|Guatemala City, December 24, 2014|
HOMILY FOR CHRISTMAS EVE, 2014
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
There was but one candle left to light on the Advent wreath this evening, the Christ Candle, where hope, peace, joy and faith are all met in the Incarnate Savior. We have spoken of Advent as focused on our longing for the coming of Jesus into this world and into our lives. We need Jesus to bring us hope where there is despair, to bring us peace where there is war and violence, to bring us joy, knowing that he is the revelation to us of God’s love for us, and to strengthen our faith, which is the foundation for our beliefs. Now Jesus has come, not in power, might and majesty, but as a helpless baby born roughly, without the help of doctors or midwives, wrapped in strips of cloth, and laid in a trough, where animals are usually fed.
Two thousand and more years ago, God sent his only Son to take his flesh and his human form from his mother, a teenage girl. So it was that God came to be born in human form, in a stable in Bethlehem. This is the mystery of the Incarnation, a mystery which we can comprehend fully only through faith. Saint Paul tells us that in “the fullness of time” the Lord God sent his only son to be born and live among us.
What can we say about “the fullness of time”? When Jesus was born, the Roman Empire was near the peak of its power. It had united most of the known world. It stretched from Britain to Armenia, down to the Persian Gulf, across to the Red Sea and down the coast of Africa almost to the Sudan. It ruled both shores of the Nile, and it controlled all of North Africa across to the Atlantic Ocean shores of modern day Morocco. The Danube and the Rhine were its northern borders. The Empire was highly organized. Networks of roads facilitated government and commerce overland, and maritime routes and shipping were well developed. The Roman bureaucracy stretched from Rome to all the possessions of the Empire, however far-flung.
When Jesus was born the imperial system of one person rule was becoming established. Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus Caesar, and died during the reign of Tiberius. This system of government would spawn monster emperors, demented persons such as Caligula and Nero. A good case can be made that the number 666 used in the Apocalypse of Saint John, or Revelations, refers to the emperor Nero, whom many thought would return again as the Beast.
The Roman system was in many ways built on the concept of bread and circuses. The price of grain was kept low in the cities, and much money was spent on gladiatorial games sponsored by the government, which were of unusual cruelty. We know of Christians being sewn into animal skins and thrown into the arena to be torn apart by fierce dogs. People were indeed fed to the lions. We know that people were smeared with pitch, and used as lights in the gardens of Rome. Gladiatorial combat was often to the death. If the unity and efficiency of the system of government put together by Rome guaranteed that new ideas and new knowledge would travel rapidly to every corner of the empire, the barbaric cruelty, the wanton disrespect for human life signaled the need for a faith that valued human beings more fully. The followers of Jesus would provide that alternative of faith. It was in the fullness of this time that Jesus was born.
Jesus, God in the flesh came to us poor, weak, accessible. This baby lying in a manger in a stable in Bethlehem shows no signs of mightiness, no awesomeness, but rather inspires our love which is born of his defenselessness. God comes to us in human form. He is Emmanuel, God with us, but not what you would expect of a deity. He will grow as one of us, be poor and hungry, know suffering, and die a barbaric death. After his resurrection we will better understand the immensity of the Incarnation of God and grasp its enormous significance in God’s plan of salvation. But that is later in the story.
Tonight we are in Bethlehem, with Joseph and Mary. A child has been born. We will come to realize how significant this birth is. We have been given a precious gift. God’s salvation has come not only to the people of Israel, but to all mankind, to the entire Roman Empire, and beyond. Without abrogating his relationship with the Children of Israel, God has determined that it is now time to reveal Himself to the nations of the world. More significantly, God has now sent us a way to become reconciled to Him, to become his children by adoption, to escape sin and death and to enjoy life everlasting.
So what does this Bethlehem event mean for you and for me? What is the gift that the birth of the child brings? This is the gift: God is giving us a second chance. We need not live in sin and disobedience. There is a way out, there is a second chance. We can escape sin and suffering and death and be united to God through the Incarnation of his son.
As this Christ child is born in Bethlehem, I invite you also to welcome Him into your hearts. Let Jesus Christ be born in you tonight. May we always be ready to feel and find him in ourselves. May we also be able to see him and find him in others around us, men and women, especially in those Jesus loved during his ministry on Earth: the sick, the poor, the humble and the oppressed And as we return this evening to our homes, let us each in our heart say: thank you Lord for this second chance and thank you Lord for letting me welcome the Lord Jesus into my heart. Thank you Lord.