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December 25, 2018
[Co-Cathedral of St. Theresa; Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace]
Make-believe and fantasy. Myth and mystery. To many, this is what Christmas is all about. They do not necessarily object to these things, because who does not like to escape from reality from time to time and indulge in pure fantasy to distract oneself from the cares and routines of life? Who is not delighted by stories as diverse as a red-nosed reindeer and a choir of angels, or a jolly Santa Claus and a babe in a manger? Who does not enjoy twinkling lights and joyful music? But when all is said and done, Christmas, for many, is a delightful diversion that must be packed away soon after December 25. To hold onto it much longer would be to give credence to the incredible and to escape from reality, which is always much more stark and mundane.
Yet we who believe know – know! – that what we celebrate today is no mere myth, no feeble fantasy. It is a reality so powerful that it is hard to believe, difficult to grasp, and definitely counter-cultural. It is our joyful celebration that the God who made us, and against whom we continually turn in our sin, our violence, and our pride, is so madly in love with us wayward sinners that he wanted to become one of us. He wanted to be able to speak our human language, live our human life, and even suffer the consequences of human sin, so that he could whisper, speak, or shout the eternal Word that is God: Love! He wanted his presence to be a healing presence that turns us from sinners to saints. He wanted to free us from the false freedom of being self-proclaimed gods ourselves to the true freedom of bowing down to worship the God who alone can teach us true love.
To worship the true and living God and to make his Word continually become flesh in the world is to believe that a Virgin can conceive and bear a child. When we are done with our lustful grasping of others and can open ourselves – even our sexuality – to the grace that alone can bring us fulfillment in love and make us fruitful, then the beauty of a Virgin conceiving by the power of the Holy Spirit is no longer an escape into fantasy, but is the fantastic fulfillment of all that we are meant to be.
To look upon the all-powerful God who humbles himself to be born in a manger is to humble ourselves so that we notice the poor and the needy among us and create for them a place where they can be born again, however humble it may be. It assures us that getting ourselves dirty in serving others is not demeaning but ennobling.
To bow down before the Prince of Peace who turns swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks is to make our land more productive, to root out the violence in our hearts, and to cultivate and water the peace we all want to rule the world. This may sound like a fantasy, but it is extremely hard work that no one can accomplish without the inspiration of the one who turned the cruelty of the cross into the reality of the resurrection. With this inspiration, we can root out day by day the destructive patterns of our communication and turn them into fields of fruitful encounters with all.
To open the ears of our hearts to let angels sing to us is to be told where we will find life, not in the power and pomp of palaces and parliaments, but in the stinky, earthy reality of a barn. It is to believe their song of “Peace on earth” and to pursue it, not where we think it will lead but into the most humble routines of life. It is to even learn the song so that we can sing it to others, even as we learn it ourselves.
God knew that to draw us into engagement with the most earthy struggle against sin, violence, scandal and hatred, we needed a champion, a Savior, who could not only direct us from his heavenly realm, but who could walk the path with us, speaking a Word we could finally understand, because that Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And so today we celebrate this great gift of God with great joy in our hearts.
But this is no mere fantasy or myth, but a reality that is not to be packed away with the lights and Christmas trees, but to be lived joyfully every day of our lives. God knows that the way to true freedom and eternal life is extremely hard and demands great sacrifice, and so he became one of us to lead the way by his own sacrifice on the cross, leading ultimately to the glory of his resurrection. When we sing of choirs of angels, of stars guiding wise men, and of shepherds going to see the most beautiful little Lamb they had ever seen in their lives, we are not escaping reality or living as if the sufferings and sins in our lives can just be put on hold for a few days of celebration in fantasy. The joy we experience is our commitment to hope that no matter how dark things may seem, the true Light will grow if we keep on singing, and dancing, and praising the Emmanuel, God-with-us.