Dec 24, 2018
Oh Holy Night
Over the years Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day has become more and more popular. This is not just the case for those who might be visiting the church as part of the holiday season. Christmas Eve attracts more and more people - much more than those who would regularly attend church even on Sunday mornings. So, why the packed church on the evening before, rather than on the actual day of Christmas itself?
Off course the cynic, the Scrooge or Grinch might say that it’s because people are practical, pragmatic and tend to take the path of least resistance - get it done and get it over with! (Now, some of you might remember the Church Lady from the old SNL. She would, if she was here, look around at the congregation tonight and say that most of you are here simply because it is more "con-veee-nient!)
But rather, there is something in our natural instinct that calls us to Christmas Eve, which, dare I say it, is a little lost in the morning. There is, instead, something I think deeply holy, profoundly sacred about this evening regardless of our practical intentions. If you thought you were simply coming here this evening to avoid coming in the morning, you have been fooled. We all have been fooled, fooled by God himself.
For the most part, God is hidden. He is hidden in darkness. He has to be. Why? Because if, in the morning you are on the road and God in all his glory and majesty, was walking down the street and you saw him in broad daylight, you would probably freak out, slam on the breaks - you would probably cause a traffic accident, there would be chaos, the world would stop - there would be panic and confusion.
In the same light, if, during the day, you are at home, or even at work, and then you glimpsed outside and all of a sudden in broad daylight there was a face pressed up upon your window looking in at you! In an instant reaction of fright, you might scream or shout. No. God’s nature is never to frighten us. And even if we walk through a valley of darkness, we are not to be afraid? Why? Because of the promise of the approaching dawn of a new day. That promise brings us here tonight.
That is why for most of us, the evening time is sacred. It is sacred, even though it is dark outside. It is in sacred darkness when we see it as a gift to, in some way, be grateful that we survived the long hours of work and busyness. The evening darkness is sacred because we are full of anticipation of what might unfold when the morning comes. For God always promises us a new day, be it short or eternal.
And that is why, I believe, Christmas Eve, like the epic vigil before Easter Sunday morning, resonates in our hearts. It is because our souls are wired to anticipate the light of a new day that will spill over into eternity.
This anticipation always begins in darkness. Somewhere between evening and morning, God takes us by the hand and leads us forward, not back. In the darkness of the night, God showed Abraham stars too many to number. Abraham looked forward with hope. In the darkness of the night, God prepared his Chosen People to leave Egypt for the Promised Land. Freed from Pharaoh, they now looked forward with hope. In the darkness of the night, God spoke to Joseph, the husband of Mary, and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, as the child she was pregnant with was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph wakened in the morning filled with new hope.
My dear friends, on this Christmas Eve, I do not want to put on a make-believe holiday program on for you, for I fear that might produce too much artificial light and one-time wonders. Instead, everything we do here this evening is to prepare our soul for a new day that God promises for those who hope in him.
Do not be afraid of the darkness of the world. God entered that darkness, and in the darkness of a cave, hidden from the world’s view God looked out into the night with the eyes of a newborn baby and saw hope reflected in the eyes of a young virgin mother.
Do not be afraid of the darkness that might dwell within you. God’s mercy and kindness, like the light of the morning dawn, is gentle and patient and will show you the way forward.
Do not be afraid of the darkness that sometimes casts a shadow inside the church. With the sacred power that comes from the Mass and the Sacrament of Confession, we can stop the world spinning, if only for an hour on Saturday evening or Sunday morning. That’s a start.
So, regardless of what time each one of us was born, we look forward every year to celebrate, not a birth-night, but a birthday. And after nine months of darkness, finally, a birthday - the birthday of Jesus Christ the Light of the World, the promise, that after our evening rest when all our labor and work is done, a new and eternal day is approaching - the children, of course, know that too well. With renewed hope and much anticipation we can say “Merry Christmas” - may you enter into the gift of a morning filled with joy and especially peace, for you, your family and loved ones. Forever and ever. Amen.
(Borrowing from Chesterton) historians point to the caveman as where the story of humanity begins to unfold. The crude paintings of ancient animals are often found on its walls, stretched by wasted charcoal and fragments of bits and pieces of a life of scavengers. But the second part of the history of humanity also begins underground. God also was a caveman. But this time, the pictures of the animals had come to life. The smell of waste becomes perfumed with incense. The creation of fire becomes a light eternal.
A paradox and a mystery: the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach out and touch the walls of a stable built into a cliffside. It is almost as if the Almighty, the architect of the universe, the mastermind begin all of creation, being born in a cave, an animal shelter that God who became small is actually playing a joke on us - we who are so intelligent, educated, scientific. But God as a baby, as a child, throws us all off balance and instead of trying to figure out this new chapter in our human evolution intellectually, scientifically, even, dare I say, theologically, instead we have become attentive to sights, sounds, and wonders. For the picture itself of Bethlehem says a thousand words and speaks volumes.
The eyes of love and adoration of Mary as she looks into the tiny face of God placed in a feeding trough for an altar. Who is feeding who? Outside, within earshot, the echoes of a choir of angels chanting hymns of praise to shepherds, who could not sing back. And in the background, beyond the flickering lights, an impenetrable darkness symbolizes eternity before even light was itself created. Who can understand a place beyond space and before time? But only God, and he has come to teach us, through the babe of Bethlehem, the Messiah of Israel, the Savior of the World who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen
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