Emmanuel: Worship & Witness
Christmas Eve Mass
Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Boston
December 24, 2006
In the Virgin Islands, we opened shelters for the homeless with the help of many wonderful volunteers. Without hesitation, we all agreed the shelter should be called Bethlehem House because at Bethlehem Our God became homeless so that we could find our way home.
In the film “Contact,” scientists in New Mexico have a huge array of radio telescopes to listen for signs of intelligent life in outer space. Finally, contact is made as a message is received that is a sequence of prime numbers. A spaceship is built, and one of the scientists takes off for outer space. It is all science fiction. Yet it is true that people are curious about possible life on other planets. Christmas is different. It is not science fiction, although we surround the celebration with fantasy and escapism.
Midnight Mass is a call to stark realism. In literature, Realism came out of France and was a reaction to Romanticism. It has often come to mean works of art that emphasize the ugly or sordid.
The amazing thing about Christmas is that in all its starkness, the meaning of Christmas is so powerful and so beautiful that it far surpasses our efforts at tinsel laden sentimentality and crass materialism that characterizes our modern secular holiday. At Christmas, realism is beautiful and the winter wonderland themes and department store window displays are a poor substitution for the joy that radiates from the poverty and simplicity of Bethlehem and our loving God who becomes homeless in order to help us find the way home.
We start gearing up for Christmas in October, but God started gearing up centuries before. For God nothing is improvised. The prophet Isaiah centuries before Christ is telling us that a virgin shall conceive and her child will be Emmanuel—God with us. The Gospel passages for the Christmas season contain four announcements made by God’s messengers, the angels. The messenger announces the Birth of John the Baptist to Zachariah, the messenger announces Jesus’ birth to Mary, then to Joseph, then to the Shepherds. On each of these occasions, God’s message begins with the same words, “Do not be afraid!” Our God loves us so much that He wants to be with us, to be close, to Emmanuel. “Do not be afraid!” One reason that our God comes in poverty and in the helplessness of a little child is to keep us from being afraid. No one need fear a little infant.
The Good News is not in the past tense. Our Savior lives. He will deliver us. He manifests His love in the face of a child because God’s love is always young, always fresh. God’s love never tires of giving us another chance, never tires of forgiving us, of encouraging us. Jesus has come to save us from sin and from death. We can see the joy in a person’s eyes when the doctor says: “It’s not malignant, you are not going to die.” Jesus tells us that if we believe in Him, we will live forever with Him. That Jesus changes our perception of death is part of the joy of Christmas. God’s words “Do not be afraid” are liberating. Love casts out fear. On Christmas, love is born in a stable.
The real joy of Christmas is the firm conviction that there is a reason to celebrate because our God has come into our world, that He emptied Himself and took on the form of a slave, becoming obedient unto death, even death on the Cross for love of us.
If we fall into that Spiritual Alzheimer’s that allows us to forget the meaning of Christmas, we forget who we are, our identity and why we are here. Christmas is not just celebrating a birthday party and digging out the baby pictures. Christmas is the joy of knowing Emmanuel—God is with us—here and now.
When we read the Gospels about Jesus’ birth and the events that surround the first Christmas, we can identify two aspects of Bethlehem that should be part of our celebration of Christmas: worship and witness.
At Christmas, we want to worship our God. The first Christmas carol, sung by the angels at Bethlehem is an invitation to worship—Glory to God in the highest. When we sing “O come all ye faithful” the refrain is “Come, let us adore Him.” The shepherds went to the stable looking for this extraordinary child in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger.
The shepherds glorified and praised God for all they had seen and heard. But, they also witnessed to what they had seen and heard. The Gospel says: “All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.”
We have to worship our God who loves us so much and who has come into our world to show us His love, to take away our fears, to lead us home.
To know the meaning of Christmas is also a responsibility to share that joy with the world the way the shepherds did. Those who listen will be as amazed as the people in the Gospel.
I urge parents to share this joy with your children. Take them to the crèche, and tell them the story of Bethlehem. It is the story of our family. It is the story that shapes our lives, our hopes, and our aspirations.
Larry King was once asked if he could interview anyone in history who would he interview. Larry replied that he would like to interview Jesus Christ. “And what would you ask Jesus?” they asked him. Larry said: “I would ask Jesus if He were born of a Virgin. For me that defines all of history.”
That is our definition of history that Jesus is born of a Virgin, in other words, our God has become our brother. Around Christmas little children often ask me if I am Santa Claus. I tell them unfortunately I am not—but Santa Claus was a bishop.
Santa wrote us a letter prayer that we pray each Sunday at Mass. St. Nicholas the Bishop was one of the Council Fathers at Nicea in 325 that wrote the Creed that we will recite. Today we genuflect at the phrase in the Creed—
“by the power of the Holy Spirit He was born of the Virgin Mary and became man.”
Prior to St. Nicholas the Church considered only the martyrs as saints—they witnessed to the Church’s faith in Christ by their courageous death. St. Nicholas was canonized because he witnessed to his faith in Christ by his love for others especially the poor and the needy. His faith in the Christmas event transformed his life and transformed the way he treated people—with love, mercy, compassion. We witness to our faith when we suffer and courageously witness to the Gospel, but we also witness in our love for the poor and the sick, in our ability to forgive, to share.
For Nicholas the Creed was not just information, but good news—not just data, but a way of life and discipleship. A life of worship and a life of witness.
At Bethlehem the shepherds worshiped at the manger—today we worship this same Christ at Mass. Christmas—is Christ’s Mass.
Christmas is in part a celebration for children who see that God becomes one of them. We must witness to our children, the message of the angels, the testimony of the shepherds. Teach the lyrics of the wonderful Christmas carols that speak to us so eloquently of the Savior’s birth.
Help your children to be a part of the worshiping community. Bring them to worship at the crèche and at the Eucharist. Some parents send their children to the religious education programs but do not bring them to Mass. It is not enough to know that Christ was born at Bethlehem; we must worship him. Our faith is not information, it is good news. The Catholic faith means being part of something bigger than ourselves. The Body of Christ is Church.
“O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.”
Help your children to be amazed by God’s love and amazed by His desire to be close. Celebrate Christmas as they did in Bethlehem—by worshiping and by witnessing. Then the joy and meaning of Christmas will not fade on December 26—it will only grow stronger.
By Seán Patrick Cardinal O’Malley, O.F.M. Cap, Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Seán’s Blog, preached at Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Boston, Massachusetts.