak to them in ways they would understand. If only I could become one of them.” And at that moment, he heard the church bells begin to ring off in the distance; and he understood, and he sank to his knees in the snow.

If God became man, then that changes everything.

Our gospel reading from St. John tells us: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. In the great mystery of the Holy Trinity, one God in three Persons: the Second Person, God the Son, from all eternity is generated, is begotten, of the First Person, God the Father. The Son, the Word, is truly God—infinite, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, all-loving.

And St. John continues: All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race. We human beings are his. He made us. He is our life. He is our light. And yet, St. John tells us, we did not know him.

And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. The man in Paul Harvey’s story wished he could become a bird; but of course he couldn’t. He couldn’t cross that gap between man and bird. Now that gap is actually pretty small in comparison to the gap between an infinite God and any finite creature. And yet, just because he was infinite, Christ could cross that gap, and he did, for our sake. St. Paul tells us [Phil 2:6-7]: Though he was in the form of God, … he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness.

Do we grasp what kind of love this takes? Do we grasp what kind of love it shows? Many of us have surely had the experience of someone who loved us so much that they would sacrifice much for us—probably our mother or our father, or a spouse. Someone who might work long hours; who would get up early and stay up late; who, when we were sick or afraid or sad, would hold us and comfort us. And especially when we look back, we realize: What great love! What a precious gift! —that one person would give that to us. We would never expect that kind of sacrificial love from just anyone. Not from a stranger. We wouldn’t certainly expect it from a president or a governor: we wouldn’t expect them to leave their office to come and help us. We wouldn’t expect a rich person to leave behind his riches to come and comfort us.

And yet, so much more than this is what our Lord Jesus has given, in his great love for us—for you. The King of kings laid aside his throne, for love of you. He emptied himself, coming in human likeness, for you. He became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich [2 Cor 8:9].

And he came as a baby.

Several years ago, some friends of mine had a daughter who was 2 years old at the time. And I was at a party at their house, and at one point in this party this little girl walked up to me, and looked up and stuck out her little arms and said, “Up!” Now, at that time I really had no experience with children. And I would have been honest with her: I would have liked to have said, “Come on, kid, you can do a whole lot better than me. Look at all these other nice adults here! They would be so much better for you. They know what to do. You don’t really want me.” But I had enough experience to know that you can’t actually explain that to a 2-year-old. And if she says, “Up!”—well, then, I thought I’d better pick her up and put her on my knee. And so she was there for a couple minutes. And at one point, the young woman sitting near me said, “She really loves you.” And it seemed that she did. I didn’t know why. Surely, I was the worst person in the room that she could have picked! And yet, she did choose me. And you know, that experience, just about two minutes, on one day, actually had a great effect on me over the course of that next year.

My brothers and sisters, our Lord Jesus came to us as a baby. Once he was 2, he could have walked up to you and put up his arms and said, “Up!” As a baby, he couldn’t even walk or talk. But from the heights of heaven, he left his throne and emptied himself and became poor to place himself utterly helpless in your arms—you, of all people!—and to love you, and to ask you to love him. Why? Surely someone else would have been better! But he chooses you. And in spite of all your failings; in spite of all that you’ve ever been ashamed of; in spite of ways you’ve ever hurt people or let them down—our Lord puts himself in your arms, utterly vulnerable, utterly dependent upon you for everything—and says: “I love you. Will you love me?”

And that is the great gift of Christmas: that our Lord Jesus Christ, who is true God, did not wait for us to climb up that mountain, but emptied himself and became poor for our sake, uniting himself to our human nature forever, and placing himself in our arms as a baby, of all things.

It is a new beginning, as the gospel reading says; a new beginning that is offered to us; creation all over again! No matter what has happened in your life up to now, at this moment, he offers this gift of himself to you in love. And how will you respond? You can hold your hands in and refuse his gift. Or perhaps you could receive it but never put it to use, like a gift that you leave wrapped, never opened, and you just stick up on a shelf of the closet of your soul. Perhaps either of these might be ways that you’ve responded in the past.

And yet, this year, this moment, he offers you this gift. This year, you can embrace him: in prayer and meditating on the Scriptures; in attending Mass and going to confession; in turning away from sin and growing in love for your family and for others around you. You can let our Lord Jesus fill you with his peace and joy and love. This year, you can let him transform you.

In his homily last night, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, said:

God comes to us as man, so that we might become truly human. … Lord Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, come to us! Enter within me, within my soul. Transform me. Renew me. Change me, change us all from stone and wood into living people, in whom your love is made present and the world is transformed.

If God became man, then that changes everything. Our Lord looks at you with his eyes shining and says, “Up!” “I love you. Will you love me? Will you let me love you?”

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This homily was certainly influenced by—indeed, a couple sentences were directly paraphrased from—the 2007 song “How Many Kings,” by Downhere. And my thanks to several Facebook friends for their suggestions about how to aim the tone of the homily, on such a special feast day.

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Published in: on December 25, 2009 at 10:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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