The Nativity of the Lord – Vigil Mass
Readings – English
Cover image found here.
No tenía que predicar esto en español, así que no hay traducción al español. Lo siento.
How can we tell what is important in our lives? I mean, sure, we can all reflexively response “God, family, community” like we are supposed to, but how can we be sure? How can we know that we mean it?
One obvious place to look is how we spend our money. Another is how we use our time. But the one I find most interesting, from a societal perspective, is how we arrange our calendar. See, calendars are an essential part of every society, and they have been since the beginning of recorded history. All people look at the sun, the moon, and the seasons, and learn to structure their lives and their work around them. And more than just trying to figure out when winter will begin, these calendars are interesting because every calendar, from every era, has a start date, and contains festivals.
The start date of calendars always points to what a society considers its most important event. So tribal societies would restart their calendars with the ascension of each new king. The Romans dated their calendar from the traditional founding of the city of Rome, the Greeks from the reign of Alexander or from the first Olympiad, the Medieval Jews from the destruction of the Temple, and the Muslims from the migration of Muhammed from Mecca to Medina. If our country were not so Christian, we would use a calendar beginning in 1776. But what calendar do we use? We use a calendar that begins at the birth of Jesus. We structure our lives around the fact that God, the almighty creator of the universe, entered into history by being born as a tiny child in Bethlehem. Even though there is a movement to obscure the significance of our calendar by referring to it as C.E. (meaning “common era”, something the Greeks would take great offense to), we know the truth. We are in Anno Domini, A.D. 2017. We have been celebrating the coming of our God and Lord now for more than two millennia, and we will continue to celebrate it! We will continue to rejoice each year that our God has come to us!
This is what Matthew was doing in our Gospel passage today: highlighting the central events of history by using a sort of calendar of generations. For the ancient Jews, history truly began with Abraham, because it was at this moment that God entered into a relationship with humanity by choosing Abraham and raising up from him a special, consecrated people. And history took an important turn with David, who united this people into one nation. And history once again turned when, due to their sins, this people was scattered by Babylon, never to achieve the same glory or independence again. If you read the Old Testament, past the first five books which focus heavily on Moses, it is these three events of Abraham, David, and the Exile that loom large in every prophet and every psalm. These are the events around which Jewish life was built. And now, Matthew is telling us, there is a new, equally important event. Another great act of God that will change everything and redefine what it means to be a chosen people. That event is the coming of Jesus, born of a virgin, who will be called “God with us” and will save his people from their sins. And this, it turns out, was the definitive event, the final redefinition, the ultimate act of God. There is a reason that we have not needed another calendar ever since we built one on the birth of Jesus Christ. Nothing else will ever change the world like the birth of Jesus did.
Look again to our first reading from Isaiah, and how he speaks of the nature of this definitive act of God. “Nations shall behold your vindication, and all the kings your glory; you shall be called by a new name pronounced by the mouth of the LORD.” Vindication. A new name. God is recreating Israel once again, as he did with Abraham, as he did with David, as he did with Babylon. But how is he doing so? “As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you.” God marrying his people? This is a shocking image! How can the foundation of all reality, the one who is before and above all else, marry his people? No one knew, until he did it. No one understood until Jesus was born, God in the flesh. What deeper unity could god show to us that by becoming one of us? How could he rejoice in us more than by taking our very nature to himself?
But what effect does Jesus’ coming have? Why, exactly, does it matter so much that we classify it as the central event of our history? This question brings us to the other fascinating thing about calendars: festivals. Every calendar has festivals. There is always a harvest festival, thanking God or the gods for a successful harvest and another year of sustenance. There is always a New Year, where the cycle is reset and society is given a chance to celebrate the last year and to begin a new one fresh. And, for the most part, there is always some kind of celebration of the Winter Solstice which, in the Northern Hemisphere, occurs on December 21st.
Now, it is facile and historically ignorant to suggest that Christmas was an invention, that we just changed the name of some Roman god to “Jesus” and voila! a holiday was born. Jesus is a historical figure who actually walked the Earth, so he had to be born sometime. It is, however, fair to say that we Christians do not know the exact date of this birth. It was celebrated at different times in different places all over the ancient Christian world. And yet, almost all of these celebrations ended up being right after the solstice. Why?
It is because of what the birth of Jesus represents to us. Up until the solstice, the sun appears to be going away, but after the solstice, its return is obvious. Now, of course, we know this is a predictable cycle of unthinking celestial bodies, but the early Christians saw how appropriate it would be to celebrate the coming of Christ, the light of the world, when the sun itself seems to be playing out this most important event. And who knows, maybe God even ordained that the actual day should fall at this appropriate time. Unless you are an Australian, the analogy is perfect. Like the autumn, before Christ the world is enveloped by darkness and cold. We huddle together, close our windows, rush between places. Like sin, the weather causes us to be closed off, sad, and despondent. But then, like at the coming of Christ, everything turns on its head. Hope is restored, joy is expressed, and the world becomes, literally, brighter. But with Jesus, we are given so much more than mere light and heat. We are given unity with God and the spark of divine life. We are given communion with our creator.
My friends, nothing is more important than the coming of God into our world in Jesus Christ. Nothing. It is the central event of history, the source of our hope and our joy. We reflect this truth in our calendars and in our festivals. Now we have to reflect this in our lives. Do we come to Jesus each Sunday, as he came to us in Bethlehem? Do we spend time each day speaking with the God who gave up heaven to unite himself to us? Do we try to reflect the humility of the one who was born amidst animals, or the fidelity of the one who fulfilled every promise?
We are about to begin a new calendar year. Let’s have this be the year where we make a special effort to go out to meet the God who moved heaven and earth to come to us. Let’s go to the manger and adore the one who redefined all of history, Jesus Christ, our Lord.