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1. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1).
This prophecy of Isaiah never ceases to touch us, especially when we hear it proclaimed in the liturgy of Christmas Night. This is not simply an emotional or sentimental matter. It moves us because it states the deep reality of what we are: a people who walk, and all around us – and within us as well – there is darkness and light. In this night, as the spirit of darkness enfolds the world, there takes place anew the event which always amazes and surprises us: the people who walk see a great light. A light which makes us reflect on this mystery: the mystery of walking and seeing.
Walking. This verb makes us reflect on the course of history, that long journey which is the history of salvation, starting with Abraham, our father in faith, whom the Lord called one day to set out, to go forth from his country towards the land which he would show him. From that time on, our identity as believers has been that of a people making its pilgrim way towards the promised land. This history has always been accompanied by the Lord! He is ever faithful to his covenant and to his promises. Because he is faithful, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1:5). Yet on the part of the people there are times of both light and darkness, fidelity and infidelity, obedience, and rebellion; times of being a pilgrim people and times of being a people a drift.
In our personal history too, there are both bright and dark moments, lights and shadows. If we love God and our brothers and sisters, we walk in the light; but if our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us and around us. “Whoever hates his brother – writes the Apostle John – is in the darkness; he walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 Jn 2:11). A people who walk, but as a pilgrim people who do not want to go astray.
2. On this night, like a burst of brilliant light, there rings out the proclamation of the Apostle: “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race” (Tit 2:11).
The grace which was revealed in our world is Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, true man and true God. He has entered our history; he has shared our journey. He came to free us from darkness and to grant us light. In him was revealed the grace, the mercy, and the tender love of the Father: Jesus is Love incarnate. He is not simply a teacher of wisdom, he is not an ideal for which we strive while knowing that we are hopelessly distant from it. He is the meaning of life and history, who has pitched his tent in our midst.
3. The shepherds were the first to see this “tent”, to receive the news of Jesus’ birth. They were the first because they were among the last, the outcast. And they were the first because they were awake, keeping watch in the night, guarding their flocks. The pilrim is bound by duty to keep watch and the shepherds did just that. Together with them, let us pause before the Child, let us pause in silence. Together with them, let us thank the Lord for having given Jesus to us, and with them let us raise from the depths of our hearts the praises of his fidelity: We bless you, Lord God most high, who lowered yourself for our sake. You are immense, and you made yourself small; you are rich and you made yourself poor; you are all-powerful and you made yourself vulnerable.
On this night let us share the joy of the Gospel: God loves us, he so loves us that he gave us his Son to be our brother, to be light in our darkness. To us the Lord repeats: “Do not be afraid!” (Lk 2:10). As the angels said to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid!”. And I also repeat to all of you: Do not be afraid! Our Father is patient, he loves us, he gives us Jesus to guide us on the way which leads to the promised land. Jesus is the light who brightens the darkness. He is mercy: our Father always forgives us. He is our peace. Amen. (Vatican Basilica, Tuesday, 24 December 2013)
Isa 52:7-10; Heb 1:1-6; John 1:1-18
This morning we are celebrating the birthday of God. This birthday is unlike our own. On our birthdays we celebrate — or lament — all the years that have passed since we were born. But at Christmas we do not celebrate that Jesus is (2014) years old, or however many years have passed. We rejoice in the birth of God as a baby. Every Christmas is a celebration that God came among us as a new-born child.
This is because God is always among us as one who is young. St Augustine wrote that God is younger than all else. We have become older than our God. This means that God always retains that fresh vigour of youth, the vitality and playfulness of one who is always ready to begin anew. We believe that God is eternal, and so God is often represented as immensely old. But if no time passes for God, then he is always also at the beginning, eternally youthful.
Youthfulness is said to be the characteristic of hope, because to hope is to be ready for a future which is always open and long, however old one may be. The French poet Charles Péguy wrote a poem on hope, which he saw symbolized by his nine-year old daughter. He writes that absolutely nothing at all holds except because of the young child Hope, because of she who continuously begins again, and who always promises, who guarantees everything, who assures tomorrow to today, and this afternoon to this morning, and life to life and even eternity to time.
So we celebrate Christmas by letting God renew your youth like the eagle. (Ps.103:5). And it is the evangelist whose symbol is the eagle who writes that to all who accept the Word of God, he gave power to become the children of God, to all who believe in the name of him who was born not out of human stock or the urge of the flesh or the will of man but of God himself.
