December 25, 2016 St. Augustine Cathedral
The Nativity of the Lord Mass at Midnight
Along with Msgr. Osborn, the Rector of the Cathedral, as well as Fathers Marotti, Vinh Le, Deacon Lohrsdorfer and Deacon Hanley, I am very pleased to welcome you to our Cathedral Church on this very early and special morning, and to repeat my greetings of a blessed, joyful and merry Christmas to one and all.
In particular I want to say a special word of welcome to Deacon Jeff Hanley, who proclaimed the Christmas proclamation and chanted the Gospel so beautifully just a few moments ago---Jeff is home for a couple weeks from his 4th year of theological studies at the North American College in Rome, and, God willing, will be ordained a priest for our Diocese this coming Spring. Deacon Jeff and his family are members of St. Joseph Parish in St. Joseph, Michigan, and we are very happy to have you here with us this evening.
To all who are visitors from out of town, to all family members reunited for Christmas, and to those who are here all year round---it is so good for us to come together as one Family of Faith, even as we celebrate our Faith as a Family.
Right up there with the late night Easter Vigil, this Holy Night is one of the most special nights of the year, as we arrange our schedule to practically fill this Cathedral Church at an hour when, on most other nights, we’d be making our way to bed. But, of course, this is far from a normal night. This is Christmas. And it’s Midnight Mass---the most solemn and joyful middle-of-the-night celebration of the year. For many of us, we’ve been coming to Midnight Mass all our lives; for others of you here this evening, perhaps this is a first-time. But for all of us, as we take in the sights of this beautifully decorated Cathedral and the sounds of the Choir and Brass proclaiming the age-old Christmas carols, and listen to the powerful Readings from God’s Word which once again make it very clear to us why we are here and what it is that we are celebrating, it’s obvious why being here in the middle of the night is such a wonderful experience.
We’ve been looking forward to this great Feast for weeks, and preparing for it in all kinds of ways: weeks of planning, shopping and wrapping those special gifts for the special people in our lives; hours of effort put into decorating our homes with colored trees and wreathes, cooking and baking goodies, and sending warm greetings to family and friends, and of course, waiting and waiting for Santa’s arrival with gifts for all the good boys and girls on his list, no matter what their age, sometime later this morning. But the culmination of all that planning, hard work, and anticipation takes place during the celebration of this Mass on this “O Holy Night”.
The prophets foretold the coming of the Messiah for generations before Jesus’ Birth, including the powerful Reading we heard from the Prophet Isaiah this morning: “For a Child is born to us, a Son is given us; upon His shoulder dominion rests.They name Him: ‘Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace’”.
All of that longing, waiting, and hoping of all humanity was fulfilled on this very night 2,000 years ago, just as we heard St. Luke describe it for us in the Gospel Deacon Jeff chanted so well.
While there’s a certain tendency on our part to sentimentalize the details of Jesus’ birth on Christmas, we need to remember that the realities were anything but sentimental or easy. Joseph and Mary had to travel hundreds of miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem with Mary in her ninth month of pregnancy in winter time mostly by foot; because of the crowds of other people also traveling all over the area because of the census, there was no room for them in the Inn. So, in many ways, they were fortunate to find a stable where at least they could be out of the elements and, in spite of the unsanitary, not to mention unpleasant, conditions of sharing a pretty small space with animals, the hay gave them some comfort and the manger served as a bassinette for Baby Jesus. In the midst of some of the worst human conditions, the Son of God was born---the Word of God became Flesh---the Savior of the World came among us----and the promises of the Old Testament Prophets that God would come among His People---Emmanuel---were fulfilled.
The greatest and most important event in the history of the world before or since took place in the middle of the night----THIS Holy Night---and no one even noticed. Wouldn’t you think that God would have taken steps to make the birth of His only-begotten Son an event that the world would take notice of? Of course, as we know, He did----God sent an entire Choir of Heavenly Hosts to proclaim this Good News, but not to the Emperor, or to the powerful members of society, or to the priests and holy people around the Temple in Jerusalem. God chose to send this Heavenly Birth announcement to a group of lowly shepherds. On the ladder of social standing in that day, shepherds were not even on the ladder---they were not even counted. And yet, it was to them that the Angel appeared and made the greatest announcement in the history of the world: “Do not be afraid. For behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the City of David, a Savior has been born for you, Who is Christ and Lord”. And then an entire Choir of Angels appeared in the dark wintry sky praising God and singing: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests”.
The shepherds, the lowliest and least influential people in the world, not only heard the announcement that a Savior has been born for all humanity, but they were told where to find Him and how they would recognize Him. “You will find an Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” “Mangers” were something shepherds knew about---They knew that mangers were the “feedboxes” that their sheep fed from; they also knew that “mangers” were not normally used for babies. So this baby should be easy to identify.
The shepherds were the most unlikely ones to first receive the greatest news in the history of the world. And God’s Son was born in the most unlikely of all places and circumstances---in a stable, among animals, with a manger for a bed. And a vulnerable baby, born like every other human being in the history of the world, was the most unlikely way that anyone could even possibly imagine for the coming of the Promised Messiah to enter the world. Everything about the First Christmas makes it very clear that our God does not act, think, choose or function like us; yet our God has come to be One-with-us so He can be our Savior because He loves us unconditionally. He doesn’t treat us as we deserve to be treated; He treats us with love, tenderness and mercy. He forgives our sins; He comforts us in our sorrows; He strengthens us in our weaknesses; He encourages us in our difficulties.
We need Christmas every year to help us to realize in new, and deeper, ways that our God is not like us. Yet, he not only likes us---He loves us and is One with us forever.
God found the most humble and lowly human beings to share the Good News of the Greatest Gift He could give the world---His Son---because God Himself is Humble.
That’s what we heard St. Paul telling us in this evening’s Second Reading: “The grace of God has appeared…by giving us a Savior Jesus Christ who humbled Himself to deliver us from sin and make us eager to do good.”
If we think God was “humble” by sending His only-begotten Son to be born as a Baby in a stable and announced to lowly shepherds, how much more “humble” is our God when 33 years later, the grown-up Jesus submitted Himself to this most unimaginable suffering and death to accomplish our Salvation, and then be raised in Glory to have us share in His Victory over sin and death?!
My dear Family of Faith: our God does what we consider to be “unlikely” things because our God is not like us; yet our God has come to be One with us and to help us to become like Him.
Even more humbly that by being Born as a Baby, or in suffering, dying and rising again for our salvation, our God humbles Himself even more by giving us Himself in the Holy Eucharist we are privileged to celebrate at each Mass. Jesus allows Himself to become for us His Body and Blood in the consecrated Bread and Wine in every Mass, so that He can be our spiritual food and drink, our nourishment to make us spiritually strong and filled with God’s Life. Jesus humbled Himself to share in our humanity so that we can share in His divinity.
But we need the gift of humility to be able to do that. We have to set aside our pride. We have to dispel the notion that we can do things on our own. We need God, even though we’re living in a time when the world is trying to limit or even omit God from every aspect of human activity.
Christmas is a day to truly celebrate that our God has given us the Savior that each of us, and all the world, so desperately needs. The best way we can say “Thank You” to God for this most amazing gift is to gaze upon this beautiful Manger Scene (or the one you have at home), look at the image of this humble Baby Jesus, and tell Him: Jesus, give me the humility I need to let You save me, and keep me close to You always. That will make not only today a Merry Christmas, but every day in this new Year a Merry Christmas as well.
God bless you, now and always!
Faithfully yours in the Word made Flesh,
+ Bishop Paul J. Bradley