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Friday, December 24, 2010

Homily for Christmas Vigil (Isaiah 62 and Matthew 1:1-15)

Christmas is all about the birth of a tiny child who was born unto us. We marvel at his humanity as he enters into our world in an almost unnoticed way. Luke's narrative gives us an endearing portrait of the boy who was sent to save us from sin and death.

In the readings for the Christmas vigil, we get to pay attention to the one who goes almost unnoticed - the Almighty God who made Christmas possible. We get to look at the mind and heart of the God who decided to save us. This choice is made abundantly clear in the first reading when Isaiah can no longer remain silent because he is bursting with joy to tell the whole world about God's good deeds. Isaiah speaks triumphantly about this victorious God who will vanquish all foes. Even the Psalmist sings out his song about the goodness of the Lord.

What does Isaiah learn about God? He tells the Israelites, who are in exile in Babylon, (modern day Iraq), that God has not forgotten them. God has always warmly remembered the people and has remained with them though they suffered loss of land and loss of faith. God tells them that they shall return to their cherished land and will prosper there. They will rejoice once again because the Lord takes delight in them and wants to be with them. Isaiah uses wedding imagery to describe the close intimate bond God desires for his people. God wants to delight in his people as a bridegroom delights in his bride.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Paul tells us about the way God has saved the people, beginning with their ancestors in Egypt, through the reigns of Saul and David, and all the way through David's line to Jesus. Paul emphasizes God chose the people of Israel and exalted them. From Paul and Isaiah, we get the sense that God intentionally selected this particular action to redeem the world.

We see this choice deliberately laid out in Matthew's account of the genealogy of Jesus and his birth. The birth of Jesus did not come out of the blue. It was laid out in the mind and heart of God to bring fulfillment to all of Scripture so that we would know that not only God-is-with-us, but that God has always been with us. God has never forsaken us.

We see certain key aspects of this genealogy: it represents perfect numbers - 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 from David to the Babylonian exile, 14 from the exile to the Christ. We also see that it is filled with ordinary people. Many of the men in this group are noble heroes but most are merely ordinary men who blundered along the way and tried to do the 'good.' The point of this is that God is going to enter the ordinary world of human frailties. We also see the names of many women in this list. This is curious as Palestine, like all of the Mediterranean world, and all the world for that matter, was a male-oriented world based on status and honor. Women were not regarded as significant in any way. But in Matthew's account, women are crucial for salvation history. One point to be made from this is that we are not to regard someone as worthwhile or worthless. We are to see the world through the eyes of God who finds delight in each person.

So, let us return to God's delight once again. It is easy for us to find delight in the child Jesus who is to be born for us. This is why we gather tonight - to keep vigil as we await the final mysterious episodes of his nativity and the great glory surrounding this event. It is easy for us to imagine ourselves holding the infant in our arms, taking in the fragrance and touch of his newborn skin, his gaping mouth waiting to be fed, his wriggly fingers and toes as they grasp the air. Our God chose to become human.

I work at a retreat director at Eastern Point in Gloucester and for all the retreats I have given over the year, I find that when people have contemplated the nativity, very many people will gaze upon the boy in wonder - and they don't pick him up and hold him. When I ask them why? They say that it never occurred to them to do so. So I send them back to the nativity scene to see if they are invited to hold him in their arms and usually something surprising happens with them. Many are invited by Mary and Joseph to share in the joy of holding their son, and it becomes an intimate moment as they fall in love with the child and delight in his birth. He becomes real to them and they can place their hopes alongside his parents' hopes for him. It becomes an unforgettable moment of contact to which a person can return. And their love for him grows and his love for them grows. And much more typically happens. We have to learn that our prayer can be multi-dimensional - that it can come alive and become personal. We are invigorated by our imaginative prayer and through the special moments of encounter that we wish can inform our prayer more frequently. In your Christmas prayer this year, don't be timid. Ask Mary and Joseph for you to hold their son in your arms. After all, God has given the son to all of us - and he wants to become yours. And we spend the time contemplating him.

One of the unusual aspects of Ignatian contemplation is when we gaze upon Jesus - even if he is an infant, all of our life rushes to the surface. We find that while we honor him, he turns around to honor us. Too many of us won't allow Jesus to honor us - because of our sins or guilt, because we don't have the best relationships with others, because we don't feel good enough. Thankfully, Jesus does not view us as we view ourselves. He wants to honor you. He wants to delight in you.

Perhaps this Christmas, we can pray that we receive Christ's desire to honor us and delight in us. Perhaps we can believe Isaiah's words when he says we will be called "My Delight" by God. Perhaps you can allow God to let you know, that in light of the darkness that we all have, that he sees you as a good and worthwhile person and that he desires to be an intimate part of your life. This is part of God's saving plan. Long ago, God set in motion the chain of events that allows us to be closer to God's very self. God gave us his son as a human so we can come to know him and to love him as we would a brother or sister. We have to let that love grow, and we have to let it grow because we accept God's love for us first.

In very truth, I tell you what I know. Life has its difficulties and we need hope. Moreso, we need to feel loved and cared for in indescribable ways. For each of you here, and for those who have not come, God wants to tell you very earnestly that he delights in you. Hold him in your arms this Christmas and let him hold you in his own. This is his gift that God constantly is giving. Accept him as deeply as you can. All of this, he did for you personally. He wants to show you just how much he delights in you. Merry Christmas.


  1. Thank you for a beautiful meditation on Christmas.

    we need to feel loved and cared for in indescribable ways. So true, as everything I read here.

    Merry Christmas.

  2. Thanks, Claire. Thank you. Merry Christmas.