December 25, 2011
What a contrast! The great emperor Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man of that age, the ruler of the vast Roman emperor, gives and order and everyone has to obey. Throughout his empire, everyone had to get themselves enrolled in the tax registers, so that there would be enough taxes collected to finance the emperor’s many needs: to finance and expand his military power; to lay down the great network of roads and aqueducts throughout the Roman empire; and to construct the great palaces and theaters, baths and stadiums.
In comparison, how trivial it would seem in the eyes of the world to that couple in the obscure village of Nazareth in Galilee. Mary and Joseph obeyed the imperial command and set out to enroll in the tax registers of Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem. They were quite insignificant – not only was there no imperial palace at their disposal; there was not even room for them in the local inn. They had to make due with a stable for Mary to give birth.
But notice, tonight, all over the world, people gather like we do here in Immaculate Conception Cathedral, not to celebrate the emperor Augustus Caesar. We gather to celebrate that birth of an infant in a manger in the little town of Bethlehem. For it is not the emperor dressed in the finest robes who is the real lord of the world, but rather, the little baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. The names of the Roman emperors, like those of other great men of this world, have long passed away and are little remembered. Yet, everywhere on earth, the birth of this child is remembered with joy.
On that holy night in Bethlehem, the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” That light is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior of the world. When we contemplate the mystery of Christmas, that God so loved the world that He sent His only Son to redeem it, that He who was in the form of God emptied Himself and took the form of a slave, that the eternal Word who was with God, who was God, became flesh and dwelt among us, we cannot help but be filled with wonder and awe. We become like the shepherds and the magi: all we can do is approach the mystery in adoration. This event surpasses all human knowledge. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote: “Of all the works of God, this surpasses reason more than any other, since one cannot conceive of God doing anything more wonderful than that (the) true God the Son of God, should be made true man.” Do we not express our reverence for this great mystery every time we recite the Nicene Creed? We bow (and tonight we genuflect) at the words: “by the power of the Holy Spirit, He was born of the Virgin Mary and became man.”
By becoming man, God has in a certain way united Himself with every human person. He has revealed to us the truth about who He is – He is Love. He has revealed to us also that every human being has dignity, including the unborn child, the poor, the outcast, the suffering, and the dying. By becoming man, God came to earth to deliver us from sin and death. He came to make all things new; to bring about the new creation. He took on our human nature so that we might become partakers of His divine nature, that we become sharers in the life of the Blessed Trinity. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church speak of the Christmas mystery as “a wonderful exchange” between God and man: He takes what is ours so that He may give us what is His. In sending His Son, God has opened for us a share in His divine life, the power, Saint John says, to become children of God! (John 3:12).
Saint Francis of Assisi was so moved by the mystery of Christmas that he began the custom of the Christmas crèche, with live figures. His love for poverty led him to this special appreciation for the wonder of that first Christmas. One of his great followers, Saint Bonaventure, wrote the following: “The King of kings and Lord of lords has become the slave and humble servant of men… God, supremely glorious, dwelling in the heights of majesty, has dwelt in a lonely manger.” Tonight we do not gather to honor or to worship a powerful emperor. We gather to honor and to worship the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, the One announced by the angel as the Savior, who is Christ and Lord. We worship Him who gives meaning to our lives, who offers us eternal life and salvation. In becoming man, He has brought eternity to us and so we live as a people of hope. This virtue of hope is truly a virtue of Christmas, a virtue that should distinguish our lives as followers of Jesus. In the midst of so much anxiety and despair in our world, may we be witnesses of Christian hope!
May Jesus, born in the silence of this night at Bethlehem, bless you and your loved ones with His love and peace!
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