Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Homily: Christmas Midnight Mass: 2014; Updated (to the bitter end)

Homily: Christmas Midnight Mass: 2014

And an angel of the Lord appeared to them

The odd thing about St. Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, the first seven verses or so, is that there is nothing at all odd about it. It could be the birth of any child. Jesus was born when Caesar Augustus was Emperor and Quirnius was governor of Syria. I was born  when Harry Truman was president of the United States and Alan Shivers was governor of Texas. Doesn’t prove much except that I am an old codger. Mary and Joseph were displaced from home by the imperial  decree. My parents had to drive to Oklahoma City because Chickasha, Oklahoma didn’t have a hospital. Even ‘no room in the inn’ was not an unusual circumstance for that time and place. Probably not all that unusual when I was born. We can easily imagine that there were other children born that night in similar circumstances.

But I am pretty sure that there were no angels singing when I was I was born.

The first hint of something odd, something supernatural is when an angel appears to the shepherds. If we think the appearance of angels is weird, so did the shepherds: ‘they were filled with fear.’ Actually from a strictly logical standpoint, it is easier to believe in angels than in human beings, angels make more sense than human beings: angels are pure spirits, while we are really strange concoctions of body and soul, half beast, half angel. In any case it is an angel which preaches the gospel tonight: as is so often the case in Luke’s Gospel: “I bring you good news” the angel says. It is the angel Gabriel which tells Zechariah that his barren wife Elizabeth will give birth to John the Baptist. It is the same angel which tells Mary

Do not be afraid, Mary, (-- a persistent problem apparently when angels appear to human beings)
for you have found favor with God.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end.

And two angels on the morning of the Resurrection  tell the women “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!”

So if we want to receive the Gospel tonight,   we have to be willing to listen to angels. If you don’t believe in angels, you are out of luck. What does the angel say?

“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord; this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger”

“To you” the words echo the great affirmation of the Nicene Creed pro nobis – ‘for us’ ‘for us  men and for our salvation’. “Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost  of the virgin Mary, and was made man.” The apparent ordinariness of his birth is for us men and for our salvation.

Just as the angel causes the shepherds to say “let us go over to Bethlehem and see” so we too have to look again at the circumstances of his birth.
The mention of Caesar Augustus is not just name-dropping; he is mentioned by way of contrast with the child. Caesar rules the world, but this child is the King of the Universe, the King not of this and that, but of everything for us men and for our salvation.

Still the emperor’s decree serves God’s purposes, for us men and for our salvation. The child must be born in King David’s city for ‘of his kingdom there shall be no end’. The child has to be born in poverty – no room in the inn is no accident-- so that he may partake of our poverty and redeem it.

The child must be vulnerable to heal our wounds. He must be vulnerable enough to die for us men and for our salvation: swaddling clothes will become burial bands; born in manger a feeding trough because he will become our food and drink. 

Angels, St. Thomas, the Angelic Doctor, tells us, being immaterial and non-corporeal are pure intellectual beings. That makes their theology always right on the mark. They are pretty smart, smart enough to know that they are not made to write theology but like us they are made to worship God, to praise. So theology is not the last word; Doxology is.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!" That is the final thing, in the end the only appropriate response to the good news of this child’s birth. The single angel is joined by a multitude of angels and not only angels but the whole Catholic Church in all times and in all places. Finally it is that song which is the only thing to say  about Christmas: Glory be to God on High:

We praise thee, we bless thee,
we worship thee, we glorify thee,
we give thanks to thee, for thy great glory
O Lord God, heavenly King,
God the Father Almighty.

O Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ;
O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
that takest away the sins of the world,

Thou that takest away the sins of the world,
receive our prayer.
Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father,
have mercy upon us.

For thou only art holy;
thou only art the Lord;
thou only, O Christ,
with the Holy Ghost,
art most high
in the glory of God the Father.

And an angel of the Lord appeared to them

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