Christmas Midnight Mass
In a recent homily Pope Francis used a strange phrase – he spoke of ‘doing Christmas.’ We are familiar with celebrating Christmas. But doing Christmas? The Pope said that ‘doing Christmas’ means welcoming on earth the surprises of heaven.
Why would the Pope ask us to welcome the surprises of God? Don’t we all like surprises? Looking back I know each Christmas was something I lived for because my Dad would get me the books I liked. I would tear open the package and fall hungrily upon the books, forgetting the sacrifices and the thoughtfulness of my father. So this sort of pleasurable surprise, was the occasion of my becoming more self-absorbed. The Pope would not have had to remind us to welcome the surprises of heaven unless there were not like the surprises of earth. Our readings prime us for these surprises of heaven?
The first reading begins with this magnificent, stirring trumpet call – The People who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. What a promise. Our listless blood comes alive in expectation. Who does not want to be rescued from the darkness. And then like a gentle dew, come the beautiful words of the second reading, – Beloved the grace of God has appeared, saving all. Now it is at this point that things go awry for us. We expect magic, we expect our usual sort of surprise. But God gives us a shock.
The Gospel is a shock if you really remain with it. Look at the contrasts. You have the glory of the Lord in the angelic host proclaiming good news of great joy. So what is this good news then? This will be the sign for you. You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger. Your first reaction is – this is it? You’ve got to be kidding. What do the angels do then – they just sing Glory to God in the highest. Their Te Deum is the answer to our incredulity – this is it. There is no other. Boy, you say, what a disappointment. I was expecting something more divine. I was expecting Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Not some baby of a lower middle class family who could not even afford a decent place for his birth. It is a shock. This is a downer for us imbued with the spirit of this world. Let’s face it brothers and sisters, if we really welcomed this as God’s surprise, truly welcomed it and did not just drum up warm feelings before the Christmas crèche – our lives would be different. I know I am a sinner precisely because I instinctively avert my gaze – looking for something more, something more magical, something more respectable and yes, powerful? I am looking beyond the crèche, you see.
This surprise of God confounds us. And we ought to pay attention to our discomfort because it is the key to the darkness in our hearts. What is there in this surprise that can be so frustrating? To probe this, I would like to enunciate one of those profound metaphysical axioms of St Thomas Aquinas. He tells us – effects always lie hidden in their causes. And then almost as an aside, comes this metaphysical jewel from Thomas – and the contrary is true too. What it means – is that causes lies hidden in their effects.
This shall be the sign for you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes. The cause lies hidden in the effects. This is the shock, not surprise but the shock – the very God of heaven and earth, is like unto an infant in its vulnerability, in its dependence on others for love, in its sheer humility. The cause lies hidden in its effects. But, my brothers and sisters, we look for the rock star. Jesus is not a star but a sign, a sacrament of God. And from this we avert our gaze. Because of the enemy in our hearts. The real enemy is within ourselves, when we flee from a vulnerable God who loves to the point of death, to a god of wealth, power and status whether it be individual or national. We avert our gaze from our own poverty where the vulnerable God awaits us, our gaze from the poverty of others where He awaits us – we look away from poverty, shame, darkness. I realize why I flee from the surprises of God – because they are like shocks to this self-absorption, they throw me out of my comfort zones, they open my wounds, my vulnerability, my radical dependence and nothingness. They throw me towards God and this is what I most fear- that I must die to my old self to live anew.
But there is no easy path. We must welcome the unprecedented things of God if we are to truly ‘do’ Christmas. They are not usually cozy and nice. They break through our lives. Look once again on the sign before us – you shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. This is the great light, this is the grace of God that has appeared, saving all, in whom lie hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. The cause lies hidden in its effects. This is how He will always appear, in humility and poverty. These are His guises. May we not avert our gaze from Him.