for Christmas Day, C Cycle
December 25, 2006
"Adeste, fideles, laeti, triumphantes, venite, venite in Bethlehem." - "Come, all you faithful, joyful and triumphant, come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem." With these lovely words, the Church invites us to follow the shepherds over the hills, coming to adore Him, Christ, the Lord. It is a well trodden road we travel. Twenty centuries of Christians have walked it before us - and we, ourselves, every year from the first dawning of reason have come this same way. Yet it is a way of which we never grow weary, whether our age is eight or forty eight, or even eighty eight. We still feel our hearts quicken with that special joy which is the Joy of Christmas.
Why is this? Why does this day and its Bethlehem scene possess so universal and so personal an appeal? Is it because of the beauty of the story - the filigree of touching detail with which the evangelist has brought it to life for us - the weary travelers seeking shelter in the stable-cave, the mystery of birth already upon the little Mother - and all the scene lit by the light of a mysterious star - and as background music, a heavenly choir hymning such Good News of Great Joy - and the shepherds, hurrying across the fields to find the Infant, wrapped in swaddling bands and cradled in straw? Surely it is partly that. There are few of us so hardened by life that we do not react to the sheer poetry of the story - the gentleness of the Mother and the helplessness of the Babe in the manger. But deeper than the outward circumstances is the fact of faith that here God has made Himself accessible - and tangible - and yes, Vulnerable. He has come among us, sharing our humanity, knowing at first hand the heartaches of life - knowing what it is like to be Lonely and Misunderstood and Rejected. - to taste the bitterness of ingratitude and the impact of violence - even to share the ultimate humanness of dying. In the Creed of our Mass this morning, we proclaim together the Truth at the Heart of our Faith: "For us and for our Salvation, He came down from Heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit, He was born of the Virgin Mary and became man." Today we celebrate the Wonder of Godís Love . We believe that God so loved us that He sent among us, His own Son, that those who believe in Him may not perish but might have life everlasting. All the Pity God is capable of feeling; all the Mercy God is capable of showing; all the Saving Grace God could pour into our hearts - all these are contained in those two Christmas Words - He Came.
Love filled words indeed: Jesus Came. But words which would be emptied of meaning if they do not find their completion in those other love-filled words: He Comes. Without those two words, our Christmas celebration would be no more than an exercise in nostalgia, a pious reminiscence, remembering a long-ago happening, over and done with.
He Comes. For people of living faith, Christmas is more than a Day and a Date. It is a Way of Life. The Coming of Our Savior is always a contemporary mystery. We believe that Jesus Lives. Jesus is Now - He comes Now - and He Comes to us and for us - Present Tense. We have His word for it! "Where two or three are gathered together, there am I in the midst of them." What was His very last word to us just before His ascension into heaven? "Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of time." What was the name given Him by the prophet Isaiah? "His name shall be called Emmanuel - a name which means: God is with us." How else can we understand Our Lordís promise in the Book of Revelation: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone will open the door for me, I will enter in and sup with him and he with Me."? We believe that the Christmas story is on-going. His saving work goes on, so long as there are people needing the rescue of God. We believe that He is with us always, seeking us out, calling us by name, wanting only to be welcomed into the very center of our lives. In our Mass this morning, we believe: He Comes. Here and Now and to Us, He Comes
Many of you, I am sure, are familiar with a beautiful picture of Our Lord, a picture entitled: "The Light of the World". It was painted by an English artist named Holman Hunt and for more than a century, it has hung in a place of honor in St. Paulís Cathedral in London. It depicts Our Blessed Lord, standing beside a tightly closed door - a door overhung with ivy - weeds and overgrowth crowding up to its very edge. In His left hand, Jesus is holding a lantern and His right hand is raised in the act of knocking. On His face is a look of eager expectancy. We can almost hear Him say: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock." Now, perhaps, you may be thinking: "This is not really a Christmas picture." Perhaps not in the usual understanding. But that scene does capture for us the fuller meaning of our feast. The more familiar Bethlehem scenes, with stable and star and the crib with the Infant reaching up to us - all these remind us of how He Came. But this picture reminds us of how He Comes. We believe that every day is Arrival Day. Every day, He comes knocking on your door and mine, waiting to be welcomed.
So the story goes - after the artist finished his picture and put it on display, someone spoke up and said: "Mr. Hunt, you have forgotten something!í "What is that? "You forgot to put a handle on that door! "No, I did not forget. That door is the door to the human heart and it opens only from within."
But there is more to the story - a recent postscript, we might call it. As the years passed, the vivid colors of the picture became begrimed by accumulated dust and smoke. The golden beams of the lantern no longer shone so bright. So, very recently, it was taken down from its place and removed from its frame for careful cleaning and restoration. And on the back of the canvas, previously unnoticed in a lower corner, they discovered hidden words - small but legible - the artistís own prayer from the heart! "Dear Jesus, forgive me that I have kept you waiting for so long."
There is another lovely Christmas carol which, it seems to me, offers us our appropriate background music for our celebration this morning and leads us from our liturgy of the word into our liturgy of worship. It not only recalls for us the way that Jesus Came - it also affirms our Christmas Faith that He Comes. As I share with you the words, I invite you, in the silence of your hearts, to supply the music!
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie
Above the deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the Everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all around
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray O Come to us, abide with us
Cast out our sin and enter in - Be Born in us today. Our Lord, Emmanuel.
We hear the Christmas angels, the great good tidings tell