Christmas Night Mass
Rosary Monastery - St. Ann’s
The 2nd Reading for Christmas Night, which we just heard from St. Paul’s Letter to Titus, contains a whole program and one well worth reflecting upon in this Holy Night:
“He (as St. Paul identifies Him “our great God and savior Christ Jesus”) sacrificed himself for us in order to set us free from all wickedness and to purify a people so that it could be his very own and would have no ambition except to do good.”
Just to be clear on it, when we say that Jesus sacrificed Himself we are referring to His sacrifice which was completed upon the Cross, but which began with tonight, with His being born a man like us in all things but sin. Christ’s outpouring for our salvation, and this is why we genuflect when we recite the Creed tonight, His sacrifice began when the Word became Flesh, born this day at Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary. Freeing us from wickedness began with the Incarnation. Purifying a people for His very own with no ambition but to do good (I repeat) began with the Incarnation.
What indeed has God-become-Man, the Word-made-Flesh, accomplished in us, such that we can and should take on His ambition for us, His Will for us? Does your will conform to that of the Lord? What sorts of ambitions do you have? Are they only to do good? I really wish I could say that about myself, that purified I had indeed set my heart on the world to come, on the Kingdom of Christ, on His Will alone.
Sadly, yes, I would have to judge myself and say that I am not all that simple and straightforward. This is not to say that I have ambitions to do anything except the good, but honest is honest, and so I had better concede that I don’t quite think I have that first and longer sentence of the reading quite down yet. I come up short when it comes to the important details concerning what St. Paul means when he speaks of Christ’s sacrifice so that I might be His and have no ambition except to do good. St. Paul tells Titus and us that the Christ has “…taught us that what we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions; we must be self-restrained and live good and religious lives here in this present world…” Having no ambition except to do good means giving up everything but God. My salvation depends upon my wholehearted and self-sacrificing response to Christ’s sacrifice for my salvation. But how do you do that? Is it even possible? Yes, it is possible, but not without our wanting it, not without real effort on our part. Our own hesitancy or slowness to embrace God’s Will wholeheartedly is a big part of what is wrong with our world.
What is the real reason that too few babies are being born in a lot of developed countries? Why is Western Europe aging so quickly, dying really? Why are fewer young people today entering into Christian matrimony? Why do we here in Trinidad have a genuine shortage of vocations to priesthood and the religious life? Maybe it’s simply because people have other ambitions in life, ambitions which have little to do either with how the Son of God ended up in a manger in Bethlehem 2000 years ago or why He was lifted up on the Cross for our salvation. Maybe too few people nurture ambitions to do only good, ambitions which can save us from death, ambitions which can lead us to God. I’m not pointing an accusing or condemning finger to say folks are bad or folks are selfish, but there would certainly seem to be a lack of focus in people’s lives, a lack of the kind of singleness of purpose St. Paul is recommending. The shepherds didn’t wander off to Bethlehem in this Holy Night looking for action or entertainment. They came looking for the One proclaimed to them by the hosts of Heaven, the angels. They, as shepherds the lowliest creatures in the world at that time, were summoned by angels to share in the most sublime mystery the universe has ever had to offer.
Approximately 30 years or so ago, in the context of what they used to call “film study”, I remember being annoyed by a Swedish film thing which contrasted the happy and carefree life of a family of entertainers, who really cared for each other, and whose daughter, widowed young, was sent away from this fun-loving family to be married off to a Lutheran pastor and condemned with her children to a dreadfully austere life and seemingly for no reason. Why she had to marry again, when she and the children were getting on so famously at home, is just one of those mysteries of “film study”. The film gave the impression that this poor woman and her children went from life and love, from what the film described as the good life in a carefree extended family to a sort of somber antechamber to death in a Lutheran parsonage. The film director seemed to want to characterize Christianity in his home country Sweden as a sort of living death.
Is this image fair? I don’t know, maybe things were that bad back then in Sweden. But let’s talk about being truly Catholic and right here and right now. Does this art film business describe us? Is this really what our religion is all about? Is this the meaning of St. Paul’s words: “…we must be self-restrained and live good and religious lives here in this present world, while we are waiting in hope for the blessing which will come with the Appearing of the glory of our great God and savior Christ Jesus”?
Personally, I feel very sad for all those people who feel constrained to reject faith, to boycott the Christ Child and to send out cards that have no more than a sprig of holly, a poinsettia or a frosty bell on them and make no mention of “Christmas” or “Holy” but only talk about the “season” and “lovely”. For me, those are the folks trapped in the antechamber of death, not my poor little widow in the Swedish art film and not those who give praise to the Infant King born in a stable at Bethlehem. Life and joy are not tied to all-inclusive fetes or to giant HD flat screen 3D entertainment centers. You cannot cook up or bottle the fullness of life and joy, no matter how long you age it in oak barrels. The reason for the season lies elsewhere. Life and joy, even if crippled, sick or financially destitute, keep company with that host of angels singing glory to God and with those poor shepherds come in the middle of the night to see the Holy One of God, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger: “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race…” And with St. Paul, I proclaim that to be the one and only real joy.
A special word for adults and specifically for parents and grandparents: is that happiness yours which would put in first place and above all else a child and the Child born at Bethlehem? Do we have time for others as the Last Judgment scene in Matthew’s Gospel would prescribe: when I was hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison…? St. Paul tells us that Bethlehem and the Cross: “…taught us that what we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions…” Have we truly learned the lesson? Or are we raising our own crop of budding Swedish film directors or snotty newspaper columnists who will have nothing but criticism for our faith and the cause of our joy?
When we say with St. Paul: “…we must be self-restrained and live good and religious lives here in this present world, while we are waiting in hope for the blessing which will come with the Appearing of the glory of our great God and savior Christ Jesus…” do we add a spontaneous “Oh joy!” or do we break out in a cold sweat?
On this Holy Night I think the secret to joy is to be found in looking to the shepherds and remembering once again the answer to the very first question in the basic catechism of once upon a time. “Why did God make me?” For conspicuous consumption? No! For the good life as defined by the Hollywood Dreamworks or some crafty and probably crabby old Swede? No! “God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this life, so as to be happy (happy, yes!) with Him in the next.” I really wonder some times if the forces of unbelief and secularization are really all that powerful or if maybe we don’t just need to turn off the noise, walk outside of an evening and contemplate the handiwork of our Creator… as simple, yes, as simple as that!
“For there is a child born for us, a son given to us and dominion is laid on his shoulders; and this is the name they give him: Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace. Wide is his dominion in a peace that has no end, for the throne of David and for his royal power, which he establishes and makes secure in justice and integrity. From this time onward and for ever, the jealous love of the Lord of hosts will do this.”
“He sacrificed himself for us in order to set us free from all wickedness and to purify a people so that it could be his very own and would have no ambition except to do good.”
A Blessed Christmas to you one and all!