Following is the homily given by Archabbot Justin DuVall, who presided at Mass on Christmas Eve at Saint Meinrad Archabbey Church.
In Nativitate Domini
Ad Missam in nocte
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled.”
Confrères, and brothers and sisters:
The Christmas mystery which we celebrate this night began to unfold against the backdrop of a human attempt to impose order on the whole world. A Roman emperor exercised his authority over conquered peoples in an effort to control rebellion. But in the birth of the Christ, the One through whose wisdom the original chaos of creation itself had been put in order gently and mightily (fortiter suaviter), was content to take his place in the disorder of a muck-filled, mule-shed-made-an-inn.
The history of the human race might be seen as a succession of efforts to impose order where disorder—or perhaps the perceived wrong order—prevails. Far more than visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads, the Christmas story is the vision of the advent of God’s kingdom by which he restores right order to the whole of his creation. It is therefore the beginning of our rebellion against every wrong order, and it gives us the gift of hope, even as we remain under the sway of continued human efforts to impose a preferred order on the world.
When Joseph and Mary made their way to Bethlehem, to be registered in accordance with the decree of Caesar Augustus, they acted no differently than other people of their own country. They were the little people of the day whose lives were affected by decisions made from high up on the chain of command. It didn’t mean they weren’t faithful Jews who believed in the promises of God; but nevertheless, what Caesar ordered, Caesar got. The Pax Romana prevailed and its order governed the world.
In time, of course, the Roman Empire crumbled, but it heirs have been lining up ever since. The human desire to impose a world order—or even a world peace—shows itself over and over, and often without regard for the cost to the lives of ordinary folks. Tonight the span of peace doesn’t quite stretch over Korea or Iraq. Even while the United States and Russia have agreed to reduce the stockpile of nuclear weapons, North Korea threatens to use them against South Korea for what it perceives to be a menace to its good order, rekindling the unthinkable in a world that had grown hopeful for the banishment of such weapons. And as we are well aware, the prolonged state of war in Iraq has created a torrent of refugees whose lives have been disrupted in ways that we can’t begin to imagine from our vantage point of an unquestioned security. The little people of that region, many of them the Christian minority, are at the mercy of the powers that be.
However noble in itself, the human desire for good world order shows its flaws when it fails to engage in the difficult work of protecting the rights of everyone it affects. Mary and Joseph were among the little people of their day, and their life together was affected by the decree of Caesar Augustus that took them from the familiarity of their hometown to the uncertainties of their destination, all part of a plan to enroll the whole world.
But God’s plan for the whole world was also under way.
The birth of a child happens on its own schedule, no matter what else is going on in the world, and so while Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, “the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son.” Babies are born every day, part of the cycle of human life; it’s nothing earth-shattering. The birth of Jesus had all the humanity of any birth, but in another way it was anything but ordinary. This child would in fact inaugurate a new order that no human decree could effect. The good news of his birth, as the angels announced to the shepherds, was to “be for all the people.” And so more was at stake than simply the birth of a child to be enrolled in Caesar’s count.
We cannot forget that this child whose birth we commemorate tonight is the Savior of the world. He will not stay a small child; he will become the man who will bear the weight of human sinfulness, and be delivered to death for our salvation. This child, looking so harmless in a manger, would disrupt the world at its deepest level by sowing freedom among God’s children who—with few exceptions—are hardly capable of receiving it. * In him God restored the original good order of his creation and made it clear that anything opposed to that good order is at odds with his purpose.
When Jesus saw suffering, he healed it; when evil crossed his path, he cast it out; when he encountered sin, he forgave it; and death, the final enemy of life, he conquered. All these things are at odds with God’s good order, and none of them have a place in the purpose of God for his creation. In Christ the rebellion against every false hope began, and this hope permeates our celebration of Christmas. The good news of this night is, as the angels announced, for all peoples, and it drives the Church in its mission in the world. Mary gave birth to the one prophesied by Isaiah as the Prince of Peace, and in this birth God established his good order for the whole human race.
The birth of Christ, then, lays claim to us even as we still labor under the constraints of the present world. Christmas points us beyond the stillness of this night to the fullness of all time, because the birth of Christ is the overture to the great and final appearance of Christ in glory. The simple shepherds keeping their sheep on that night were sent on a mission to find the child who was a sign for them.
In the same way Christmas launches us on the search for the God who restores the original dignity of our human nature. It is not an aimless search, one which is content merely to be charmed along the way but not challenged by the goal. We are, after all, now enrolled in the rebellion which Christ himself leads against false hopes. St. Paul wrote to Titus, “The grace of God has appeared, saving all, and training us to reject godless ways.”
We have to live in this world, of course, and so we will necessarily confront ways that are opposed to God’s ways. But because we have been redeemed, because our true nature has been restored to us in Christ, Christmas claims us, not just for tonight or tomorrow or for the holidays—but for all our days. “Christian, claim your dignity,” we hear from St. Leo the Great, “it is God’s own nature that you share.” This dignity should make a difference in the way we live and how we grasp the truth of what God is doing in the world. St. Benedict found a way to express this dignity in how he set the order in community for his monks (Rule, Ch. 63). He dismantled the order set by society, based on class or wealth or education, and instead based seniority on a monk’s day of entrance into the community, marking the start of his dedicated search for God. For any Christian to say that he or she has been made a new creation in Christ is more than clever rhetoric; it involves both a privilege and a duty.
By celebrating the Christmas mystery tonight with faith, we will leave this church as more than people of good will whose hearts have been warmed by sights and smells and songs; we will leave this church as a people who claim our dignity over against every attempt to belittle it. Christ has redeemed all of our life, from birth through death, and everything in between.
An infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger was the sign for the shepherds of the good news for all peoples. That good news equips us to meet all of life’s challenges with hope, and with the ability to give thanks in all things for the saving power of God at work in us.
Tonight we recall the beginnings of our salvation in the birth of Christ. Twenty centuries have passed, yet the mystery of Christmas has not aged; it is as fresh as it first was in Bethlehem, still straining towards its fulfillment. Tonight let us welcome Christ and the gift of life that he brings so that all our days and years and seasons may be ordered in God, and that we may know the true joy of God’s presence among us.
Archabbot Justin DuVall, O.S.B.
Saint Meinrad Abbey Church
December 25, 2010
* Cf. The Doors of the Sea, by David Bentley Hart, pp. 86-87.