The Abiding Presence of God in His Word Made Flesh
Homily for Christmas 2014, Mass During the Day
It is my pleasure and privilege to welcome you all to our Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption today, especially all of our visitors and guests, and most especially those of you who have travelled long distances to be with us. We are happy that you have done so, for it is always a joy for us to welcome new friends and join together with you in the most sublime action possible for human beings: the worship of God.
The Incarnation: The Mystery of God’s Presence
To travel long distances at this time of the year certainly involves hardships, given the expense and extra congestion on the roads and in the airports, and so many other inconveniences and frustrations. I am always heartened, though, by the sacrifices people make to be with loved ones at this time of year. It speaks to me of the power of the bonds of family and friendship. People make these sacrifices in order to be together, that is, in order to be physically present to each other. We can send emails and letters to those whom we love, we can make phone calls and, nowadays, we can Skype, but nothing can replace the sense of physical presence: that sense of being in the other person’s presence, to be able simply to touch them. Yes, with Skype you can see the one you love while you talk to them, but you won’t get much warmth from hugging the computer monitor.
This reality of our human nature sheds a lot of light for us on the mystery we are celebrating today. The birth of Jesus of Nazareth is the appearance of God’s physical presence to us here in our world. That, in fact, is Jesus’ very name: “Emmanuel,” “God is with us” (Mt 1:23). This is the one to whom we sang all throughout the Advent season to come and be with us. And, he does; he has. Who, after all, can understand our human condition better than God Himself, who created us?
So likewise for God, anything short of physical presence was not enough. In the Old Dispensation, with God’s original chosen people, the prophets were the loudspeakers for God. Through them, God’s word was a spoken word: teaching them, exhorting them, warning them, cajoling them, calling them away from sin and to turn back to their God – a spoken word that often went unheeded. God’s word also came to be written down, written down in the Sacred Scriptures, that part of the Bible we now call the Old Testament. With God’s people of old, His word was also a written word.
But this was not enough for God. His word had to take on flesh, a human body, so that God could make Himself physically present to us. This is the Good News the Church wishes to convey to us in the readings we just heard for this Christmas Mass During the Day. St. John teaches us, in the opening verses of his Gospel, that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus Christ, the coeternal Son of God, is the Word of God from all eternity. But at just the right moment in our human history, this Word breaks into our world: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”
The Incarnation: The Mystery of God’s Word and Light
This is the fulfillment of God’s plan from the very beginning, as we just heard proclaimed in the opening verses of the Letter to the Hebrews: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son.” The Word became flesh, that is, God took on a human body, so that He could suffer and die for us on the Cross to reconcile us to Himself, and then rise in that body to the glory of a new life over which death has no hold. This is God’s definitive Word to us, given us in “these last days”: a word of forgiveness, of life, of eternal salvation.
This Word is a word of light, the “light of the human race” that darkness – that is, sin and death – cannot overcome; this is the “true light, which enlightens everyone, [that] was coming into the world.” This is the Good News prophesied by Isaiah of old, the glad tidings of peace, the announcement of salvation. And yet, we can’t help but notice that there is still so much violence in the world: the brutal persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in many parts of the globe; violence in our own neighborhoods; sometimes even in our homes. How can this be?
Notice what Isaiah tells us is the announcement of salvation to Zion: “Your God is King!” This is our King, born in a stable, into a poor working-class family, suffering all the hardships that such families endure in struggling to make a living. And all of this, so that he can be present to us, present in the most intimate way possible, to the point of sharing in the very human nature with which He created us. It is when we turn our backs on him, turning another into our king, that suffering and violence enter into the world. Now that God’s Word has been made flesh, has suffered and died and rose again all for us, so that we can live with him forever, let not us, of all people, fail to pay heed to this Word. Placing ourselves under his lordship, proclaiming him as our king and living accordingly, this is what brings us healing, peace, forgiveness and salvation.
Walking in the light of Christ, we can be freed from the shackles of sin, from all of those compulsive, self-centered behaviors and attitudes which only serve to lock us in the darkness of loneliness and despair; in him we can walk freely in the light, we can be people of virtue and holiness, enjoying the true freedom of the children of God. His grace is there for us, in abundance; it has appeared, it has been made flesh, we need only approach him with faith and confidence, unafraid to cast off our old ways in order to be made new in him.
The true light which enlightens everyone has come into the world. But he did not come simply to abandon us. He continues to come to us, every time we celebrate this Holy Eucharist; at every Mass, he, God’s Word, takes flesh in the transformation the humble and simple elements of bread and wine into his Body and Blood. He is present, he is with us. We need only take notice, to be present to his presence, and he will fill us with light, gladness and peace.