Monday, December 25, 2006

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Christ is born! This day, said the angel, is born to you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And so today, this day, we celebrate the mystery, not merely as a recalling of a distant historical event, but as present joy, a present revelation of the grace and love of God, a present re-entry into the great mystery of “God with us,” of God become man for our salvation. The grace of this mystery is communicated to us this day, whether or not we have visions of angels. For Christ is in our midst as the Coming One who has come, who brings to us the good news of salvation, the Gospel of joy.

Our prayer as we have been awaiting his coming is the prayer of the Prophet Isaiah: “O, that You would rend the heavens and come down…to make your name known” (64:1-2). We heard in yesterday’s Gospel that St Joseph would give Him that name which would be made known to all the nations: Jesus, which means, “the Lord is Savior.” That’s how He was announced by the angel: this day is born to you a Savior. Again the prophet cries: “Shower, O heavens, from above, let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may sprout forth…” (45:8). And the psalmist too joins in praise of the Messiah: “May He be like rain that falls on the grass, like showers that water the earth!” (71/72:6). The Lord has come and He has filled the world with grace, yet coming in what seemed to be a quite ordinary, everyday manner. No one is particularly astounded by a shower of rain, or the birth of a baby—happens all the time. Yet as the rain permeates the thirsty ground, the grace of the incarnation of the Son of God renews and transfigures all creation in a hidden manner. He entered this world as a little child, of whom very few took any notice. Yet the world would never be the same again, from that day to all eternity.

Let’s go to the place where a few chosen ones did take notice. It was a field on the outskirts of Bethlehem, and shepherds were keeping the night watch over their flock. It was a winter night like many others, cold and clear, and they probably were wishing they were in their own homes before a hospitable fire, with a warm drink in their hands. Suddenly, the black night was wildly illuminated, and they turned this way and that, stunned and confused and, as the Scripture literally says, they “feared a great fear.” What was happening? They saw a radiant figure descend from Heaven—it was the Angel of the Lord! Would they be allowed to live after having seen him with their own eyes? And that light—that shimmering, sparkling light, casting colors all around that they had never seen before, never imagined possible—it could only be the glory of the Lord shining around them! They were in an ecstasy of terror, wonder, and exhilaration.

Then the heavenly apparition spoke: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” The shepherds were utterly astonished, beside themselves in awe and wonder. If someone said they would see greater things they wouldn’t have believed it. Yet suddenly, they saw a greater thing. Not only one heavenly messenger, but a whole multitude appeared to them! Truly the heavens were torn open to manifest the entire angelic choir, who praised God saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased!”

The shepherds then did two things: they sought the face of God and they became evangelists. First they said: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see the thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” They could hardly have been clear on the fact that it was God Himself in human form that they were about to see, though they did hear from the angel that a Savior was born. They were still reeling from their overwhelming experience of the glory of God, so all they could say was, “let us see this thing that has happened”—whatever it is, we have to see it! Then they found Him, knew Him by the sign the angel said to seek: a baby lying in a manger. The epitome of both powerlessness and poverty: this is Christ the Lord.

So then they became evangelists. Actually, the angel was the primary evangelist. The angel (angelos, “messenger”), brought good news (evangelizomai, literally, “gave a good message,” same root as evangelion, gospel). But when the shepherds found Him whom they were seeking, they “made known [to Mary and Joseph] the saying which had been told them concerning this child.” Perhaps you could say they were “preaching to the choir” at this point, but when they left, they went on glorifying and praising God and telling anyone who would listen all that they had seen and heard.

Perhaps the shepherds went away singing the glorious canticle of the Prophet Zephaniah: “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart… The Lord has taken away the judgments against you… The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear evil no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion… the Lord your God is in your midst… He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will renew you in his love; He will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. ‘I will remove disaster from you [says the Lord], so that you will not bear reproach for it… I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you together… when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,’ says the Lord” (3:14-20).

What exactly is He restoring? In the original context it was the material riches and glory and the esteem of the nations that the Israelites had lost after their exile to Babylon. But for us, as it says in one of our liturgical texts, Christ is born to restore our long-lost likeness to God—the image in which we were created, but which we had disfigured or obscured by sin. We have been exiled from Paradise, but in the liturgy of this feast we sing: “As for me, I am returning to the bliss of Paradise, from which I had been banished by disobedience.”

Finally, I came across another text, a hymn to Our Lady, which concisely summarizes the mystical essence of this feast: “Angels were seized with amazement and mankind fell silent in awe at your birthgiving, O Mother of God.” This is a feast of both worshiping Him in silent awe and in singing praise with angelic amazement and joy.

Come, then, let us adore Him silently in our times of solitary contemplation, and for now let us, with the Prophet Zephaniah, sing aloud and rejoice with all our hearts. For the Lord is in our midst. Let us glorify Him with thanksgiving for the immeasurable price He paid to take away the judgment against us, to change our shame into praise. Who else would have done this for us sinners? Who else could have done it? Who is like God? A God so powerful He became a baby in a manger! A God so pure He bore all our filth in his own body on the Cross! A God so righteous He took away the just judgments against us and turned our shame into praise! Do you want to know what God is like?—that is what God is like!

Christ has come to restore our long-lost likeness to God, so that we can claim the heavenly Paradise as our homeland and sing to Him with the angels forever. Christ is born!