Below is the homily delivered by Archabbot Justin DuVall at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve here at Saint Meinrad Archabbey. I thought it was worth sharing so that others may read and reflect on it this Christmastide--and in seasons to come. -- Br. Francis
In Nativitate Domini
Ad Missam in nocte
The childhood charms that have come to paint this night bright with hope keep a good grip on the latent little child in all of us. Our memories of Christmases way, way past might not be entirely happy ones, but even those that suffer from disappointment hint at the awareness of what might have been.
Charles Dickens’ story of Scrooge’s transformation banishes sorrow in the gleeful cry of Tiny Tim, the voice of innocence that confirms the hidden goodness in the miserly old Scrooge. But the Christmas story—the one according to Luke, not Dickens—has little to say about the hidden goodness of our human nature. The Gospel story of Christmas proclaims the innate goodness of God, who became a child so that we might mature to the fullness of our human nature in Christ.
This is the grace that has appeared as the immeasurable gift of God, that real hope which does not banish our sorrows, but respectfully redeems them.
The Gospel story of Christmas begins with an awareness of our need for a savior. The birth of Christ was not God’s gift to us because we have been good; rather, it is God’s goodness to us because we need it. If we believe that our own goodness is more often than not merely hidden, and in our better moments becomes evident, then the announcement of the angels could hardly be good news.
Because we sometimes forget just how ordinary evil can be, we also forget that we need to be saved from what has come to be accepted as the way we are. It’s humiliating to need to be saved, as we heard recently in the refectory from Michael Casey. While we pray for salvation on a theoretical level, the day-to-day desires turn out quite different. We often have a hard enough time accepting help from another person with whom we live and suspiciously question his motives; why should we think it would be any different with God?
And yet even Scrooge was saved from his greed through an intervention. One of the biggest sorrows of life is to realize that we are dependent on others, a dependence that begins as infants, is modified to a greater or lesser degree through adulthood, and returns in force at the end of life. Perhaps we resist what is life-giving—whether from others or from God—because we realize that life comes to us from outside and that within us there is a push towards death. It’s the inescapable reminder that we cannot ultimately save ourselves. We need others. We need God.
If we want to enter into the joy of Christmas, we have to begin by taking to heart the proclamation of the angels: “A savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord…”
In this savior God has given us the gift of his own divine life, which often we are not too sure just how to receive. Sometimes God gives us an inestimable gift that we can only treasure without knowing exactly why he’s given it. It feels strange to us. But our acceptance of a gift that we don’t quite understand allows us to welcome God’s nearness in strange as well as in familiar ways.
When the shepherds heard the announcement of the good news of a Savior, they might have expected a savvy revolutionary who would finally and forever get rid of all Israel’s enemies. They got a baby. We can only imagine the divine sense of humor behind this revelation. It went from the sublime to the ridiculous, or at least it must have seemed so to the shepherds. The immensity of God’s power was shrunken down to the familiar cries of a baby. It was a strange surprise for them that must have stretched their understanding of God’s power to save.
As children we could be taken up with the surprise of Christmas, brightly wrapped boxes that hid what we knew was a gift from a grown-up. In the mystery of the incarnation, God reverses that pattern. He surprised the grown-ups by the gift of a child. To think ourselves beyond being surprised is to be blind to part of God’s revelation. God is somehow like a child, defenseless before us, and has opened himself to being held in our arms.
Unless we prepare our hearts for this surprise, we can’t possibly hope to receive and keep the gift of God. In his immeasurable goodness God has visited us, and we carry within us that gift of God that we treasure even when we don’t fully understand it.
In the mystery of the incarnation, God shared with us his own divine nature so that we might grow to maturity in our human nature. Behind all the charm of Christmas we cannot afford to allow anything to blind us to the true meaning of what God has done. The child of Bethlehem becomes the man of Jerusalem. In him we see something greater and wiser and kinder than we are.
As we grow to maturity in Christ, we are the bearers of the mystery we welcome tonight in faith, and we are asked to carry for the world what it so badly needs, but also what it so often ignorantly rejects because it must bear the sorrows of life. There are very few people who have not at some time or another experienced deep anguish and in our lives we may be tested in ways we cannot even imagine. This burden is what God has redeemed in Christ. The sorrows of life pull us away from the full maturity of our human nature, but our faith in Christ, the savior born to us, allows us to live in such a way that true joy in life cannot be killed by sorrow.
Perhaps this sounds grandiose; but it is divinely simple. It means fighting the impulse to live for ourselves only; it means choosing generosity over selfishness; it means living humbly rather than loving gain. It is the “grace of God [which] has appeared, saving all and training us … to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age” (Titus 2.11-12).
Part of the mystery of Christmas is that we don't know in exact detail how God will fulfill our hope, but we believe that God has visited us, and we carry the presence of Christ within us. His life in our flesh was the down payment for our life in God’s future. By sharing with us his own divine nature in Christ, God brings to maturity in us his primal gift of our own human nature.
This is the mystery of Christmas in full bloom, a story whose end is yet to come.
There is a version of the Christmas story without charms. It is neither Dickens’ nor Luke’s. It comes in the Revelation of John, the book that deals with the end of all things. There a woman gives birth to a son but not in the serene company of shepherds and angels. As she cries out in childbirth, a great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns opens its mouth to devour her child, but God frustrates his plan by snatching away the child and carrying the woman off to the desert. In his rage the dragon unleashes a battle of cosmic proportions.
This Christmas story is the life and death struggle for the whole of creation. It is a story for mature audiences only. In the fullness of the Incarnation God gives us the gift of salvation once and for all.
Here in the peace of this Christmas night let us open our hearts to his gift, and then we may come to discover ourselves held in the womb of the Mother of God.
Rt. Rev. Justin DuVall, O.S.B.
Saint Meinrad Archabbey Church
25 December 2009