Monday, December 24, 2012

Majesty Concealed in Humility

Christmas Midnight Mass 2012

Christmas is one of those grand occasions where we get to hear at least four sets of readings if we attend all three of the masses for Christmas proper and this evening’s vigil mass. Moving through all four liturgies is truly a delight as you begin to discover little details worth treasuring within each mass and its set of readings. A special story unfolds which takes us along an adventure which stretches from the Old Testament: the genealogical link between the Promised anticipated and the Promised fulfilled in the first mass, the event of the birth at midnight, the visit of the shepherds at dawn, and finally the exposition of its theological significance for all eternity. Although this may be a source of great delight for many aficionados of liturgy, it’s a real challenge for many priests who are presented with the added challenge and pressure to produce four different sets of homilies. I count myself fortunate this year, I only had to prepare three.

At this midnight mass, we hear in the second reading as St Paul writes to his friend Titus, “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race and taught us that what we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions.” The key to knowing what we must do is found in the nature of this revelation. On this Christmas night, the invisible Deity is made manifest in the visible humanity of one born of a mortal woman; the omnipotence of the second person of the Godhead condescends to the vulnerable weakness of a child; the Timelessness of the Creator is revealed in the temporal character of the history of His creatures; the Lord of the heavenly realms and hosts of angels pitches his tent among mortal men; the Glory and Majesty of God is displayed in an epiphany of humility in a stable. Today is the great Solemnity of Christmas, the great Feast of God’s Humility, the feast of God’s love incarnated, en-fleshed in the humble birth of a child in Bethlehem. Today, we encounter the God of humility in the radical humility of Christ.

The beauty of Christ’s humility on this feast day reveals as much as it conceals. He demonstrates through his own birth, the meaning of humility, which is to “give up everything that does not lead to God.” This is a necessary reminder especially when humility is no longer in vogue or respected. Instead, it is held in contempt. Humility is often regarded as a sign of weakness and even stupidity, a lack of prudence in an age that demands street wise tactics and an ego the size of a football field in order to survive. Thus, humility revealed as the pathway to God is concealed to our modern senses. Today’s world would have pooh poohed the path taken by God two millennia ago. The capacity to change and influence the world requires a whole list of factors missing from the Christmas story: wealth, power, a degree from a prestigious university, hide as thick as a rhino, success, achievement, a proven track record, connections with the right people, a magical public relations team and lots of media promotion. Juxtaposed against a narrator’s introduction of a seemingly all powerful Roman emperor who can move the various nations on earth as if they were his pawns, and a less powerful politician but still formidable provincial governor, the story of a child born to poor humble parents would seem miniscule or too trivial for the telling. But this child would be the main protagonist of our Christmas story and not the former two.

Today, the humble often go unnoticed and are deemed insignificant. They make no impact on our lives and hardly warrant a flicker of our attention. The role models of our society are not the humble, but the selfishly ambitious, the proud, the arrogant. The people that our society looks up to – businessman, politicians, sports heroes, actors and actresses, singers, entertainers – they all tend to have one thing in common: a very high regard for themselves, insatiable ego and ambition, and a great talent for self-promotion.

But let us now consider the humility of the Incarnation itself, the second person of the Trinity, the eternal Son of God, taking on humanity with all of its limitations, with all of its pain and sorrow and suffering. It is impossible to fathom the transformation Jesus endured to leave the glorious perfection of heaven, for a manger.  The Son of God gave up his honour and glory, he let go of his position, he relinquished all of the riches of heaven, in order to become one of us, in order to save us from our sins. He gave up that glory in order to become a human baby, a helpless little infant. But think of it: a baby unable to feed himself, unable to move about, to communicate. And here’s the irony of it all. He is dependent upon the man and woman he created to now take care of him. Those hands which had formed galaxies and set the stars in place, those hands that had spun the earth on its axis, now just waving around, ineffectually. The mouth that had spoken the universe into existence, now just babbling and cooing. The sovereign Lord of creation, had now become the very picture of weakness and powerlessness and inability – a little baby. Not even a royal baby, not the son of a king; not a wealthy baby, the son of money and privilege. But instead, a peasant child born to poverty and want, raised in very humble circumstances. Surrounded not by God’s holy angels and the glory of heaven, but instead surrounded by sinful, fallen human beings (with the exception of his immaculately conceived mother) and a stinking, dirty barn. But Christ’s humility didn’t end with his birth or his childhood. It continued throughout his life.

Think about it: when people are struck with a serious illness, something progressively debilitating, so that they know over time they’re going to become less and less able to care for themselves, one of the things they fear most is losing control. Becoming dependent on someone else, at first needing someone to drive them places and perhaps prepare meals for them, and then eventually having to rely on other people for the basic necessities of life – to dress them, and feed them, and bathe them. Yet Jesus voluntarily took on this kind of complete helplessness, the kind that we fear so much.

So, how do we come before him on this Christmas night? What can we offer to him who created the universe and gave us everything we possess? The answer is this: we come to him in all humility, we come to him with nothing to offer but ourselves, when we have learnt how to “give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions.” Thus, the only way in which we can truly come to encounter our Lord and Saviour on this Christmas day, is to adorn the garment of humility and condescend to where he has chosen to lay his head for the night. If we want to restore Christmas to our culture, it will require more than just good intentions; it would require radical humility.  We will need to give up seats on the pews or places in line.  We will need to show grace, even when grace is not given.  We will need to humble ourselves and follow the example set by the baby in the manger, the shepherds in the field, and Mary and Joseph as they agreed to God’s plan.  We need to humble ourselves as the wise men did, bowing before the young child and presenting him with gifts “fit for a king.”

In last year’s Christmas midnight mass homily, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI made this same call to all Christians to approach Christ’s birth with humility. He drew our attention to the doorway that leads to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem: “Today, anyone wishing to enter the Church of Jesus’ Nativity in Bethlehem will find that the doorway five and a half metres high, through which emperors and caliphs used to enter the building, is now largely walled up. Only a low opening of one and a half metres has remained (less than 5 feet). The intention was probably to provide the church with better protection from attack, but above all to prevent people from entering God’s house on horseback. Anyone wishing to enter the place of Jesus’ birth has to bend down. It seems to me that a deeper truth is revealed here, which should touch our hearts on this holy night: if we want to find the God who appeared as a child, then we must dismount from the high horse of our “enlightened” reason. We must set aside our false certainties, our intellectual pride, which prevents us from recognising God’s closeness. We must follow the interior path of Saint Francis – the path leading to that ultimate outward and inward simplicity which enables the heart to see. We must bend down, spiritually we must as it were go on foot, in order to pass through the portal of faith and encounter the God who is so different from our prejudices and opinions – the God who conceals himself in the humility of a newborn baby. In this spirit let us celebrate the liturgy of the holy night, let us strip away our fixation on what is material, on what can be measured and grasped. Let us allow ourselves to be made simple by the God who reveals himself to the simple of heart. And let us also pray especially at this hour for all who have to celebrate Christmas in poverty, in suffering, as migrants, that a ray of God’s kindness may shine upon them, that they – and we – may be touched by the kindness that God chose to bring into the world through the birth of his Son in a stable. Amen.”

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