More than tinsel: The Light of the World penetrates our darkness

(This is a translation of the Spanish homily, so there is no mp3.)
Christmas, Vigil Mass: December 24, 2011
Isa 62:1-5; Ps 89; Acts 13:16-17, 22-25; Matt 1:1-25

How beautiful it all is, this time of year! Everywhere, even here in the church, we see lights twinkling in the trees. And we have these glorious flowers pouring forth from the sanctuary. And this handsome nativity scene, including the new shepherd boy figure this year.

And so we pause in its glow, and take it all in, with the gifts and the cards and the songs and the times together with family and friends. One song tells us: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

And then we put it all away in storage, for 10 or 11 months. Why? If it’s so wonderful, why is it only one part of the year?

I was recently reading a newspaper article in which the author was considering different Christmas movies. And he asked: What is it that makes a movie a true holiday classic?—one that touches us deeply, and that we watch year after year—rather than just being pleasant and funny, and we can take it or leave it? And he concluded that it takes a good amount of misery, of all things. And he pointed to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Miracle on 34th Street,” and “A Christmas Carol”: for in them we see some characters who are selfish and cruel; and good characters in desperate situations, on the brink of tragedy; and then, in the darkness of ruin and despair, the light of their salvation and redemption shines forth.

And so, to be a holiday classic, such a movie doesn’t just need light; it needs light overcoming darkness, to give us that deep resulting “Christmas feeling” that we’re after. It can’t just be a frothy fantasy; it has to reach into the darkness that we know and promise salvation.

And so it is with the real Christmas story. That long list of names we heard is real, spanning almost 2000 years. And as we hear those names, perhaps the stories from the Old Testament associated with them flash through our minds—such as St. Paul preached in our second reading. And so we recall: faith and despair; faithfulness and betrayal; love, and lust and cruelty; slavery and liberation; triumph and defeat; exile and return; family love and family division; children who made proud and who disappointed; prosperity and famine; illness and healing; new life and plenty of death.

And as that list comes into its final section, it is filled with disappointment: the House of David, the line of kings descended from King David, seemingly having disappeared; the People of Israel dominated by one empire after another; the long-awaited Messiah who would save them, nowhere in sight.

Now, this is a story we recognize, isn’t it? This isn’t a fairy tale; this is reality. This is our story.

And into this dark and complicated story comes an angel, and a miracle, and a baby. Into real, ordinary lives. Light, in the darkness! The son of David! The long-awaited Messiah! And not only that, but the Son of God! The Second Person of the Trinity, true God, consubstantial with the Father, taking on our human nature, to become true man. Indeed, Emmanuel, “God with us”—not just among us, but truly being one of us, experiencing our joys and sorrows, hopes and fears. Beginning life as we do: conceived in the womb, born as a baby. Helpless in our arms.

“And they lived happily ever after.” No, no they didn’t! For when the Lord enters your life and asks you to make a place in it for him and asks you to live your life with him, it is never simple. What do we see in this nativity scene? A precious baby; a warm and beautiful mother; a devoted and protecting father? Yes, but not only that. What we see are true disciples of the Lord.

For when the angel Gabriel came to Mary with the invitation to become the Mother of God, he asked her to do something she could not fully understand; and she couldn’t know everything it would mean, but she could easily grasp the real danger it would put her in, in her reputation and even her life itself; and she could see that it would completely change her life and all the plans and dreams she had had up to that point. And Joseph too, as we heard in the Gospel reading, had to grapple with this pregnancy in this woman betrothed to him, and what it could mean; and we see that, initially, he was ready to back out of it, in fear.

But both said yes. Not just yes to posing in a manger scene and a Christmas pageant once a year; but yes to their calls to be the Mother of God, and the foster father and Guardian of the Lord. This is who we see in the manger scene: two disciples, two human beings who have met the Lord, welcomed them into their lives, said yes to his invitation to them, and prepared to live out with him the tumultuous lives that will follow.

And do you think they ever regretted it? No, they didn’t. For although their lives were turned upside down, with their old plans long gone, they were with him: in intimate union with the Lord of the universe, who fills that empty void within us that only he can fill; who is light in the darkness, who is hope and life; who is Love itself.

And this is the invitation to us on this great feast: not just to hear a pleasant tale, decorated with nice decorations; but to encounter the Lord of the universe, come to be “God with us,” light in the darkness of our real lives. Not just to look upon him today, and then put it all away until next year; but to truly welcome him into every day of our real lives. And then, as we heard in the first reading:

No more shall people call you “Forsaken,” or your land “Desolate,” but you shall be called “My Delight,” and your land “Espoused.”… You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the Lord, a royal diadem held by your God… Nations shall behold your vindication, and all the kings your glory… and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you.


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