Christmas Eve (Mass in the Night)
Preached December 24, 2018; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Let me begin with my personal recollections. I grew up without any religion, but still I can remember the magical Christmases of my childhood, Christmases without Christ, but with the spirit of giving and good cheer. I also grew up without the holiday season wars and to this day my non-believing family has no problem with “Merry Christmas”.
My childhood experience of Christmas is perhaps not that uncommon. Christmas is thought to be a sort of magical time, at least in people’s memories, imaginations, and dreams.
What I learned as a child from the culture was that Christmas is a time when everything in the world is right for a moment; when people are filled with good cheer and a spirit of giving, getting along and greeting each other in the street, a time when envy and greed disappear, a time of peace on earth. Of course, what I just described is rather a secular dream of Christmas, in which God does not enter, rather like the famous song of John Lennon, “Imagine”.
To this we can add the popular heart warming Christmas stories which begin with some sort of crisis: it looks like disaster is going to strike, but through a combination of heroic generosity and the hidden workings of divine providence, the tragedy is averted at the last moment and Christmas day finds everyone rejoicing.
Still, for myself, as a little boy I was greedy for gifts and envious of what others got. Somehow during the month of December I managed, more or less, to stay out of trouble and so avoid coal in my stockings. Before my teen years arrived the magic had worn off, though I was still greedy for gifts. Even so the gifts didn’t satisfy for long.
Really, the popular Christmas of our time can be a sweet dream, or a fairy tale for children, but it is never much better than a dream. When we let ourselves be shaped by the spirit of the age, we hear the message “Peace on earth”, but do not at all comprehend “Glory to God in the highest.” We are really slow to grasp that peace can only be had on earth in the measure that we truly learn to give glory to God.
When I was 20 years old I was baptized into the Catholic Church and soon discovered the Midnight Mass. I might not have known anyone in the church, but it didn’t matter, because I had discovered not so much the magic of Christmas as the miracle of Christmas.
I would leave my family at home with the remains of Christmas Eve dinner, step out of my car on a crisp star-filled night, and the whole feel of the night was as though at any moment the angel of the Lord might step anew out of the darkness, radiant with the glory of God. The stars themselves seemed ready to join the chorus of angelic voices singing, “Glory to God in the highest.”
Why? Because peace had indeed come down from heaven to earth, even if men still fought among themselves, as they did with bombs and guns in distant places and in screams and shouts in many homes nearby.
This is neither a dream nor a fairy tale; peace came down from heaven to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God born of the Father before all ages and born of the Virgin Mary more than 2,000 years ago in the town of Bethlehem.
The Prince of Peace entrusted himself to the loving arms of his Virgin Mother and he continues to entrust himself to Mother Church and, though we cannot pretend to have welcomed him as the Virgin did, he entrusts himself to us anyway.
More than 2,000 years ago Peace came down in the town of Bethlehem, which means House of Bread.
The shepherds heard the angelic message and came and adored him. What does that mean? They did not ‘adore’ him as we speak of someone ‘adoring’ a cute baby. They adored him in the strict sense of rendering him the highest worship.
They came to the manger and did not gawk and gab, the did not pull at their cell phones at snap photos, much less selfies, rather they knelt in faith, filled with awe and wonder. They knelt before the poverty of the manger and the simplicity of the child; they opened their hearts to him; they placed themselves without reserve and condition as his service; they wanted nothing more than to be ruled by that child as by their king and their God.
They fulfilled the words of the Psalmist: Be still and know that I am God. (Ps 46:11) They let go all of their resistance, opened their hearts and received the peace that surpasses understanding that only Christ can give. (cf. Ph 4:7)
The scene the shepherds saw is represented for us tonight by the display of the manger. The manger, however, is but a sign that points us to the reality that is always present in our midst. Jesus, the Bread of Life, was born in Bethlehem, the House of Bread. So also each day he gives himself anew to us from the altar in the Holy Eucharist; so he abides always in our midst in the tabernacle; so he invites us to visit him as the shepherds did long ago; so he invites us to kneel before his poverty and simplicity; so he tells us ever anew, Be still and know that I am God.
The magic of Christmas reminds us of the greatness of the reality of every day. The church is open and waiting; so often we just rush right by without thinking about it. When you are out shopping, or going from home to work, or work to home, when you are filled with joy, or are filled with sorrow, Jesus waits for you in the tabernacle. Jesus invites you to stop in, to bow before him, to rest in his presence, to open your hearts, to give him your joys and sorrows, and finally to be still, to be at peace in the presence of God.
The Word became flesh, the Son of God became man, not that he might briefly appear for a short space of 30 years, but that he might truly be for us Emmanuel (“God with us”). He has remained with us for 2,000 years hidden beneath the appearances of bread and wine. He remains with us so that one day we might also be where he is and behold his glory in our Father’s house