December 25th, 2011 - Christmas, at Dawn and during the Day

Today's Readings (Mass at Dawn)
Today's Readings (Mass during the Day)

Today our readings concern an appearance. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has appeared to humans. He existed before, but he was not visible to us before. He was completely present, but we were ignorant of his presence, so he became present in a new way: he took a human body and a human soul, a whole human nature, and joined it to his divine person, remaining one person but with two natures.

He did not merely have the appearance of a man, such as if he had appeared fully grown. Then we would say that Jesus Christ appeared like a man. No, he began his human life in the earliest stage of human formation, with a single cell, multiplying into an embryo, growing into a fetus, maturing into a newborn baby.

If there were no other reason for honoring human life at every stage, then we would have this: our God was embryo, our God was a fetus. We say that a person is a person no matter how small, but even if someone doubted whether a child just formed in its mother’s womb is a human being, they can be certain that God once looked just like that.

But today we do celebrate an appearance. Today is not the feast of the Incarnation, which happened 9 months earlier. No, God has been a human for 9 months now, sharing an intimate relationship with his mother, Mary. But today he is born; today he is given to the world; today not only Mary but also Joseph and some shepherds and some donkeys get to see the Savior of the world. He was present in the world before he was present in Mary’s womb, and he was present in Mary’s womb before he appeared to the whole world.

So today we celebrate this appearance. God has appeared among humans, and that is remarkable. People talk of “feeling God’s presence” or perhaps they even say they heard his voice, but not until that first Christmas could anyone say that they had seen God. The prophets had seen angels and burning bushes and symbolic renderings of the Glory of God, but no one could see God. But now, anyone who has seen Jesus Christ has seen the Father. Not because Jesus is the Father: he is not; he is the Son, but because he and the Father are one.

In Jesus Christ, God is completely revealed. If we cannot see God, it is because our eyes are weak. When those shepherds looked at the newborn baby they saw the one who had created the world, who had created them. If they only saw a newborn baby, that is because they did not know how to look. The shepherds were more amazed by the message spoken by an angel because there they could see the power and glory of God. They told everyone they could about the message they had heard, but the message and the messengers were nothing in comparison to the child, who is God himself.

This morning, as we sit here and contemplate the mystery of Christmas, families are waking up throughout this city, throughout this country, and there is a tree and under the tree there are presents wrapped in shiny paper. Parents all over the world have worked hard to create an impressive spectacle for their children. They do this because they love their children, and they want to give a gift to them more valuable than any individual present under the tree. They want to create an atmosphere of joy and wonder and excitement. A tree, some lights, a few toys, juice and Christmas cookies for breakfast: all work together to create an appearance, a visitation. We try to describe this experience by saying, “Santa Claus has come!”

A myth is not an untrue story. It is unfortunate that people use the phrase “It’s a myth” to characterize any mistaken belief. “It’s a myth” that a myth is no more than a mistake. A myth is a story, whether true or not, that captures something which cannot be described even with many words. A picture is worth a thousand words, but a myth is worth a million. In that one sentence, “Santa has come”, we have captured the hopes and dreams of every good parent. For one morning, perhaps for an hour, a family can live inside a myth. The illusion will be dispelled soon enough, when toys fail to be as amazing as the commercials promised, children start fighting or whining, and the beautiful paper is being shoved into trash bags.

We might say the same about the appearance that underlies the celebration today. The shepherds were amazed. Then they went back to shepherding. They probably lived the rest of their lives before Christ began preaching. Perhaps they never heard anything more about this child. Indeed the myth that best describes the whole world as it is now is a house on the 26th of December: a mess with children fighting. Christ visited the earth for a little more than 30 years, but that was 2000 years ago. We remember that something amazing happened, but since then we have had war and disease and cruelty. It would seem as if that appearance had no more reality, no more depth, than the appearance we create each year on Christmas morning.

But that Christmas morning myth is not quite as shallow as a cynical person might have it. For one morning each year, parents provide for their children in a way that symbolizes how they would like to provide for them every day. The paper and the toys and the tree are all disposable in the end, but the love that parents have for their children is real. Indeed it is more real than what someone would call “the reality of everyday life.” Parents do provide for their children every day: healthy food instead of Christmas cookies, an education instead of toys, heat and light instead of Christmas lights. They do this, even though it makes the children very unhappy, because they are preparing them to grow up. If a child will never grow up, they may as well have Christmas every day.

That baby grew up and gave us some very hard teachings about loving one another, about being poor, about suffering. He does this because he wants us to grow up; he is preparing us to live in full maturity, so that we might be heirs according to the hope for eternal life. Jesus Christ first made his appearance in the world 2000 years ago. Since then, he has slowly been winning this world over. Not as a human race, but in the individual saints who have let God appear once again. Every time someone overcomes their selfishness and is able to love, it is a little Christmas.

That is what Christmas is all about: the possibility of something better in this Earth of suffering and hatred. The illusion is not “peace on earth, goodwill to humans”. The illusion is how we are living right now. When this illusion passes away, we will receive the gift of Jesus Christ once and for all. When the New Earth comes, we will not celebrate Christmas anymore once a year: everyday will be Christmas.