Christmas Day Mass
(Is 52:7-10, He 1:1-6, Jn 1:1-18)
What a contrast between the second coming of Christ and his first coming. The second will be scary and magnificent. The first was simple and humble and gentle. The second will be unmistakable. The first was easily overlooked. In St. Matthew’s Gospel we read, “As the lightning from the east flashes to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be” (24:27). And a little further: “. . . the stars will fall from the sky, and the hosts of heaven will be shaken loose. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and ‘all the clans of earth will strike their breasts’ as they see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. He will dispatch his angels ‘with a mighty trumpet blast, and they will assemble his chosen from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other’ “ (24:29b-31).
But not so at his first coming, which we commemorate today. This coming is much more subtle. Christ isn’t going to force himself on us. He’s not going to overwhelm us with his grandeur and divinity. In his exquisite thoughtfulness, he leaves our free will intact. He humbly offers himself to us in the non-confrontational form of a helpless infant. We are free to accept his offer of love and union or ignore it.
As I said earlier, his first coming was easily overlooked. We just heard in the selection from John’s Gospel, “He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him. He came to his own, but his own people did not accept him.” This most likely is referring to the Jews who had not become Christians at the time of John’s writing. But it also reminds us of Jesus’ cool reception when he returned to his hometown of Nazareth. In Matthew’s Gospel, we read, “They found him altogether too much for them. Jesus said to them, ‘No prophet is without honor except in his native place, indeed in his own house.’ And he did not work many miracles there because of their lack of faith” (Mt. 13:57-58).
This last sentence brings up the whole element of faith. So often in his ministry, we hear of his healing being contingent on faith. To the woman with the hemorrhage who touched his cloak he said, “Courage, daughter! Your faith has restored you to health” (Mt. 9:22). And a few verses later, to the two blind men Jesus asked, “ ‘Are you confident I can do this?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ they told him. At that he touched their eyes and said, ‘Because of your faith it shall be done to you’; and they recovered their sight” (Mt. 9:28-30). Jesus was impressed with the faith of the Canaanite woman with the possessed daughter: “ ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your wish will come to pass.’ That very moment her daughter got better” (Mt. 15:28). And he was even more impressed with the centurion who requested him to heal his servant from afar: “I assure you, I have never found this much faith in Israel” (Mt. 8:10).
In order to recognize Christ in his first coming faith is required. The shepherds had it. The Magi had it. Herod did not. At his crucifixion, Jesus hung between two thieves. Because of his faith, one stole heaven, the other did not.
Okay, if we are here today in this church then we probably have faith. We have recognized Christ in his first coming and we believe that he is God. Has everyone been given faith? I would like to believe that God gives everyone a chance, that he gives sufficient grace and faith to all. He is also free to give more faith to some than others. That might sound unfair, but perhaps in his foreknowledge, he knows that they will respond more generously. In the parable of the sower, the seed is cast on all kinds of soil. Maybe some people allow their faith to get choked out by the cares of the world or aren’t vigilant enough against the snares of the devil.
As I mentioned earlier, God does not force himself on us. He makes himself available but then we have to do our part and cooperate with grace. It requires action on our part, it requires work, it requires effort. The shepherds had to go look for the stable and the manger. The Magi had to journey from afar. What, then, is the role that will be expected of us? Well, faith, for one thing, as we have seen. We need to guard our faith and nurture it. We need to give God his due and set aside time for prayer and spiritual reading. We need to do things to nurture our souls in the same way that we take care to nurture our bodies. But we also need to be other-centered and not self-centered.
We considered earlier the passage in Matthew about Christ’s second coming. That was taken from chapter 24. In 25 we read, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels of heaven, he will sit upon his royal throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him” (25:31-32). We are all familiar with the scene. He separates them like a shepherd separates sheep from goats – one group on his right, one on his left. The difference between the two groups is how they treated other people. Jesus will say to those on his right, “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me to drink, a stranger, ill, in prison, etc.” And they will say, “When, Lord?” True faith will express itself in deeds. The Letter of James puts it rather concisely:
My brothers, what good is it to profess faith without practicing it? Such faith has no power to save one, has it? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and no food for the day, and you say to them, “Goodbye and good luck! Keep warm and well fed,” but do not meet their bodily needs, what good is that? So it is with the faith that does nothing in practice. It is thoroughly lifeless (Jm 2:14-17).
Then to the group on his left Christ will turn and say, “Out of my sight, you condemned, into that everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels! I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink. I was away from home and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing. I was ill and in prison and you did not come to comfort me.”
Yikes! That all sounds so final. “You didn’t take pity on me in my distressing disguise? Off to everlasting fire with all the fallen angels!” You would almost get the impression from most funerals nowadays that everyone somehow always ends up in the group on the right, and no one is left asking, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or away from home or naked, or ill and in prison and not attend you in your needs?” But that’s not the way Matthew paints the picture. And it seems unfair to the ones on the right who actually did come to the aid of the hungry and the lonely.
What about those who have a change of heart? Will they be given a second chance? Their life on earth is over, but is there some other way to get into heaven and avoid the eternal torture of hell? That scene in Matthew 25 depicts the final judgment at the end of time. As Catholics, we believe that each one of us will encounter a particular judgment at the time of our death. I would like to believe that God’s mercy is creative enough to pull off a second chance for those people. They will have one last opportunity to choose him rather than themselves. But they will have to make restitution and reparation for all those opportunities that they missed. That’s where our dogma of purgatory comes in. I believe that they will WANT to get tidied up before entering heaven and that they will freely submit themselves to the process.
We have been expectantly waiting for this day during the four weeks of Advent. It has finally come. With the Canaanite woman and the centurion, let us receive Christ with hearts full of faith. And let us welcome Christ in our brothers and sisters who are in need.