Nativity of the Lord (Light and Peace)

Long before Jesus was the baby born in Bethlehem, we are told that he was the Word, the Logos: the Eternal One, through whom all things were made in the beginning. St. John describes it this way:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….
What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness….
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world…..
And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

He’s described as a beautiful and powerful light that entered our darkness.

Yes, the Word became flesh, but for most of us when we think about the Christmas event, we think of another story, one that is altogether more tender and tangible: the manger scene with Mary, Joseph, the animals and the baby who is the object of their attention. The details of the story tell us there was no room in the inn, that there were shepherds in the fields keeping night watch over their flocks, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. It all speaks of this event happening in the dark of night.

We even sing of it: “Silent night, holy night….” So what’s the meaning behind the mention of night-time? Perhaps it can be understood by the fact that night is generally a time of stillness and peace, when the anxieties of life and the worries of work are put on pause, when our bodies and racing minds are given rest, to reflect, marvel and dream. Jesus came at a period in the day when humanity was at rest.

And even more, he was born unto us at a time in history when the world itself was at peace of sorts, a long period known as the Pax Romana (Roman Peace), rest that followed years and years of wars and conquests.

Jesus came at a time of stillness and peace in our world.

But another way of understanding his coming to us in the darkness, is to understand the very purpose of his coming. For one, he comes to us in the darkest days of the year. The ancient peoples knew that this was the time of year when gradually, the light of the sun begins to find its way back into our days, little by little. The early Christians, having no exact knowledge of the date of Jesus’ birth, saw it fitting that these darkest of days would be most appropriate for this celebration, when Jesus, the eternal Word, the light that shines in the darkness, came to bring us light.

For several reasons, the meaning of that likely gets lost on us, but in part because we tend to only think of it as something that happens to the whole universe, for all humanity. That’s true, but what gets lost is the very personal reality and purpose of his coming.

Think again of the night sky with its majestic beauty: shimmering stars and cool light cast from the moon. But think also of all blanket of dark emptiness. Likewise, with each of us, within there is beauty and light, but there is also a dark emptiness: something we come to realize about ourselves when we move beyond childhood, when we come to discover something amiss in our lives: fear; insecurity; feeling lost; disconnected; depressed; continually desiring something beyond our grasp, even if we don’t know what it is; wondering if our lives actually have meaning and purpose; wanting to be loved and cared for, to matter to someone.

The Christmas story is intended to tell us and remind us that this baby came to bring light into that dark emptiness—for all humanity, but for you individually. That all sounds good, but how?

Perhaps in part, it goes back to the idea that Jesus was born at a time of the day, at a time of history when there was peace. We call him the Prince of Peace, and say that he came to bring us peace, but perhaps for him to come to you, you need to make peace. It may be finding peace with past hurts, or present realities. Maybe it’s peace in your broken relationships. It may be peace with God, in whatever way you feel He has failed or forgotten you. Maybe it’s struggling to find peace with this Church, broken and in need of reform. It may be peace you need within your family. And maybe you need peace with yourself, for past mistakes, regrets, or missed opportunities.

I remind us that Jesus’ birth is an eternal event, not merely something that happened 2000 years ago. He is born unto us, to you, to shine a light within you and within me—to show us our true identity as sons and daughters of a God who loves us; to fill us with light where there is only dark emptiness.

But we must make a place of peace for him: in our lives and in our hearts. How do we do that?

First of all, it demands a persistent desire for it. It must be more than just this moment or tonight. But also, you must do the things that bring peace and nurture it. For those of you who have been far away from the faith, I pray that you would be open to re-engaging your faith. This place and all we do here is built upon trying to cultivate Jesus’ peace. What we do here, with time, I believe will help to make the place of peace within you, where Jesus wishes to be born in your heart, to live within you, to be your light.

3rd Sunday of Advent - An Abiding Joy

Even though the words of the song tell us, “’Tis the season to be jolly….”, physicians tell us there are more cases of depression and cardiac arrest in December than any other time of year. They believe it most probably is due to anxiety, the stresses of shopping, spending, preparation for family gatherings, and perhaps escalated by excessive levels of Christmas cheer, such as grown-up Egg Nog. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, but also ‘tis the season to feel anxious and over-burdened.

We see commercials of happy families enjoying lots of gifts and holiday foods, while we are confronted with the reality of those we know who are unemployed. The season calls us to jump into the crowd at the mall to buy gifts, but the fear of a crash in the economy tells us to hold back and be cautious.

This season is built on the joys of being with family, yet some of us have lost loved ones in this past year are facing these losses in a new way or for the first time. And of course, many people live alone or are estranged from families.[i]

Advent, with its contrasting experiences, can leave us feeling conflicted.

Today’s readings perpetuate this contrast: St. Paul tells us, “Rejoice” and Zephaniah proclaims, “Shout for joy!”, but then John the Baptist warns his listeners to straighten up, because there is one coming who will burn with unquenchable fire.

The very nature of our Advent celebration is a clashing of moods: rejoice!…but repent. This stems from its gradual development. Advent was first celebrated in 5th century Gaul (France). For the people of that place and time it was a season to prepare for the coming of Christ though repentance and conversion. But soon after, as the Church of Rome came to celebrate this season, Advent was celebrated with festivity, rejoicing at Jesus’ birth.

The universal Church eventually melded these traditions into the season of Advent that we know. But today we focus on that Roman approach to Advent, lighting the wreath’s rose-colored candle, on this Gaudete Sunday. In the midst of this penitential season, we are to intentionally focus on the cause of joy in it all.      

So what is this joy?

At weddings, I almost always remind the couple that the love they are pledging to one another is not an emotion or a feeling, as we express it in popular music. Love as we understand it in our faith is an act of the will. And it’s true for joy: it’s not a mere feeling or a momentary pleasure; it too is a choice, an act of the will.

Think of St. Paul the beautiful words from the second reading:

“Rejoice in the Lord always…..Have no anxiety at all….the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”.

He wrote these words to the Christians of Philippi from a prison cell. The joy that inspired and lived in his words was not the result of the circumstances of the moment, but instead something deeper within.

You may know that Beethoven developed a hearing impairment so severe that he began to isolate himself due to the embarrassment of his condition. What a curse for a musical genius. And yet it was while facing the harsh effect of that advancing condition that he composed his beautiful and buoyant Ode to Joy. How? 

I want to suggest that a deeper and prevailing joy—aside from being an act of the will—comes from remembering both God’s promises that await us, and God’s promises that have been fulfilled. Whether it’s the stresses of this season or those that confront us any time of year—the things that cause us worry, the difficult realities that leave us wondering “How is this going to work out?”—in those present causes for concern, we must hold on to the promises fulfilled from the past.

What I mean is that in every crisis of my past, somehow God saw me through. It may not have been the solution I would have had in mind and it may not have been an instant fix, but somehow, He brought things back into order, even if I didn’t see it happening at the time. If He did it then, He’ll do it now.

This call to joy is not intended to ignore the troubling realities of our lives, but instead manages to see beyond them. We all know people who live with an abiding joy. It’s not that nothing ever goes wrong in their lives, but rather that they hold on to the promises of God to see them through.

May we not show up at Christmas to greet our newborn King with only our causes for stresses and worry. These days of Advent call us to meditate on God’s promises. Whether it’s concerns about our family, our work, our finances, our health, our even our grieving and broken hearts, our joy as an act of the will, demands that we make some space to contemplate both His promises fulfilled, but also His promises to come, for each and for all. “Brothers and sisters: Rejoice in the Lord always… rejoice!...The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all.” Let the peace of God that surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

[i] Robert P. Waznak, SS, Lift Up Your Hearts