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Homily for Christmas Day 2020

Fr. Isaac Slater, OCSO

Christmas Day 2020

The Word that becomes flesh is the word of the cross. Advent echoes and prefigures Lent as Christmas prefigures the cross. The New Testament infancy narratives all foreshadow and reflect
on the Passion, a fact picked up on by medieval devotion that intuitively connected crèche and cross.

Even as we bask in the warmth and light radiating from the cave, Herod seeks to destroy the child like the dragon of the Apocalypse; and the very day after Christmas we celebrate the
martyrdom of St Stephen—who shows where fidelity to Christ leads his followers—to the cross.

In his recent masterful study, John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel, the Orthodox theologian John Behr has a fascinating chapter on the Prologue to John’s gospel that we’ve just
read. Basing his approach on both contemporary scholarship and especially on a close reading of Ignatius, Irenaeus, Origen and the Johannine “school,” he argues persuasively that when John
speaks of the ‘Word’ who becomes flesh he means not some preexisting person who at a certain point in his biography is born in time, but the Word of the gospel, that takes flesh, not in the crib
but on the cross. In the beginning was Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Everything comes to pass through his paschal mystery…

On the cross, Jesus completes in himself the work God began in Genesis, the creation of the human being. The glory of God, the human being fully alive, is Jesus laying down his life for his
friends. When Jesus declares from the cross “It is finished” he refers to this divine creation of the human being.

Those who believe and are baptized receive power to become children of God, to share in the divine life of Christ. In our time, as Origen and others understood, Jesus the Word becomes flesh
in the Eucharist and as he “tabernacles in us” we are filled with his grace and truth and experience his glory.

The glory of God, the human being fully alive is the martyr, Jesus Christ. Those who live with his life are known by their willing embrace of suffering, whether in the occasional dramatic
witness or the everyday challenges to quietly take suffering to oneself and so share in Christ’s passion.

Far from Jesus unconditional will to embrace and suffer injury out of compassion for our persecutors we tend instead to stir up and inflame grievance, and instead of forgiveness and
understanding, to insist on revenge.

In his recent book, Let Us Dream, Pope Francis describes the increasing prevalence of the “beleaguered self,” the one attached to grievance: “As the public arena has become increasingly
dominated by the beleaguered self—anxious, controlling, quick to take offense, self- justifying—our society risks becoming ever more divided and fragmented. The Church is not immune to this contagion. How do we act in contexts of tribal division when our politics, our society, our media seem at times to be one long shouting match, in which opponents seek to
‘cancel’ each other in a game of power? The growing verbal violence reflects a fragility of selfhood, a loss of roots, in which security is found in discrediting others through narratives that
let us feel righteous and give us reasons for silencing others. The absence of sincere dialogue in our public culture makes it ever harder to generate a shared horizon toward which we can all
move forward together.” Recent studies in neuroscience indicate that harboring a grudge triggers the same chemical response as narcotics. Just as a drug addict in contact with people or environments he associates with drug use experiences a big surge of dopamine and craving for the pleasure and relief of getting high so cues that remind of grievance trigger craving for retaliation. There’s a revenge addiction. And it needn’t mean open violence. Passive aggression, a harsh word, slander can also provide our fix. (I say this not as someone who floats above the fray but as a grievance junkie with the rest, sorely tempted every day!).

Healthy anger is a short burst meant to spur us to action to defend the persecuted or in some other way repair injustice. Stoked artificially, as an end in itself however, grievance isolates.
For the addict what’s “true” is the high and whatever gets him there. We lose the ability to see what’s right before us. Perhaps we lose ourselves in addiction precisely to avoid the anguish and
heartbreak of gazing on the crucified…

We’ve seen this kind of dynamic in our response, as a Church, to the abuse crisis. It’s much easier to diagnose and accuse, getting our fix of righteous indignation, than to really listen to the
stories of victims, and all they imply…

It’s Mary who teaches us to be present at the foot of the Cross and to gaze on the one we have pierced. Pierced to the heart, Mary experienced at once the peace that surpasses understanding
and the unbearable anguish of watching her son suffer.

A monk, it has been said, is one who is willing to be struck, pierced to the heart with sorrow. Monks are those given to the joy-making mourning of repentance. Any lasting conversion, any
fruitful change will emerge from that sorrow that comes from letting our hearts be broken by Jesus’ suffering, on the cross, and in all the poor and persecuted. In the Crucified we see both
what we have made of ourselves, and what we have done to others.

Even as she held the newborn in her arms, Mary pondered on the words of Simeon, and in embracing the child embraced the piercing of her own maternal heart. May she give us the
courage to renounce our addiction to revenge and embrace the way of forgiveness, so that the word of the gospel may take flesh in our lives.