Thursday, December 24, 2009

Life to the Full

Christmas Midnight Mass
Rosary Monastery in St. Ann’s

24 December 2009

            “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race…”
            “Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”
These two quotes, the first from our Second Reading (St. Paul’s Letter to Titus) and the other from the Gospel of St. Luke, are earth-shaking words which break the bonds of the here and now. They beg all sorts of ultimate questions and draw us into a reflection on God’s Love and our final destiny.
            “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race…”
            “Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”
Where do we find consolation in this life? What is our hope? When can I let my guard down, so to speak, and be at peace? When have I arrived in port, at my place of rest? Am I saved? Has my Saviour come? Has the darkness of this world really been scattered? Is heaven here at hand? Have earth and heaven been joined?
With all of the rushing around some of us do right into Christmas Eve a person almost has to come and shake us in order to draw our attention to the big questions posed by Jesus’ Birth in Bethlehem. Even if I am calm, cool and collected, ready to appreciate this Holy Season, my contemplation of this lovely young couple, Mary and Joseph, with the beautiful Baby Jesus, accommodated “no frills” in a stable, offers no guarantees that I would necessarily bring these ultimate questions to mind. But Christmas is about the most important things. The Birth of the Messiah divides time forever into a “before” and an “after”. The wonder of the Incarnation marks the fullness of time and a whole new way of looking at the world. With the Nativity business as usual or drudgery went out the window.
It is not uncommon to hear us older folk talking about enjoying life. We’re supposed to be on a diet; we’re supposed to be doing this and avoiding that. And it is not uncommon to hear someone say, “Well, you can’t expect me to give up everything! There’s got to be a little enjoyment to life!” That’s an everyday exclamation and not a commentary on time and eternity. Granted! Both types of expression have their place in our lives. And although we cannot be expected to always talk about ultimate things and there must be matters which are immediate and everyday, so to speak, our lives must also have some purpose or goal beyond today and tomorrow. This life (diet or no diet) cannot be the be-all and end-all of a Christian’s life. Life is not a space walk; we cannot just free-float doing our best not to bounce too hard off the walls which contain us, while struggling to avoid breakables and sharp objects. The message of this holy night recounts a blessing and reminds us that we have a destiny beyond the limits of the cradle and the grave.
Of late, one of my more productive meditations on how our lives should be lived as a result of the Birth of the Saviour has been my reflection on Purgatory, of all things! Purgatory may not sound very Christmassy, but bear with me!
The Catholic doctrine on Purgatory has always seemed right to me ever since I was a child, but up until recently it has been a concept, kind of out there, like some of those things at school that we memorize for examinations, but perhaps don’t really comprehend. In my case, I can’t say as I had previously come to an experiential understanding (an appreciation, let’s say, which touches me personally) of the why and wherefore of what is meant by temporal punishment due to sins which have already been forgiven in confession. Dealing with temporal punishment is different than making restitution, paying back what we might have stolen or trying to make reparation for having damaged somebody’s reputation. I always took the notion of my liability for temporal punishment after forgiveness as a tribute to my personal dignity and therefore responsibility for my actions and omissions before God. Basically, even as a child I guess I could understand that forgiveness was not yet healing and that penance was a remedy for harm done to myself, to my soul, through sin. Even so, I don’t think I’d really ever pondered enough what that particular judgment at the moment of my death, me standing alone before the Throne of God, would bring for pain – purgation – as my eyes were opened to eternity and I fully understood how things really are: what impact my sins had had on me and on the life of the world. Purgatory involves seeing clearly the consequences of acts or omissions for which we sought forgiveness, admitting or knowing they were wrong, but without a full appreciation of all the implications. The suffering we might undergo in Purgatory is what didn’t get done here; it is an after-the-fact sharing in what Sacred Scripture is talking about when it speak of us making up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.
What does Purgatory have to do with Christmas? In a sense, I guess, it has everything to do with Christmas, that is, if we remember that the Incarnation of the Word of God, God become Man, Jesus born at Bethlehem ends the stalemate between sinful or unredeemed humanity and our loving God. From the time of Adam’s sin people died and were buried; the B.C. (Before Christ) world still had some things to work through with God’s help (His choice in Abraham of a People, the giving of the Law through Moses, the mission of all the Prophets) before the fullness of time could come and God could send us a saviour. God Himself didn’t need a time-out or cooling off period, but human hearts had to be prepared to embrace the life with God which Adam and Eve had cast off so lightheartedly. Thanks to Bethlehem we live A.D. Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord.  “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race…”
It is important to keep in mind that there is life and there is life: life comfortable, life healthy, life to be enjoyed, and there is life: life unbounded, filled with lasting joy, life constant and faithful, life everlasting. I want to say something about Christmas and life, small-l, yes, to be enjoyed. I would also like to push a bit this Christmas the notion of Life, capital-L, which through the manger and the Cross leads to joy.
Life on the surface, regulating our behavior based on appearances, is part of the disobedience of our first parents: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.” (Gen. 3:6) Our world is all too full of people we could simply tag “Don’t Tread on Me” or “Leave Me Alone” or “I will not serve” – “If it feels good, it must be all right”.
One of the great things about knowing better, about living after Bethlehem is that even if we gravely or mortally fail, God’s grace in His Church is available to help us turn around, to restore us to life with God. We can be forgiven; there is a remedy even for big sins and banishment from the face of God; not the old man but Christ, the new Adam rules the scene. Step One! We have a Saviour! It truly is God’s world.
Step Two! One of the great things about living since that night in Bethlehem is that a defenseless Infant, a beautiful little boy, a fine youth, an extraordinary Man, Jesus, one like us in all things but sin, has come on the scene, offering us forgiveness from our sins, victory over the grave, but imposing nothing, leaving it all up to us and our free will in response to His Truth spoken in love:
“After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’” (John 6:66-69)
May this Christmas be for each and all of you a great celebration of life, small-l. Beyond enjoyment, however, may this anniversary of the Birth of Our Saviour at Bethlehem bring you joy, the ultimate ingredient to the celebration of Life, capital-L. As the expression goes, “We are somebody, somebody in no less than God’s eyes”. What a joy!
The English Christmas carol, God rest ye, merry gentlemen, is a bit antique and perhaps hard to understand or relate to, but it bears the full message and also mine to you this evening: Let nothing you dismay! Oh, tidings of comfort and joy!
“Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

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