23 December 2006

Homily - Vigil of the Nativity of the Lord

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ: with great joy do I welcome you this evening as we keep the solemn vigil, waiting for the birth of the Son of God.

We know that artists - when their work is executed properly and with much prayer - have the wondrous ability to capture within their works the profound truths of the faith. Tonight I wish to focus on the statue of St. Joseph as a way to come to a deeper understanding of the mystery of Christmas. Take a look at this Joseph, if you will.

His face is both serene and stern. He is serene because he holds the Son of God in his arms and because of this he is also stern; he is quite peaceful and yet very serious. Joseph knows that this Child born of Mary is the “vindication” of Israel, the “glorious crown in the hand of the LORD” (Isaiah 62:2-3). Joseph is serene because he has heard the Lord say to his people: “No more shall people call you ‘Forsaken,’ and your land ‘Desolate,’ but you shall be called ‘My Delight,’ and your land ‘Espoused.’ For the LORD delights in you” (Isaiah 62:4). Joseph rejoices and yet he is serene because he knows the very reason this Savior has come: he has come to die for his people.

From Joseph’s face, I ask you now to look to his hands. See how he holds in his hands the child Jesus, but look at how he holds him. At first glance, it seems as though Joseph’s hands form a throne for the Son of David “who will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Joseph supports the child with his left hand and he steadies him with his right, and yet Jesus really seems to simply rest above Joseph’s hands. Jesus is not held by the strength of Joseph’s hands, but by his own divine power. This “righteous man” holds Jesus closely, but not too closely because he knows that in his hands he holds God himself (Matthew 1:19).

Now look at the Infant’s own hands. As he sits on his throne he extends his hands toward us in welcome, in reception. For this reason we are invited to “confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help” (Hebrews 4:16). Jesus calls us to himself and he is ready to embrace us, but there is more still.

Look at Jesus’ feet; he is ready to stand up. He wants not only for us to come to him (cf. Matthew 11:28); he wants to come to us himself! Is this not the great mystery of Christmas itself? That God so loves man that he abandons the glory of heaven to save us and raise us up? Yes! Such is the love of God!

But even as Jesus stands down from his throne, Joseph seems ready to hand him to me, to you; he will not keep him for himself. He knows that this Child has been given not to himself, but to and for the world.

Looking again at Joseph’s face, he seems perhaps a bit sullen, a bit sad. I wonder if he is not sad because of how we receive his son, because of how we follow him? I wonder if Joseph does not ask what Pope Benedict recently asked:

Does humanity of our time need a Savior? The impression is that many think that God is foreign to their own interests. It would seem they have no need of him; they live as if he did not exist and, worse still, as if he were an “obstacle” that must be removed so they can be fulfilled. Even among believers, we are certain, some allow themselves to be drawn by seductive chimeras and distracted by deceitful doctrines which propose illusory shortcuts to attain happiness.
[1]I expect Joseph is sullen and sad because we have too often neglected the Child whom he raised. Too often have we turned our backs on the Savior and looked elsewhere for salvation. Too often have we sought our own ambitions and desires and ignored the one who died for us.

However, despite its contradictions, anxieties and dramas, and perhaps because of them, today’s humanity seeks a way of renewal, of salvation, a Savior and awaits, sometimes unconsciously, the coming of the Lord who renews the world and our lives; the coming of Christ, the only true Redeemer of man and of all men. It is true, false prophets continue to propose a “cheap” salvation, which always ends by causing harsh deceptions. In fact, the history of the last fifty years shows the search for a “cheap” Savior and manifests all the disillusions that have derived from it.
[2]I ask you then this night: Are you happy? Are you fulfilled? Are you at peace and filled with joy? What do you lack?

Look now from Joseph to the Christ-child and hear the words of Saint Augustine:

See, O man, what God has become for you. Take to heart the lesson of this great humility, though the Teacher of it is still without speech. Once, in Paradise, you were so eloquent that you gave a name to every living being; but your Creator, because of you, lay speechless, and did not even call his mother by her name. You, finding yourself in a boundless estate of fruitful groves, destroyed yourself by having no regard for obedience; He, obedient, came as a mortal man to a poor, tiny lodging that by dying He might seek the return of him who had died. You, though you were only man, wished to be God; and you were lost. He, though He was God, wished to be man that He might find what had been lost. Human pride pressed you down so that divine humility alone could lift you up.
[3]Look then, my dear friends, to the humility of God born in the manger. Look to God who is love and see this night your salvation! Amen!

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Wednesday Audience Address, 20 December 2006.
[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Wednesday Audience Address, 20 December 2006.
[3] Saint Augustine, Sermo 6.2. In Johannes Quasten, ed., Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, Vol. 15, St. Augustine: Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany, trans., Thomas Comerford Lawler (Newman Press: New York, 1952), 93-94.

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