Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the Third Mass of Christmas

(Photo via the University of Notre Dame)

Christmas morning always clears the air, so to speak.   The specialness, the mystery, the night, the strangeness of the time itself, all this of the Midnight Mass is one of the real joys of the Christmas Season. And last night’s Midnight Mass was made even more special, more singular, being celebrated within the beauty of the renewed church of St Mary.  But now the sun is out. It is clear and cold.  This is the Third Mass of Christmas, and the gospel is the Prologue to the Gospel of St. John.  

 This is the Last Gospel said by the priest at the end of every Traditional Mass, and it is done so to remind the priest and the people what this is all about:  "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us full of grace and truth."  Without these words, there is no Christian message, there is no Mass, there is no Gospel.  This is theology, this is talking about God not in some general way but in the most specific way possible: that the infinite God took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary—infinity contained in a little space—and was born into our time and space, into our history, and at that moment changed human history from “God up there and us down here and muddle through somehow”: to Emmanuel, God with us. 

And John says:  “and the world knew him not.”  The light came into the darkness, but the world went about its worldly business and did not notice over 2000 years ago that God became flesh in the baby Jesus.  The world never notices such things.  How can it, when the world prefers the darkness to the light?  And when the child Jesus grew up to be the man Jesus, his preaching and teaching touched a number of people, a small number in fact. His miracles were worked on a few people: healings, exorcisms, raising the dead.  And the few people who noticed either were thoughtfully impressed or went on their way looking for another traveling miracle show. Others  got angry at what this man was saying and doing and teaching: the Jew preaching against Judaism as mere religion, merely keeping the ins and outs of the Law.  

They got angry at his insistence on repentance and turning one’s heart around, they got angry at his concept of love as something that is not merely good feeling, not merely noblesse oblige, but something that has sacrifice at its heart, and not in general, but one’s own sacrifice of oneself.  And the darkness of the religious and the worldly powers knew he had to go, that they had to get rid of him, and so they nailed him to a tree, they killed him.  But we know that is not the end of the story, for the Word of God cannot die and yet he died. The flesh that Mary bore died, and this man Jesus knew that he was dying for the sins of the world: not to make the world a better place, not only to be—although in a real sense he was—the model to be followed, but rather that the only way to conquer the darkness whose heart is death is to die, and not merely to die, but to die FOR, and this FOR was not for a cause. This FOR was for the whole world of darkness. This FOR was for you and me.  “Good Christian men rejoice, with heart and soul and voice. Christ was born to save!”

All through Western history—and Western history for the past two thousand years cannot be separated from Christianity and the Catholic Church—all through Western history there has been this temptation to forget all this we hear about in today’s gospel and to tame Jesus Christ, to make him something else, something more manageable, something less threatening, something we can put into a box and file it piously away.  There has always been the temptation to put Jesus back into the box of the “God up there”, to forget about the reality of his birth and life and death and see it all as God passing through this world and going back up where he belongs without leaving a trace of Himself here on earth.  The modern temptation for several centuries now has been to tame Jesus by forgetting entirely the Word made flesh and to bring him down to our size, to make him the man for others, to make him the model citizen, to list him with other great religious teachers like Buddha, to say that he is the one to whom we look when we want to know what love means, without taking seriously his demand for repentance and faith.  

This present age seems to be going back to the future of a Social Gospel Jesus, the one who shows us how to live with each other and what our obligations are to others.  That reduction has been tried before, and liberal Protestantism is its result, and it is dying, if not already dead.  We seem to be entering a new phase of this deliberate forgetting about the Word became flesh and dwelt among us in all of its manifestations and are embarking on what we can call the Disneyfication of the person of Jesus, a combination of Simba and Bambi.   So Catholicism becomes atheme park where one can choose what rides one wants to take depending on what picture du jour of Jesus strikes one’s fancy on that particular day.   

This theme park is run by religious men, whose role in life is to run the Church and make sure it remains as religious as the Scribes and Pharisees were of old but with a softer image.  In this theme park one can go on the Good Samaritan ride and get a good feeling by acting out as a caring person without getting out of the seat.  Or one can go on the Prodigal Son ride and feel satisfied by being accepted by God no matter what I do and subdue my vague feeling of needing to go to Confession.   One can go into the Hall of Churches and gaze at churches through centuries as one gazes at objects in a museum, looking at funny things like monstrances and relics and thuribles and beautiful vestments, all things of another time, another world.  Or one can go on the Field Hospital ride and attend to computer generated wounded and sick people and leave satisfied that one has fulfilled one’s obligation for that Sunday. The price of admission to the theme park includes Free Holy Communion with no questions asked.

But do you know who is excluded from this theme park?  There is no John the Baptist.  He was excluded on the grounds that he was negative and frightening.  His cry for repentance, his use of phrases like “you brood of vipers”, his crazy appearance in animal skins, his long bony finger pointing to the “Lamb of God”—a phrase that would have to be forbidden in the theme park. This is not part of the current theme park administration’s agenda.  And do you know who else is excluded? The real Jesus.  Ah, but you say, there are plenty of Jesus rides in this park, and there is that wonderful hologram show of him smiling and hugging and affirming and not judging and joking around with his friends at the meal later called  the Last Supper.  And there is the Nativity ride where you can even smell the animals in the stable. But the real Jesus is banned in this park:  the Crucifix is nowhere to be seen.  This does not fit into the Disneyfied depiction of Jesus, for the Crucifix with its blood and shame and death would shatter the illusions of those who paid admission to the theme park, for this image would demand serious thought about repentance, faith, judgment, sacrifice, salvation. Confrontation with oneself is not part of the park experience. Confrontation with God and his terrible love is not part of the park experience.

The joy of Christmas was understood for many centuries to be grounded in the Word made flesh who dwelt among us and who became man to die for us and to save us from our sins so that by faith in Him we might have eternal life.  Medieval man understood this so simply and beautifully.  So often we read in late medieval poetry the idea expressed that the Crib and the Rood are made of the same wood, the wood of the Tree in the Garden that condemned us to death. That the Crib and the Rood are part of the history of God and therefore our own history that is accessible only through faith is something we are in danger of losing.  And we must find it again, you and I, and we must never yield to the temptation of romantically separating the Crib and the Rood and never yield to the temptation to reduce Christianity to living a Good Life and “live and let live.”  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.  To hear those words today and to believe them, and to accept the infinite love of God that spoke those words into the void of our lives:  that is a source of deep and unending joy on this Christmas Day.

Mild he lays his glory by, 
Born that man no more may die. 
Born to raise the sons of earth, 
Born to give them second birth, 
Hark!  The herald angels sing 
“Glory to the new-born King”!