Christmas is, by far, one of the most important holy days for the Church. The fact that parishes, monasteries, and other places of worship will, unlike other times of year (and understandably so), be filled to the brim with believers (and even some non-Catholic visitors) thus makes it the perfect opportunity for evangelization. Many of the faithful are also upset and even scandalized by seeing the presence of their fellow Catholics who rarely put in the effort to go to Mass other times of year. Yet, while such Catholics should be attending Church every week, their rare and infrequent presence at Mass provides us with an extra opportunity to reach out to those who need desperately to hear the Gospel. If I were a priest delivering a sermon on Christmas, this is what I would say:
Sermo ad Festum Nativitas Dominum Nostrum Jesum Christum
Brothers and sisters, let us meditate upon these words from the liturgy: “For in the mystery of the Word made flesh, a new light of Your glory has shone upon the eyes of our mind, so that, as we recognize in Him God made visible, we may be caught up through Him in love of things invisible.” In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Tonight, dearest brethren, is the Vigil of the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ – Christmas Eve. On this day, we await the day in which commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. But, in doing so, we commemorate something more than merely the birth of a man. What we celebrate is the act of God becoming human.
That God becomes man showcases the lowliness of man. Man is in a state of sin. Look at the world around us. Look at how our political leaders increasingly seem unable to think beyond partisan lines for the sake of the common good of society. Look at how the vulnerable are oppressed and marginalized. Look at how the poor still face hardships to this day – hardships that are compounded by a combination of both a lack of opportunity or a lack of help, and bad choices on their own part. The outright murder of the THE MOST VULNERABLE among us – the unborn – is the law of the land. Sexual immorality is rampant in this country, and it is demanded that we respect it in the name of “bodily autonomy” – until and unless someone gets hurt in the process, of course; in which case, such actions are either denied, or society responds through something similar to the mob mentality and the desire or vengeance rather than justice.
All this is the sign of something gone wrong on a fundamental level due to our sin. Many people are invested in this sin. They have something to gain by it. Or their moral compass has been warped to such an extent that they do not see this as an issue, or as bad of an issue as some claim. Many more, accepting that things are not the way they ought, do not act, feeling that they do not know the answer or lack the power to effect change. All of this manifests how the human mind is blinded by sin. So, God, the source of all goodness and life, manifests Himself to humanity to raise us out of our sin. In a sense, the entire history of God’s Revelation – beginning with the first chapters of the Old Testament and ending with the final verses of the New Testament – are a sign of God being present to humanity in an intimate way. Yet, with Jesus, God’s presence to humanity becomes more intense as God in the person of Jesus actually becomes man, actually enters into history.
Let us contemplate this: God is an immaterial and infinite being. Yet, He manifested Himself within the finite limits of human nature, becoming like us in all things but sin. God is eternal, that is, outside of time, but He becomes an agent within time. As Cardinal John Henry Newman, a famous 19th century British Catholic theologian and saint, noted, there is an infinite gap between mankind and God, and so God would have been humbling Himself infinitely by manifesting Himself as one of the richest or most powerful of humans. Yet, God instead decided humble Himself further by being born to a poor family, in a manger, among animals. Yet, He did all of this without ceasing to be God, without loosing His omnipotence, His eternity, His omniscence, His infinitude.
There are thus two pitfalls which the Christian must avoid. It is easy to underestimate or water-down the fact that Jesus was truly a man. To think that the all-powerful, all-knowing, utterly transcendent, incomprehensible and completely sovereign Lord of all would become man is a scandal. St. Paul describes it as such in the first chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, when describing how non-believers view the Gospel message. It is utter foolishness to say that God became man without ceasing to be God. God must remain as God, existing only within His own realm, and man must exist within his own realm, and never shall the two meet.
