27 December 2019

Homily - Christmas Day - 25 December 2019

The Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

We have come today to the altar of the Lord heeding the call of those ancient shepherds who said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place” (Luke 2:15). This “thing” is, of course, what the choir of angels announced to them as they watched their sheep, namely, the Birth of the Son of God and the Son of Mary, the mystery of Love made flesh.

Curiously, 70% of the American people call themselves Christians, but 90% of the American people say they celebrate Christmas.[1] Of the 90% of Americans who celebrate Christmas, 55% observe it as a religious celebration. Think about that for a just a moment. That means that almost half of the Americans who celebrate Christmas do not recognize it for what it is. If Christmas is not seen to be a religious festival, it can only be an occasion to of greed, a time to save money on material things and to receive gifts; that this is what it has in fact largely become should be no surprise. Culturally, we have forgotten why we give gifts at Christmas. We do so in imitation of the Magi, who gave to the Christ Child their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We cannot give gifts directly to Jesus, but we can give gifts to each other. This is why the custom of giving gifts at Christmas arose; if we divorce Christmas from its religious foundations, it all becomes quite meaningless and an ox and a donkey know more than we do.

Of the 90% of Americans who celebrate Christmas, whether as a religious holy day or simply as a cultural celebration, only 51% plan to attend religious services either on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day. If you are tracking the math, not every American who claims to see Christmas as a religious feast will attend public worship in honor of Christmas. This is, to be sure, curious, and seems to indicate a weakening of faith in the Birth of the only Begotten Son of God. Today, then, we must ask ourselves an important question: Have I come today recognizing Christmas to be a religious event, or have I come simply to appease human beings?

Of the various aspects of the celebration of Christmas, one of the most profoundly religious aspects is the inclusion of the Christmas Creche, the Nativity Set, without which our celebration of Christmas would seem somehow incomplete. Simply consider what you would think if you entered this church today and did not see the representation of the Lord’s Birth.

The Nativity Set has its origins with Saint Francis of Assisi who in 1223 asked Pope Honorius III for permission “to portray the Child born in Bethlehem and to see somehow with my bodily eyes the hardship he underwent because he lacked all a newborn’s needs, the way he was placed in a manger and how he lay on the hay between the ox and the ass.”[2]

Nearly eight centuries later, we still erect Nativity displays in our homes, churches, and in public places so everyone who looks upon them might also say with the shepherds, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.” Happily, this tradition is now embraced by many of our Protestant brothers and sisters who join us in using statues both small and large to envision what those shepherds saw that caused them to return to their fields “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20).

It is intriguing that Saint Francis requested two particular additions to our Nativity displays that are not found in the Gospels, the inclusion of the ox and the donkey. If these two animals are not mentioned in the Gospels, why did the little poor man of Assisi include them?

A late Ottonian depiction of the Nativity, from a manuscript in the Getty Library (1025-50 AD).
Saint Francis is the first person to portray the Nativity without painting or carving, but he is not the first to include the ox and the donkey in depictions of the Birth of Jesus. Many illuminations from the medieval manuscripts portray them closer to the manger than Saint Joseph, and sometimes even closer than the Blessed Virgin Mary. The ox and the donkey tend to gaze upon the Christ Child with looks of warm affection and a sublime wisdom. Both Saint Francis and these artists knew that many centuries before the Birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah foretold, “the ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand” (Isaiah 1:3). Saint Francis and these artists included these two animals to serve as striking questions to the onlookers: Do you know your Master? Do you know his crib?

Who is it that the ox knows? The ox knows, firstly, that he gazes upon a great mystery, “an infinitely greater thing than anything” J.R.R. Tolkien said he “would dare to write.”[3] The ox knows that when he looks upon that Child, he looks upon the invisible God made suddenly and unexpectedly visible. He knows he looks upon his master, upon the omnipotent God who took unto himself a human face, the Creator of all things who lowered himself to become one of his creatures, “the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). Do you know who this Master is? Do you know the One the ox knows?

He is the Divine Child who looks out upon his creation with his human face, with eyes full of compassion, with knowledge, power, and tenderness. He looks upon all he has made and calls out with a word of love and of command. “You are my friends,” he says, “if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). “Love one another,” he says, “as I have loved you” (John 15:12). “Be perfect,” he says, “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). “These things I have spoken to you,” he says, “that my joy may be in you and your joy may be full” (John 15:11). He is the one who acknowledges himself to be the “master and teacher” who says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (John 13:13; Matthew 11:29). This is the Master the ox invites each of us to know, to follow, and to love.

But what does the donkey know of the Master’s crib? He knows that the crib of his master is the donkey’s own manger, nothing more than a feeding trough for the animals, but in this humble trough is contained a very great mystery, for this Child grew and called himself “the bread of life” and said quite emphatically, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:35, 53). The Bread of Life was born in Bethlehem, in a village whose name means “the house of bread,” and was placed in a manger, not as food for the animals, but as food for those he came to save, as food for you and for me. Do you understand what the donkey understands?

The ox and the donkey bellow and bray to us today, beckoning us to approach their manger – the very crib of the Master - so that we might look upon the Face of the invisible God made visible and know who and what they know. They call us to pause in silence and ask us: “Do you know your Master? Do you know his crib? Do you understand and know his merciful love? Will you eat of him and be nourished by him in order to love as he loves?” They call us to ponder the tremendous love which God displays in his Incarnation, to recognize that “God is so good that he can give up his divine splendor and come down to a stable, so that we might find him, so that his goodness might touch us, give itself to us, and continue to work through us.”[4]

This Christmas, let us resolve to know the heart of the Infant Master, to allow ourselves to be touched by and understand his love, to imitate his selflessness and allow it to work through us in all we say and do. If we open ourselves in this way to love and to be loved by this Holy Child, then we can bring the message of the angels to everyone we meet: “A Savior has been born for you, who is Christ and Lord” (Luke 2:11). Amen!

[1] Pew Research Center, “Americans Say Religious Aspects of Christmas are Declining in Public Life, 12 December 2017.
[2] In Tomaso de Celano, First Life, XXX.84. In Brother Thomas of Celano: The Life of St. Francis of Assisi and The Treatise of Miracles. Catherine Bolton, trans. (Assisi, Italy: Editrice Minerva), 80-81.
[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, Draft Letter to Michael Straight, 1956. In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Humphrey Carpenter, ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 237.
[4] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 24 December 2005.

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