Readings: Isaiah 9:1-6, Psalm 26, Titus 2:11-14 and Luke 2:1-14
Blessed Christmas to you all! Tonight we celebrate a very special child whom we honor. Our readings for the liturgy all share responses to the question, “What Child Is This?” Each reading shares characteristics of who this child will become. The prophet Isaiah bids us rejoice for God has brought abundant joy and great rejoicing to a people caught in exile from the wars around them, not unlike the “68.5 million people worldwide [who] have been forced to leave their homes due to wars, famines, and other political conflicts” only “24.4 million of [whom] have received refugee status in the countries of destination.” Isaiah lists the sufferings the people have endured from their conquerors: being burdened with yokes on their backs, carrying poles on their shoulders, being beaten with rods by their masters, and being trampled by boots. All of these atrocities stand in marked contrast with the reign of the child given to these people and to us, upon whose shoulders dominion rests, that is, his authority will not be like that of their conquerors.
There is a paradox revealed by Isaiah, who speaks of the reality of the people, a reality of hardship, poverty and enslavement, yet in that very situation, there is the appearance of hope: this newborn child is more than a child. He is to be called a “Wonder Counselor,” one remarkable for his wisdom and prudence, in ministering to the lowly in need of healing and encouragement. As “God hero” he will defend his people, as Jesus will so often do of the outcasts in front of the church leaders of his day—the Pharisees and scribes. He will be “Father Forever,” that is, one devoted to the people as the most loving of parents are, seeing to their needs as when he will feed the 5000 hungry folks on the hillside. And he will be “Prince of Peace,” one who brings peace to the troubled tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners by calling them out of the imprisonment of their labels into their true humanity.
Our Responsorial Psalm reveals that “today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11), who “shall rule the world with justice and the peoples with constancy” (Ps. 96:13). Thus wherever we see leadership manifesting justice, particularly on behalf of the oppressed and poor, whenever we witness the consistent care of all, not just the privileged, then we know that the Savior is born in our midst. Then we can “sing to the Lord a new song…sing to the Lord and bless his name” (Ps. 96:1-2).
The Letter to Titus continues the ways that this child’s authority will be made manifest. In Christ “the grace of God has appeared, saving all” (Titus 2:11) and teaching us “to live temperately, justly and devoutly” (Titus 2:12). When we live within our means, share with those who have not our means and attend to God and God’s people, we fulfill this teaching and “the grace of God appears” saving us and all to whom we offer that grace.
Finally, we come to the gospel story of the nativity, the birth of a child of the family of David, wrapped in swaddling clothes lying “in a manger because there was no room for [him and his parents] in the inn” (Luke 2:7). From the lineage of the great king David of Israel, of whom expectations of a son of great military might come to fight the imperial government of Rome, comes a child, the prince of peace, who will save, not by the sword but by the power of love. This child will reveal that the God, who begot him, deeply desires healing for us all. A paradox is operating in Luke’s account, for Caesar Augustus, the Roman ruler, who was believed by the culture to be “an inaugurator of peace” and “benefactor of the whole world,” stands in stark contrast to the child, who is “bringer of peace” and “Savior.” Caesar Augustus bears all the trappings of power and might, whereas Jesus is presented as a vulnerable child, lying in a feeding trough for cattle. From this trough he will grow up to feed the hungers of many. Later on in his life Jesus will host a grand dinner party, the Passover in the upper room for his disciples. This is the meal we commemorate this evening and at every Eucharist.
Luke’s gospel is one that communicates joy, so it is no surprise that the angel tells the shepherds, “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). We note that this good news is for everyone, not just a select few and it is given today, not in some far distant future. For Luke the Savior of all humanity brings “wholeness, rescue from sin and alienation from God…[and from] destructive self-isolation.” This child, born in humble circumstances, brings peace that heals all that keeps people from God, whether that be actual disease and disability, often viewed as marks of sin in the culture of the time, or willful acts of harm toward self and others. That peace elicits in joy as the response to the grace of healing.
This child as with every child reminds us of our vulnerability. The poet John O’Donahue speaks to that vulnerability, which his friend discovered.
When he had his first child, a friend told of his joy but also of how surprised he was to find himself thinking so much about his own mortality. Somewhere in his nature, he saw himself as a protective frontier between the world and the tiny infant. The sight of a newborn baby evokes fragile beauty: the miniature fingers and toes, the soft, new skin with its special scent and the first tracings of expression on the new face. Indeed, the beauty of the newborn infant can stir gentleness in the hardest heart.
Even the most caring parents will leave inevitable trails of damage. This is a natural part of the ‘dark industry’ of imperfection and brokenness that lies within every one of us. But it remains true that deep behind the visible surface of our society there are incredible, unseen people who give everything they are and everything they have to their children. They are the secret priests and priestesses who work away unostentatiously in the vineyards of soul-making. Although often arduous and painful, ultimately it is tender, vulnerable work, a work of fragile yet wondrous beauty.
So, truly we can rejoice today, for our Savior is coming to heal us, of all that mars the natural beauty with which we were all brought into existence. May the children, whose faces light up with Christmas joy, remind us of this special child among us, who loves us into wholeness and rescues us from thoughts and behaviors that prevent our experiencing joy. Let us rejoice in this Good News!