This same mindset gives birth to the opposite error: to acknowledge the existence of Jesus as a historical figure, but to deny His Divinity, to say that He was just a man, and nothing more. This is false. St. Paul attests that in Jesus “dwells the fullness of Deity bodily.” (Colossians 2:9) And the Apostle John writes that the Word of God, in the Person of Jesus, “became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)
Humanity, blinded by sin, cannot know God or love God as he ought. And this is the root of all of mankind’s problems, for God is the source of all goodness. St. Augustine defined sin as having disordered desires – that is, placing a lower good above a higher good, or by placing any good above THE HIGHEST GOOD, namely God. Anything good is good insofar as it derives its goodness from God, the source of goodness. Yet, problems are bound to arise if we place any other good above God, since we are placing a lesser good above that from which it derives its goodness. This causes spiritual and moral blindness. Not only does it cause moral and spiritual blindness, it is moral and spiritual blindness. As a result, this source of all goodness, this highest good, than which no greater good can be thought, enters into humanity to counteract this spiritual blindness.
It is for this reason that we read the Prophet Isaiah proclaim, in the ninth chapter of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.” (Isaiah 9:1a) Everyday we walk in the darkness of sin, but by looking to Jesus, we see a spiritual light that points us back to our ultimate goal, namely union with God.
It is for this reason that we should never feel despair. We should feel sorrow and shame for our sins, but this sorrow and shame should never turn into a sense of hopelessness. Because the light of God, through Jesus, has shone in the darkness of sin, we have the opportunity of salvation. Until the moment you die and stand before the Judgment Seat of Almighty God, you always have an opportunity to repent. No sin is so bad so as to prevent the light of God from drawing you to Him. God has already done all the work in conquering the devil and making salvation possible; the only thing now separating any one of us from salvation is whether we have made the choice to turn to Christ. Sorrow for sins thus should never lead to a sense of existential angst or spiritual despair. It is for this reason that St. John the Apostle writes that the light of God has shone in the darkness, “and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5) Isaiah thus goes on to continue, “Upon those who lived in a land of gloom a light has shone. You [God] have brought abundant joy and great rejoicing…” (Isaiah 9:1b-2a)
This is thus the meaning of the quote from the Liturgy that I mentioned earlier: God’s glory and majesty is found precisely where one would not think to find it, in a humble baby born in a manger in a small desert nation in the outer edges of the Roman Empire. Yet, by lowering Himself in such a way, God has allowed us to be raised up out of our sin. St. Athanasius, one of the greatest of the Church Fathers, spoke similarly when he famously wrote, in his work On the Incarnation, “God became man so that man could become more like God.”
Nonetheless, even though God takes the initiative in saving us, God’s initiative demands a response from man. In Jesus, we see God giving Himself completely to us and for us. Apart from this, salvation is impossible. No ifs, ands or buts. But if our belief in this is authentic, then it should move us to be imitators of Jesus. This is the message of the words of St. Paul from today’s Mass. He writes, in the second chapter of his letter to Titus: “[F]or the grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of the great God and of our Savior Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:11-13) Union with God was impossible in the period between the Fall and the coming of Christ; yet, in becoming man in the Person of Jesus, which allowed Him to die on the Cross and rise three days later, mankind and God were reconciled and the gates of heaven were opened. Because of the work of Christ, mankind is now given the ability to order his acts in this life to the hope of the higher good of the next.
That human activity is necessary for salvation, but that this activity presupposes the activity of God in Christ, can be seen in two popular Christmas hymns. In one – O Come, O Come Emmanuel – speaks of the hope we have in Christ, Who liberates us from our sin. The other, O Come All Ye Faithful, calls us to come and adore Christ. The notion of adoring Christ often brings to mind images of formal worship. But, that is just one manifestation of love of Christ, albeit one of the highest. The adoration of Christ is something which must permeate all that we do. We must love Christ as Christ loved us. This is the greatest fruit that we have seen the the Incarnation – and thus Christmas – for what it is: as God entering into the created realm and shining through created realities, drawing us out of our sin and towards God. It is the infinite majesty of God shining forth in the form of a poor child – what seems like foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power, wisdom and glory of God. Let us turn to this child, and say with the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.