December 25, 2009
In the gospel passage for Mass at midnight we hear the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. It is a story of faith so simple that even a child can grasp it. Yet, even after 2000 years, it is a mystery so profound that the richness of its meaning remains inexhaustible. We are reminded again of God's providential care that makes all history sacred history. The powerful rulers of the world, whether an Egyptian pharaoh or a Roman emperor, may have their armies and issue their decrees, but through the odd coincidences of history, God's own purposes are ultimately achieved. As foretold by the prophet, Mary gives birth to a savior, who is Christ and Lord, in Bethlehem, the city of David.
Caesar Augustus, regarded by Romans as a god who would bring peace and salvation to the world, is now only an unwitting instrument in the divine plan to bring God's peace and salvation through this child born of a young Jewish woman. Mary is the faithful, willing agent of God's loving purpose. After giving birth to her son, with love she wraps him in swaddling clothes and lays him in a manger.
In the gospel passage for Mass at dawn (Lk 2:15-20), Luke continues the love story of Christmas. Now Mary and Joseph share the divine gift of love that they have received by welcoming shepherds -- like tax collectors and prostitutes, members of a despised class in their society. The shepherds, like us who also have heard the good news, are now able to sing a new carol with the angels of the heavenly liturgy, glorifying and praising God for the gift of Jesus' presence among us.
The meaning of Luke's Christmas story is completed by the prologue of John's gospel, the passage for Mass during the day (Jn 1:1-18). Christ is born of Mary so that he might be born and live in us. Those who accept the Word-become-flesh through faith become children of God, not by natural generation, but as a divine gift. The meaning of Christmas and God's loving purpose will not be completely realized until the eternal fulfillment of Jesus' Last Supper prayer: "I pray...that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us..." (Jn 17:20-21).
Despite laments about the commercialism of the Christmas season, the universal instinct of people is correct: at the heart of the mystery of Christmas is giving and receiving gifts. We sense there is more to life than paying a wage or earning a wage. A gift is always a surprise and a joy because as a present of love, it is unearned. Our hearts indeed are restless until we receive love and give love. A gift is the sacramental, symbolic presence of a person. If my gift of love is accepted, it is I who am accepted; if my gift of love is rejected, it is I who am rejected.
One of the surprises of God's self-giving to us is that it seems to be so ordinary, and thus can easily be overlooked. The Word that is God's self-giving to us was to be found not in a royal palace, but in a manger as a helpless baby in need of a mother's love. Today at our Christ-Mass the Risen Lord gives himself to us as bread and wine. What could be more ordinary, and at the same moment so extraordinary a gift of love? It is through the most simple, ordinary means and in the most humble places that of the gift of love can be exchanged.
I am aware that at least one prison chaplain will be using these reflections to prepare his Christmas homily for those in our society who truly are the least of the brothers and sisters of Jesus. They too must hear the good news that no one has the power to take away our worth and dignity because our worth and our dignity are a gift of God's love for us. Those who are not able to buy expensive things -- prisoners, the sick, the poor. children -- remind us that what truly matters is the gift of our loving presence, however ordinary the means of its incarnation. We do have to become gifts of bread and wine for each other because the Lord loves us and becomes bread and wine for us.
Campion P. Gavaler, OSB