Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the Vigil of Christmas

“And she shall bring forth a Son and thou shalt call His Name Jesus: for He shall save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

How wonderful to be able to celebrate the Vigil of Christmas today in a Solemn Mass on this Sunday!  The Novus Ordo calendar keeps this as the Fourth Sunday in Advent and the focus of the readings is on the Blessed Virgin Mary.  But the Traditional Roman rite insists on continuing with the theme of expectancy that is at the heart of Advent. The introit, the gradual and alleluia, the opening Collect:  the focus is on tomorrow both in a literal and profoundly religious sense.  The Introit sings:  “This day you will know that the Lord will come and save us; you will see his glory.”  

This verse is from the book of Exodus where Moses speaks to his people who are starving in the wilderness of the heavenly manna that will save them from death.  The Liturgy applies this to the birth of the One who is the bread from heaven who will give eternal life to those who eat of this bread.  St Paul, in the Epistle reading from Romans speaks of God’s promises to the Jews that have been fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ:  his birth, his teaching and above all the power of his Resurrection and its promise of eternal life to those with faith in Him.  The Gradual repeats the words of the Introit and the Alleluia sings:  “Tomorrow shall the iniquity of the earth be abolished; and the Savior of the world shall reign over us”.  And tomorrow is indeed when we celebrate the conquering of sin and death in the birth of Christ. 

But the magnificent Collect of the Day prays with such eloquence all these meanings of tomorrow:  O God, You fill us with gladness each year in the expectation of our Redemption.  Grant that your only-begotten Son, whom we joyfully receive as our Redeemer, may be seen by us also without dread, when He comes as our judge, our Lord Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit word without end. Amen. “

And the Gospel speaks about tomorrow as well in the context of the Annunciation to Joseph.  The immediate future:  “Do not be afraid, Joseph, son of David, to take to thee Mary thy wife, for that which is begotten in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she shall bring forth—the future of ninth month—a Son, and thou shalt call His Name, Jesus;  and then the ultimate future:  for He shall save his people from their sins.”

And yet all of these Propers are sung in the present and each is in the context of the past of the Israelite people whose origin lies in the covenant between them and God. Our presence here today is the present and yet this present is in the midst of the past and the future.  And it is precisely in this Mass in the present that the past and future become real.

We see so clearly now the disintegration of Christianity that has occurred in the past fifty years.  And that applies to Catholicism as well.  Now surely one of the chief reasons why this is happening is because more and more people who call themselves Christians in some way have no clue, have no real information about what the basics of the Christian faith are.  The anti-dogmatic principle of Protestantism that is at the heart in the end of what it means to be a religious American, that principle that resists any formulations of faith, any creed, to which one has an obligation to subscribe to, to give oneself to:  this principle acting through time has destroyed the basic Christian understanding of Tradition and its binding force.  Certainly Catholicism in this country has not been immune to this pernicious and potent solvent of Tradition.

And once you are cut yourself free, free in a negative sense, from the bonds of Tradition, bonds that are the source of true freedom, then you are free to float in a religion that is purely personal and idealistic, free from any bonds to human history, free from any bonds to a particular time and place.  Then Jesus becomes an idea instead of a person who lived at a particular time and in a particular place.  Then you can do whatever you want with him.  He becomes like a paper doll that you dress in any style you want of any time and place.  He becomes one more teacher, one more guru, one more guy who talks about love and peace.

But the gospel tells us something very different: that irruption of the kingdom of God took place at a very particular time and place, about two thousand years ago in what is now called the Holy Land.  The past twenty- five years have seen a rise in those who call themselves atheists.  When you read what they say it is clear that they would be amazed to know that what we believe is that at a particular time and place God became man, the infinite become finite in the womb of a woman and was born as a man, a real man, and the finite death of the infinite God healed the horrible wound that lies at the heart of the physical and spiritual universe in which we live.  These self- styled atheists would not recognize this as the Christian faith. For they think that what Christianity is, is some sort of vague belief in a bearded old guy in the sky who issued orders on how to live according to his  Ten Commandments and that this has nothing to do with this world and even less with reason itself.  That they are fools the psalmist tells us clearly:  the fool says in his heart—there is no God.  But their foolishness is mitigated by the fact that what passes for Christianity today is a shadow at best of the heart of the Christian faith who is Jesus Christ, the very heart of human history.

The grey fetid breath of secularism, this plague that threatens us so much more than any physical virus can, encourages us to leave the child-like faith that believes that ours is an historical religion that changed history and instead to enter into the Disney world of religion, where religion is something to make you feel good, a theme park to satisfy all needs and wants and delights—as long as it is not real.

It is precisely this Mass, the Mass of the Tradition, that is the antidote to the grave affliction that is besetting the Catholic Church today.  For it is only within the bonds of Catholic Tradition that the past, the present and the future make ultimate sense.  It is here at this Mass that is the heart of the Tradition of the Church where the past and the future, where time and eternity intersect at this time and at this place as the Holy Sacrifice of the Cross is offered at this intersection point of past, present and future.  And for this and for all the blessings this Mass brings to the people of St Mary’s:  we say:  Deo gratias.