Being a child of God means more than having God as one’s Father. It means sharing in the eternal youthfulness of the child whose birth we celebrate today. That does not mean pretending to look young, hiding the wrinkles, dying one’s hair, or fleeing from the signs of age. We do age and must not fear it. We must not be mutton dressed up as the Lamb of God! It does mean that we can shed the temptations of those who grow older, of thinking that nothing new can be dared, that safety is better than taking a risk, of fatalism and cynicism. We can let God renew hope in our hearts.
Let us also celebrate Christmas by giving a chance to those abiding images of God, the children and the young. I went back to Rwanda after the genocide. A Canadian Dominican who had worked there for twenty-five years took me to see the ruins of where he had lived. So many friends had died and all his life’s work seemed to be destroyed. But he gave me a photograph of himself holding two Rwandan babies. And on the back he wrote, Africa has a future. Because of the child whose birth we celebrate today, then we can also say Humanity has a future.
This last year has been painful for the Church in relation to the young. The headlines have so often been of stories of sexual or physical abuse. So let us work for a future in which the young may thrive. Let them truly be children. Let them not be seen as consumers in the market place, to be enthralled by designer labels, or as sexual objects to be used. Let them have the hopeful qualities of youth, the capacity for play, for experiment, and for daring.
Above all let them live. This day I think of the babies who are surely being born today in the Dominican hospital in Baghdad. Let them not be engulfed in war. May they live to celebrate another Christmas, the feast of the child who is always new-born. May we be moved by that fresh young hope for humanity’s future. Happy Christmas.
It must be said that it was not easy for his contemporaries to recognise Jesus. It is never easy for anyone, not even today, to recognise him for what he really is. Only God’s revelation can unveil his mystery (see for example Jn 5:37; 6:45). In the story of his birth, the aim of the angelic message is precisely that of revealing his mystery.
In fact, our text is made up of three parts. In vv. 1-7 we have the fact of the birth of Jesus in a clear context. It is the birth of a boy like so many other boys. Verses 8-14 tell us about the message by an angel and the vision of angels who sing. It is God’s revelation (see v.15) that allows us to discover in the “sign” of “a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (v. 12) “Christ the Lord” (v.11). In the last part (vv. 15-20), we come across various reactions to the revelation of the mystery. When the sign that God offers is received with humility, it marks the beginning of a journey of faith towards him who reveals himself.
How to decipher the sign and welcome Jesus? Our text presents three reactions to the mystery of Jesus.
First there are the shepherds. They are characterised by several verbs of expectation/seeking and discovery: “(they) watch… during the night” (v. 8); “let us go and see…” (v. 15); “they hurried away and found…” (v.16). The shepherds were open to the revelation of the mystery. They welcomed it in simplicity and believed it (see vv. 15 and 20) and they became witnesses of that which was revealed to them (see v. 17).
Then there are “those who heard” what the shepherds had to say about Jesus (v. 16). They are amazed, unable to see the real meaning of the event that took place among them.
Finally there is the report on Mary. The evangelist wants to contrast her reaction to that of “those who heard”. In fact, he introduces her with the words “as for Mary” (v. 19). Like them, Mary has not heard the message of the angel and has not seen the angelic choir, but has only heard the witness of the shepherds. Yet she accepts it. Certainly, she had an angelic message addressed to her alone at the beginning of this whole episode (1:26-38). The angel had spoken of a son who was to be born from her as the Son of the Most High who was to rule forever (see 1:32 and 35). But recent happenings, the birth under such circumstances, could have put doubts to these words. Now the shepherds come and again say great things about her son. Mary keeps everything in her heart, the words of the angel, the words of the shepherds, the events taking place and seeks to put them together in order to understand who is this son whom God has given her, what is his mission and what is her part in all this. Mary is a contemplative woman who keeps her eyes and ears open so as not to miss anything. She, then, keeps and meditates all in the silence of her contemplative heart. Mary is the attentive Virgin, capable of receiving the word that God speaks to her in the daily events of her life. Only they who wish to seek like the shepherds and who have the contemplative heart of Mary can decipher the signs of the presence and action of God in their lives and to welcome Jesus in the home of their being.