The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Homily: Christmas Vigil

For the second time in a week, the readings for a Mass at which I was asked to preach included the genealogy the begins Matthew's Gospel. And so here's my second homily on this wonderful passage that spans the history of salvation from Abraham to the birth of Jesus.

Readings: Is 62:1-5; Ps 89; Acts 13:16-17, 22-25; Mt 1:1-25

A lot of folks, when they first turn to the New Testament, get discouraged because right there on the first page of the first book of the New Testament they encounter Matthew’s genealogy. And so they skip it and jump ahead to the Nativity story.

That’s really unfortunate because, this rhythmic poetic passage is included by Matthew to tell us some very important things. For through this genealogy and the Nativity story that follows, Matthew presents the Gospel as the New Genesis. Indeed, in both sections of our passage, he uses the same opening words we find at the beginning of the Book of Genesis. And just as Genesis offers us two sides of the Creation story, so too does Matthew. He relates the New Genesis story in two very different ways.

Matthew’s genealogy summarizes the entire history of Israel, almost 2,000 years, from Abraham all the way to Jesus Christ. Then, in the first line of the Nativity story, he proclaims that we are reading about “the beginning” – yes, the beginning, the Genesis of Jesus Christ. Here Matthew presents us with a major Gospel theme: the New Testament doesn’t replace the Old; it fulfills it. And at the very core of this understanding is the “Good News” for it permeates both Old and New Testaments.

Matthew first aims this Good News directly at you and me: at sinners. He does so by drawing our attention to Judah, Tamar, Rahab, and David. He reminds us that the sinful relationship between Judah and Tamar led eventually to King David and ultimately to Jesus Himself. He reminds us that Rahab, Boaz’s mother, was a prostitute, and that Solomon’s mother was Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. And we recall how David seduced her and had her husband killed so he could marry her.

Yes, Jesus’s family tree is littered with sinners, just like mine and just like yours. But through this revelation we come to realize the depth of God’s mercy. Despite our sinfulness, we’re all called into God’s family. What a gift!

Through Matthew God pleads with us to extend mercy to others. For in that genealogy we encounter those who went far beyond the demands of the law:  Judah, Boaz, Uriah, and especially Joseph…It’s a plea expressed explicitly a few chapters later in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall be shown mercy.” Christmas, then, is the perfect time to repair shattered relationships, the perfect time to extend mercy to others and to yourself.

But Matthew’s not finished. He also reminds us that God’s ways are not man’s ways. Throughout the genealogy we find God rejecting our human laws, tossing aside the patterns of inheritance and choosing whom He will choose. Jacob is “the father of Judah and his brothers” –Yes, here and elsewhere Matthew reminds us that God often bypasses first sons and chooses younger brothers like Judah to lead His People. This, too, is Good News, for unlike man, God is not only merciful, but His ways are just.

God continues to pile Good News on top of Good News…for the family of Jesus, the family of the Kings of Israel, is not a family of ethnic purity. It’s filled with Gentiles. With the sole exception of Mary, the women mentioned are all Gentiles: Tamar and Rahab are Canaanites, Ruth a Moabite, Bathsheba a Hittite. God’s plan of salvation, then, is universal. Humanity, and that includes every one of us, is called into God’s family.

This is the message of Christmas, brothers and sisters, the message of the angel: "You shall name him Jesus and he shall be called Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."  God is with us – not some nameless, faceless them, but us…and not some of us, but all of us. This is the message of a passionate God. It’s the message of a God whose love is overpowering.

This is what we celebrate: God’s fierce zeal for us, His commitment not to leave us abandoned. It comes down to this: God is unwilling to leave us in the darkness of our own sinfulness. What we have in Christmas is a terrible desire on God's part to "be with us," to be part of the human condition: God with us in our entirety. Quite simply, God just won’t let us alone. He wants to be Emmanuel.

And it’s this remarkable action on God’s part, this divine decision to become one of us, that so many have trouble accepting. Inundated by materialism, by the spiritual sickness of the world, so many forget why the Magi carried those first gifts to a newborn baby in a manger. The true Christmas message isn’t amazon dot com. It’s Emmanuel, God with skin on and a human face. God became one of us to turn His face to us, to speak words of comfort, reconciliation, and redemption, words we can understand. It’s this gentle birth we celebrate tonight; it’s this gentle birth that heralds our salvation.

Not long ago at the soup kitchen, while schmoozing with our guests, I spotted a mother and her little baby girl. As I approached, little Alisha saw my smile and reached out her arms to me. I couldn’t resist. I picked up this beautiful child and she just snuggled right up against me and buried her little head into my chest with her tiny hands gripping my shoulders.

My first thought? “Here’s a little baby that needed some hugging.” Then I realized how wrong I was. Alisha had been perfectly happy being held by her mom, with whom I could never hope to compete. No, Alisha didn’t need my hugs; but she knew that I sure needed hers. You see, brothers and sisters, in a very real way, this little baby is the meaning of Christmas. God with us. God with Alisha. For that brief moment Alisha is God’s love. Alisha is Christmas. She’s God's arms; she’s God’s zeal; she’s God’s passion for each of us.

For God loves us despite our foolishness. He loves us with our broken lives, our selfishness, our tattered relationships, our foolish sins. God is two tiny arms determined to break into our lives. He’s a fierce little baby who makes no distinctions but embraces the least likely along with most likely.

This is what the feast of Christmas is about -- an enormously unrelenting love feast. And not a sappy sentimental love, but a love as searing as any passionate romance. Christmas is God's fulfilled desire to be with us. This is what and why we celebrate. This is His gift.

If God isn’t Emmanuel, if He’s not with us, if He hasn’t embraced our tattered lives, then woe unto us. If God isn’t with us, there’s no hope, no light, only darkness and despair. If God isn’t with us, we’re here tonight out of fruitless hope, or pressured routine, or empty sentimentality.

But if we’re here out of love, if we’re here like ragtag shepherds to kneel and rejoice and let God take us in His arms, then we’ve caught the meaning of Christmas: Emmanuel, the passionate God, has had his way and has hugged us fiercely. When sin, suffering and death scatter our souls far and wide that’s when we need God the most. And that’s when Jesus comes to us to guide us to His Father’s loving arms.

It’s all grace, brothers and sisters. It’s all gift. What more is there to say on this Christmas Eve? And so tonight, as we sit quietly and let God’s love comfort us, as we gaze upon the scene of that first Christmas Eve so long ago, we invite the words of the carol into our hearts…

Silent night, Holy Night!
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing “Alleluia”
Christ the Savior is born!
Christ the Savior is born.

A blessed, peaceful and holy Christmas to each and every one of you, and to all your loved ones, near and far.

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